"I really wanted to go back and use the basics, with what was going on in the Sixties with Jimi," says Jeff Beck, who is seated in small room of Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios in New York City, of some of the funkier tracks on his upcoming new album. "There's a lot of Jimi in there."
The guitar legend has just played the 45-minute LP, which also incorporates elements of electronic music and, of course, blues, to a small group of music journalists and industry people. The as-yet-untitled album signals a departure from Beck's pyrotechnic, instrumental-driven recordings of the past, as it features 11 songs he wrote with two young women he'd met via Queen drummer Roger Taylor (but doesn't want to name just yet) as a band. The songs, of which almost all feature one of the women on vocals, range from soulful ballads to crushing, bassy hard rockers. Although he's recorded with vocalists in recent years, including Joss Stone and Imelda May, this album presented the teaming more as a true collaboration.
"Rather than do a guitar-nerd album, I thought, 'If I don't change course now, I'll be stuck with that Guitar World thing, and that's not where I come from at all,'" he told the audience. "Even though I've been on about 400 of their front covers, I'm not that person."
The record kicks off with "The Revolution Will Be Televised," a song whose title puns off Gil Scott-Heron's biggest hit. It begins with feedback and a chunky guitar riff before giving way to a big beat and lyrics about changing the channel. Another track, "Live in the Dark," features a big, electronic, EDM-influenced drumbeat, and is followed by "Pull It," another song that uses electronic drums. "Thugs Club" finds Beck playing funky guitar and bluesy soloing, while "Scared for the Children" – the album's standout – is a slow ballad, with orchestral-sounding chords and a fluid, beautiful guitar solo.
He channels Hendrix with bluesy wah on "Right Now," slows things down with "Shame" (another song with a stunning guitar solo) and fuses organic and electronic sounds on Edna. The LP closes with a trio of tunes – "The Ballad of the Jersey Wives" (about four 9/11 widows that attracted national attention for their battle on Washington, D.C. to investigate the attacks, not the reality TV stars), "O.I.L. (Can't Get Enough of That Sticky)" (which sounds more like Prince than Beck) and "Shrine," a mid-tempo rocker that seems cut from the same cloth as Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" as his mouthpiece sings, "Believe in me/ Pray to you," before giving way to an ascending guitar solo.
"It's complaining about the plasticity of reality shows like 'American Idol. ... I don't see why I shouldn't voice an opinion."
Beck met one of his collaborators at Taylor's birthday party, where he spotted a "young blonde girl" and wondered whether or not she was a model. When he learned she was a guitarist, he started talking to her, and she invited him to her band. He was impressed and asked her and the singer to work with him. When they came to work with him, "we had 30 large crates of Prosecco and a guitar," he told the audience. "There's no excuse, really. If it's there, you're going to come up with something."
Some of the album's lyrics, which his vocal counterpart wrote after discussing some of his ideas with her, revolve around television and the way people interpret reality TV. And with tunes like "The Ballad of the Jersey Wives," he seems to be making a statement about society.
When Rolling Stone asks if he means the LP to be a protest album, he demurs. "It's an observation," he says. "It's what you make of it, but I do observe. I can't think of a way to make a statement without getting too explicit, so it skims what it is, but you're on the right track."
Then he homes in on the reality-TV component. "It's undeniable when she sings, 'plastic fantastic little creatures,' it's complaining about the plasticity of reality shows like American Idol and all this, where 99.5 percent of it is just crap and you should never be exposed to it, just to get that little morsel of talent. That, to me, is just the worst, so that's my little poke at that. I don't see why I shouldn't voice an opinion."
Beck wrote and recorded most of the album at his home, he says, next to a fire and with a bottle of Prosecco. One of their other collaborators, who'd recorded demos of the songs, wrote drum-machine parts, much of which they later replaced with real drums. "There's no synthesizers," he told the audience. "I wasn't having any of that." There are, however, some phrases he wrote on his mother's baby grand piano.
He tells Rolling Stone that by writing the record as a unit, his guitar parts – from his signature trembling solos to his raunchy blues riffs – all came about innately. "If it doesn't come naturally, it doesn't go on the album," he says. "I maybe struggled a little with 'The Shrine,' which has a very country sound, almost like Merle Haggard. But it mostly came together like a textbook college band, where we'd sit down with a beer or two and there was an openness about it. What you hear is the most genuine result that I could come up with rather than a bunch of musos sitting around trying to gas each other out with as many notes as they could possibly play."
"I've been listening to some really deep club stuff from Ibiza."
Even the funky, Hendrixy parts were just born from simple riffs. "[My fellow musicians] weren’t in the league of John McLaughlin in terms of understanding complex rhythms and strange chord shapes," he says. As for the record's electronic elements, he took some inspiration from Brazilian electronic producer Amon Tobin. "I've been listening to some really deep club stuff from Ibiza, and I've been thinking, 'What a waste of a good drum sound,'" he told the audience. With Rolling Stone, he also cites Kurdish music as an inspiration. "I'm not going to shut down my opinion of music or badmouth music just because it comes from a place that is causing trouble," he says. "If the music's fantastic, I will take my hat off to it. Political incorrectness is my middle name, you know."
Beck has yet to settle on a title for the record yet. But what he does know is that the record – whatever it's called – will come out on July 15th, and he'll be following it with a tour that he's co-headlining with Buddy Guy.