Some electric guitarists are known by their sound -- the warm, fluid purr of Eric Clapton, for example, or the buzzing, harmonic-ringed roar of Edward Van Halen -- but Jeff Beck is most celebrated for his attack. From his early days with the Yardbirds on through his work with Rod Stewart in the Jeff Beck Group, Beck built his reputation on solos bristling with feedback, their melodic flow punctuated by bent-note shrieks and growling, tremolo-bar nose dives.
Comb through Beck's back catalogue and it's not too hard to find examples of each of these effects, but for a short course in Beck-tronic guitar, there's no better example than "Gets Us All in the End," from the guitarist's new album, "Flash" (Epic FE 39483). Revving up with an edgy snarl of power chords, Beck's guitar slices through the dance-beat introduction with a ferocious series of squeals and moans, glorious guitar noise that perfectly sets the piece's emotional tone for singer Jimmy Hall. When Beck returns for his solo, however, he takes a solidly melodic approach, building from a moody, minor-key statement to a fierce flurry of notes. The sonic stunts are still there, but this time they're moving the melodic ideas along, adding drama to the music instead of merely making a racket.
It's a stunning performance, a perfect balance between technique and ingenuity -- in all, everything you'd expect from a guitar hero. At the same time, it's also the kind of playing most fans had given up ever hearing again from Jeff Beck. After turning from rock to a form of fusion jazz in the mid-'70s, Beck recorded sporadically until 1980, then stopped altogether. As a result, "Flash" seems less a comeback than a triumphal return, for not only does Beck play brilliantly throughout, but he keeps his music solidly in the mainstream.
Granted, he had help in the pop department. Nile Rodgers, the man responsible for such smash hits as Madonna's "Like a Virgin" and David Bowie's "Let's Dance," produced five of the album's nine selections, while Arthur Baker ("Planet Rock," Hall & Oates' "Big Bam Boom") handles two others. Between them, they generate a sound that is dance-floor slick, yet boasting a distinct rock 'n' roll edge.
It's a blend that Beck thrives on, because it allows his playing to move in almost any direction. Thus, "Ambitious" generates a lightning bolt of a solo as Beck sparks his ideas with jolts of feedback, while "Ecstasy" finds the guitarist skimming jazzy fills across the song's swaggering groove. Perhaps his most moving playing, though, comes with a remake of the Impressions' hit "People Get Ready." Working with a raw-voiced Rod Stewart, his guitar takes on an uncharacteristic sweetness in response to the singer's cracked notes and rough edges, in the process turning the lyrics' hopeful idealism into a sort of desperate prayer.
Beck himself sings two songs on "Flash," and though his voice is not in the same class as Stewart or Hall, he comes across quite capably, thanks to the careful layering of backing vocals that Rodgers provides as support. That's an arranging trick Rodgers seems especially fond of, for he uses it himself throughout "B-Movie Matinee" (Warner Bros. 25290-1), his second solo album. Like Beck, Rodgers isn't much of a singer, but he's a canny enough writer and arranger that his vocal inability never quite gets in the way.
Much of the material here is fairly minimal, with some songs consisting of little more than a single rhythmic idea and melodic hook. In Rodgers' hands, that makes for a perfect pop economy, because his greatest strength lies in making the most of a song's components. Some of his work is just plain gimmickry, as with the dizzily edited bits of spoken Japanese that spice "Let's Go Out Tonight," but it serves its purpose, as each new twist seems to reinforce either the catchiest part of the melody or the deepest part of the groove.
Redirecting the listener's attention has its drawbacks. Rodgers' carefully layered edits help burn the rhythms of "Plan 9" into your brain, but they do so at the expense of the rest of the song; similarly, the clever counter melodies built into "The Face in the Window" make the chorus unforgettable, but the verse almost evaporates on its way out of the speakers. All of which makes "B-Movie Matinee" strangely frustrating, for as addictive as its best moments might be, there's precious little nourishment here.
Like any producer, Rodgers is limited by the strength of his performers. His latest production for Sister Sledge, "When the Boys Meet the Girls" (Atlantic 81255-1), falls flat, since no amount of craft could possibly overcome the disjointedness of the group's singing. Rodgers, who with Bernard Edwards gave Sister Sledge their first big hit, "We Are Family," comes through with this album's strongest song, "The Boy Most Likely." But though Sister Sledge may still be family, they no longer sing with the same sororal fervor, leaving "When the Boys Meet the Girls" sounding sadly anonymous.