Album Review: Jeff Beck – Emotion & Commotion

When Jeff Beck first saw Jimi Hendrix perform live, he fleetingly considered giving up playing guitar and becoming a postman. Had he done so, it would surely have been to his own detriment and that of the music world at large. Reason being, the solipsistic gunslinger from Seattle may well have been something of a ferocious genius in relation to detonating guitar playing, but Beck isn’t that bad of a gunslinger himself.

Having traipsed numerous boards of eclectic musicality over the years (from tear-it-up-rockabilly to jigsaw-puzzle-jazz-fusion to straight-laced-full-throttle rock), he who calls himself Jeff Beck has always been very much his own man. A facet of an altogether tempestuous career, that’s as equally courageous as it is commendable as it is confabulatory. Not for nothing is he, along with the likes of perhaps Richard Thompson and Ry Cooder, so utterly revered amid the musical fraternity of past, present, and future.

Triggered by the sparkling ambidexterity of Beck et al’s playing, the awe within which said musicians are fundamentally held, lies within the quintessential essence of the purity of their playing. Signed, sealed, delivered, they are indeed yours.

Replete with much sought after truth and ability.

So roll over Slash Hudson and tell all your wretched disciples the news: Emotion & Commotion has once more, raised the guitar bar, way beyond the reach of many a great (and not so great) pretender. Within its 10 tracks are moments of sheer wonderment, wherein the former Yardbird stretches himself way beyond the usual parameters of his own musical, and, on this occasion, ethereal expectation(s).

The cinematic charm-like delicacy of the opener “Corpus Christi Carol” substantiates as much, by virtue of its sheer amount of compartmentalized silence. It’s as sparse and as slight as can be. Other than Beck’s lonesome guitar and a few orchestral strings, there’s not a lot to be heard. Which, other than transporting the listener unto a precipice of mild expectation, really is quite something. Especially when one considers that this is his first album in seven years, and that prior to recording, an over-zealous Beck sliced through one of his fingers in a kitchen accident.

To be sure, seven years of inactivity would induce most artists to loom it large, nigh on immediately. But lest it be said that herein, we find ourselves listening to an artist like non other; which, depending on how hard you feel compelled to shake your moneymaker, is no mean feat (dude). Let’s be honest, could you imagine the likes of Mariah Carey keeping silent for more than a microsecond of an even tinier microsecond?

Course not. Not for all the skimpiest skirts in the western hemisphere.

“Hammerhead” opens by way of a rocket-charged wah-wah pedal — not exactly a hundred miles removed from that of the aforementioned Jimi Hendrix. But once the powerhouse rhythm section of Messrs. Tal Wilkenfeld (on bass) and Alessia Mattalia (on drums) kick in, said comparison comes to a complete and rather sudden conclusion. Augmented by Wilkenfeld’s distorted bass, and shot straight from the hip of Beck’s extraordinary guitar prowess, said song is utterly polar to that of the rest of the album.

With the possible exceptions of a seductive cover of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic “I Put A Spell On You” (which, albeit soulfully executed by the band, unfortunately involves Joss Stone turning in an appalling karaoke of Etta James on vocals) and an outstanding version of James Shelton’s “Lilac Wine” (on which singer Imelda May displays an acute understanding of the term finesse), much of Emotion & Commotion is a nod to that of orchestral vindication and quasi-operatic sobriety.

Throughout a large part of the album, Beck is augmented by a 64-piece-orchestra wherever deemed necessary. Examples being questionable renditions of such renowned pieces as “Over The Rainbow” and “Elegy For Dunkirk”. Questionable, as unlike his previous rendition of the equally renowned “A Day In The Life” by The Beatles (which didn’t include an orchestra), here, the alignment of guitar and orchestra feels a tad superfluous if not voyeuristic. It’s all very lovely and very cathedral and very tender upon the ear, but the familiarity of the pieces themselves, are such that a resigned fortitude is more pronounced over that of Jeff Beck’s guitar.

As for the inclusion of the most celebrated section of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot opera “Nessun Dorma”, one cannot help but wonder why. Why the inclusion of such a celebrated piece of music?

“Nessun Dorma”, while admittedly wonderful, already means so many things to so many people. And just like life itself, memories aren’t always that great. In this instance, attached to the piece is a huge amount of subliminal and disposable baggage. Memories of the 1990 World Cup leap forth. As do memories of Britain’s Got Talent (quite possibly one of the most ghastly of British television programs ever transmitted), which featured the rather portly Paul Potts shooting to transient fame — by way of yet another futile rendition.

All in all, it’s great to have Jeff Beck back. He’s a phenomenal guitar player — quite possibly (one of) the best in the world.  One need only listen to the first two minutes of this album to ascertain this. Were it not for a dubious selection of material, Emotion & Commotion would be an intrinsic listen.

Altogether, it’s a very worthy album, but not a whole lot more — which is shame, as Jeff Beck deserves better.

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