The good news is that Jeff Beck is back with his first studio record since Wired in 1976. The bad news is that There and Back sounds dismally familiar. In the last few years, such avant-garde guitarists as Robert Fripp and James "Blood" Ulmer — not to mention New Wave upstarts like Public Image Ltd.'s Keith Levene and the Gang of Four's Andy Gill — have been busy plowing new rhythmic and harmonic ground. Instead of rising to their challenge, Beck has merely returned to the fusion cocoon he started spinning five years ago on Blow by Blow.
Worse, the star opens There and Back with three strikes against him, all of them the work of fuzak keyboardist Jan Hammer, with whom Beck cut a 1977 live album. "Star Cycle," "Too Much to Lose" and "You Never Know" are formulaic Hammer compositions: i.e., terminally predictable exercises in cosmic Mahavishnu-style virtuosity, lazy MOR fodder or neo-Funk-adelic jive. Throughout most of side one, Beck practically has to fight Hammer's solo-mad ego for playing room.
Tony Hymas takes over the ivories in the other five tunes, four of which he wrote with drummer Simon Phillips. Though Hymas doesn't add any new wrinkles to the LP's jazzrock fabric, at least he's a team player. Unfortunately, the Hymas-Phillips songs are as skeletal as Hammer's are overbearing.
Still, there are moments when Beck transcends his clichéd settings. "The Pump," a simple chord progression funked up by Mo Foster's hydraulic bass, allows the guitarist ample room to draw out long orchestral sustains. "El Becko" represents the other side of the coin: a tight, punk-chops showcase on the order of Truth's proto-heavy-metal raver, "Beck's Bolero."
Such flashes, however, are far too few. There and Back is a disappointingly static record from a consummate riffer whose specialty was always leading the pack. These days, Jeff Beck seems content to be a spectator, watching the parade go by.