Surprise has been one of the sharpest arrows in Jeff Beck’s quiver for over six decades now. From his comings and goings in various ensembles – up to the band that bears his name – to stylistic excursions into jazz fusion, Gene Vincent and opera, through collaborations with Jan Hammer, Roger Waters, Kate Bush, Imelda May, Herbie Hancock, Kelly Clarkson and others, the guitar legend keeps us guessing. And then he makes them sound like something that fits as easily as a 12-bar progression. But, really – who saw this one coming?
18 finds Beck associating with Johnny Depp, him from Pirates of the Caribbean and the Hollywood Vampires. The two raised eyebrows in the spring when Depp began joining Beck on stage in Europe as his sensational libel trial against ex-wife Amber Heard wrapped up. The announcement of the album, soon after, wasn’t as surprising as it might have otherwise been, but was yet another example of Beck’s bold idiosyncrasy and carefree history.
Is it good? This answer assumes that most things Beck engages in have merit; the guy has been on rock guitar’s Mount Rushmore since the ’60s and has never rested on laurels or adhered to expectations. You know that each project will produce something special. As for Depp, Beck isn’t one to work with someone so clickbait, so if fellow vampires Alice Cooper and Joe Perry haven’t convinced us that Depp is real, then Beck’s endorsement should allay any remaining doubts.
However, 18 is a curiosity, a mixture of originals (two written by Depp) and covers which is most certainly a Beck album. His lyrical playing on Davy Spillane’s “Midnight Walker,” The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” and The Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby” soars, and his shredding burns in Velvet renditions. “Venus in Furs” from Underground, “Death and Resurrection Show” from Killing Joke and “Isolation” from John Lennon. It runs through the lyrical melody of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” with Pino Palladino paying respectful homage to James Jamerson’s dancing bassline. Dennis Wilson’s “Time,” meanwhile, is a dynamic tour de force, exploding after a soft start and highlighted by Vinnie Colaiuta’s drum attack.
Rest assured that Depp is present throughout 18, however – playing bass, drums and additional guitar. His limited vocal range won’t make anyone forget Rod Stewart’s turns with Beck, but Depp’s casual deadpan sets the right tone for “Death and Resurrection Show” and “Venus in Furs,” and also complements the hushed tones of the album. pairing of the brothers’ Everly “Let it Be Me” and Janis Ian’s “Stars”. The sweet “This is a Song for Hedy Lamar”, one of Depp’s originals on 18, also works, accentuating the calm with a dash of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” glamor (and some lyrical slams that could be construed as Heard whiplash). It remains to be seen whether Beck-Depp will remain in place or become another, say Beck, Bogert & Appice. But 18 is a fairly easy listen that maintains the guitarist’s control and reinforces Depp’s musical credentials.
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