I first became aware of Jeff Beck in the mid-80s. My first proper exposure to his work was via his short set on the ‘ARMS’ charity concert video, where he – alongside Fernando Saunders, Simon Phillips and regular collaborator Tony Hymas – played superb versions of a handful of his better known instrumental tunes, complete with a rare outing of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ to finish (but we’ll gloss over that). A few years later, the BBC used tracks from his then current album ‘Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop’ as the soundtrack to the Comic Strip TV film ‘South Atlantic Raiders’. After hearing some of that, I knew I had to get one.
Over the following years, I caught up with the rest of Jeff’s back catalogue, in addition to hearing each of his new releases as they came out. 1999’s ‘Who Else?’ and 2000’s ‘You Had It Coming’ featured some very vibrant work, as you’d expect from a man who has always been keen on pushing musical boundaries and taking his guitar playing to new levels.
On paper, ‘Emotion and Commotion’, Beck’s 2010 release could have been great. Jeff Beck, accompanied in places by a 64 piece orchestra, produced by Trevor Horn? What could go wrong? But surprisingly, this (an album marking Jeff Beck’s return to the studio after a seven year break), is mostly lacklustre. Trading in a lot of his distinctive guitar styles for a more relaxed, atmospheric approach may have been Beck’s choice, but I’m unsure as to whether that choice was a good one. It’s also disappointing to note that of the ten pieces of music on this album, only two feature a Jeff Beck writing credit. That said, Beck contibuted nothing to the writing of ‘Wired’ (his jazz-rock masterpiece with Jan Hammer and Narada Michael Walden) and that turned out great. The big problem with ‘Commotion & Emotion’ is an over-reliance on cover tunes (and not always inspiring ones at that), as opposed to great new material written by Beck or his bandmates, though keyboard player Jason Rebello contributes a couple of decent numbers.
Opening with Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi Carol’(previously covered by Jeff Buckley), the soft and atmospheric guitar part is so distinctly Beck, yet it sounds like he’s just wandering effortlessly through the piece; if you want this kind of atmosphere, you’ve heard him do it time and again but better (see ‘Where Were You’ from ‘Guitar Shop’ for a start). This leads into ‘Hammerhead’ – the first of a couple of high spots and the first of the two Beck compositions. It doesn’t set the world on fire in the way you know it could’ve, but it’s decent enough. Beck makes good use of wah-wah pedal during the intro, before the rest of the band join with something best described as a bluesy swagger. The Latin shuffle based ‘Never Alone’ (written by Rebello) could’ve been promising. I could tell you Jeff’s guitar tone is beautiful, but the end result is uninspiring.
From here, things go from okay to fairly pointless. It may be well orchestrated, but why should Jeff Beck want to cover ‘Over The Rainbow’? More importantly, why should you want to listen to it? Unless you’re very patient (or about to go into a retirement home) chances are you don’t. His guitar playing is subtle and the song is treated respectfully with the right amount of wistfulness, but ultimately this is filler material. A similarly uninspiring and predictable cover of ‘I Put a Spell on You’ follows. This could have been great, since it features Joss Stone on guest vocal and she’s in particularly good voice, but the resulting arrangement sounds like any decent-ish band churning out an oft covered song, exactly the way you’d expect. Is this the same Jeff Beck who recorded an edgy rendition of the blues standard ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ at the beginning of the 21st century with Imogen Heap?? If so, where’s the fire gone? Let’s have some passion!
Imelda May steps in on vocals for a cover of ‘Lilac Wine’ (best known to most people via a version recorded by the hideously over-rated Jeff Buckley). Her voice suits the song very well, but Jeff’s contribution seems to be limited to the occasional jazzy noodle or bit of vibrato at least until near the end when he gets to perform a solo, but again, it’s nothing to write home about. ‘Serene’ (the album’s other co-write) starts gently, building to a funky shuffle which promises a great deal. Jeff’s lead playing here sounds like the lyrical playing from the past, but there’s a feeling he’s done this all a hundred times before – often better. The high point during this track is the lead bass work by Tal Wilkenfeld. Despite feeling a little obvious, it manages to be one of the two or three numbers here which show any real promise. ‘Nessan Dorma’ gets a work-through with strings (again beautifully arranged) and with Jeff’s guitar replacing the vocal, but it doesn’t sound like anything you’d want to listen to more than a couple of times.
‘No Other Me’ is the only time this album tackles anything with an edge. Written by Joss Stone and Jason Rebello, this is worth checking this album out for. Joss Stone’s voice tackles to the song at full volume, while the musicians give her suitably hard backing; that’s not to say it’s presented without any subtlety though: Well-reknowned drummer Vinnie Colaiuta’s hi-hat and drum work is fantastic and Tal Wilkenfield’s slightly disjointed bass work is striking. During the chorus sections, Stone’s distinctive wail could strip paint from walls and Colaiuta’s drum work is very aggressive. Throughout the song, Beck almost takes a back seat chipping in with ringing guitar chords. Everything here really works. At the song’s end, Beck just starts to play what sounds like what could be a really great solo – and frustratingly the song fades; it seems Beck’s decision to sideline any major fretboard work has been taken to the absolute limit.
The album closes with ‘Elegy For Dunkirk’, composed by Dario Marianelli. As expected, the orchestration is great, but beyond that, there’s nothing much happening. Jeff Beck plays vibrato-filled guitar notes sparingly as Olivia Safe adds light operatic vocals. It provides a gentle ending to a mostly gentle album.
Emotion and commotion? Only fleeting moments of either, I’m afraid. If you’re looking for the Jeff Beck who recorded some fantastic guitar instrumental works throughout the years, there’s little for you here. Aside from a couple of tracks (that storming Joss Stone effort, especially), this sounds mostly like easy listening music played by a sexagenarian for other sexagenarians to enjoy. I have a great deal of respect for Jeff Beck and never thought I’d be reviewing one of his albums so negatively, but ‘Emotion & Commotion’ is unlikely to be filling a lot of my listening time.
For those who wish to hear a genuine legend at his best, I suggest checking out the following: ‘Wired’ (Jeff’s 1976 jazz-rock masterpiece); ‘Guitar Shop’ (one of the best guitar rock instrumental albums ever) and ‘You Had It Coming’ (an experimental mix of rock guitar and electronic drum loops and stuff). Those are the ones to get if you want to hear Jeff not only at his best, but to get a feel for the range of his playing. If you enjoy those and check out others later, it’s highly likely you’ll hear ‘Emotion & Commotion’ eventually…just don’t expect much from it.