Beck's dark, somber new album,Sea Change, is being hailed by critics for its seriousness, as if that alone were enough to make it great art. In truth, the (relative) bravery of the singer's trading the cloying irony of projects past like Midnite Vultures and Odelay for the ennui-laden folksiness of Sea Change is overshadowed by the new album's sheer flatness. Just about everything on Sea Change -- from Beck's affectless voice to the rote melancholia of lyrics like "There's a bluebird at my window / I can't hear the song he sings" -- feels bloodless and monochromatic. Beck desperately aims for Johnny Cash's funereal blues, but the unremitting bleakness of Sea Change more closely resembles alternative rock's limpid whine. The album is nearly saved from its own tedium by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, who exaggerates the guitar twangs and string arrangements to an almost three-dimensional effect. Godrich gives Sea Change a sense of open-highway possibility reminiscent of Sam Phillips's work in the Sun Records era. Too bad the man at the center of that space can't fill it.
Not much -- not even the many strains of electro -- seems to be able to wake up the slumbering electronic-music scene this year. While it's not going to radically alter the genre's compass, Norwegian production duo Röyksopp's debut, Melody A.M., will at least remind some of its eccentric possibilities. Like Björk's Vespertine or bedroom auteurs like Luke Vibert, Melody A.M. wires us into a highly personal, almost cocoonlike sonic sensibility. In Röyksopp's case, that means ghostly choruses, vocoder disco, whirling, hip-hop-style scratches, and icily ambient soundscapes. Some of Melody A.M. bumps right up against preciousness -- you can imagine the album playing in an exclusive Nolita shoe store -- but Röyksopp is savvy at pulling out the joker in the pack just when the music threatens to become cutesy. At one point, this inventive pair even sample an eerie vocal from "Blue Velvet" crooner Bobby Vinton. If only the rest of the electronic-music pack had such a compellingly off-kilter aesthetic.