This is a brilliant album, dense in texture, full of physical and nervous energy, equally appealing to mind and body. There is a guiding intelligence which enables these five excellent, assertive musicians to work with and not against each other. The group benefits from the addition of Nicky Hopkins, the most perfect of rock pianists (although his playing is sometimes over-shadowed by the electrical sturm and drang around him, something of an occupational hazard for pianists). Ron Wood’s very prominent bass provides the rhythmic background of the album, and Tony Newman’s drumming is solid and wonderfully varied, especially on “Spanish Boots” and “Plynth,” Rod Stewart’s voice is a little high and raspy, but this is a matter of personal taste; the singing itself is emotive, displaying a good grasp of blues-rock singing technique. The rasp, in fact, is somehow appropriate; it’s really the vocal equivalent of electric distortion.
Beck himself, of course, is the star. His playing doesn’t quite have the excellence and logic of Clapton, but his ideas are unsurpassed. Outside of Jorma of the Airplane, Beck plays the most unpredictable guitar lines in rock, yet manages to combine them with a heavy blues feeling. He is capable of enormous speed and precision, yet his technique is almost always in service to a fertile, bizarre imagination. Listen to the eastern, Arab quality of his playing on the Yardbird’s “Heart Full of Soul” and “Over Under Sideways Down.” Beck miraculously manages to adapt this quality to a straight blues — the most obvious case being “Let Me Love You” on Truth — a very unlikely fusion.
Much is made of Beck’s egotism (in concert he will interrupt a song to play, by himself, Earl Scrugg’s “Beverly Hillbillies Breakdown”), but really, he has the resources to support it.
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Truth, the other Beck album, contained individually outstanding cuts, particularly some ingenious reworking of traditional blues, but the entire album was not so much good or bad as patchy. “Greensleeves” and “Ol’ Man River” came across as fillers, and another cut was an old B-side. Beck-Ola has greater esthetic unity, but the problem of working up material still remains. The new album has only seven cuts (five of which are original) and a playing time of under thirty minutes.
Beck-Ola includes two oldies, “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock”. While Beck throws in a little new-fangled feedback on the latter, the original echo, sounding very campy by now, is preserved for Stewart’s voice. This cut contains the strongest vocal performance of the album (Stewart’s best singing altogether is on a very soulful number called “Drinking Again,” which for some reason is not on the album). The Beck Group’s “Jailhouse Rock” boils with all the virulence the Fifties could muster. There’s a change of pace with “Girl From Mill Valley” — a lovely, wistful gospel tune written by Hopkins, which towards the end teeters unfortunately on the edge of Mancini-land. The addition of a vocal part would have made it even better.
The last cut, “Rice Pudding,” is teeming with ideas. There’s lots of rhythmic interest and a driving, syncopated riff which is returned to regularly as if for recharging when the semi-improvisations start to wear thin. There is the same kind of mood control, even metabolic control, which the Stones displayed on cuts like “The Last Time.” In the middle of the finale, the tape is cut, leaving the listener hanging unmercifully in the group’s thrall until the release of the next album.