With nine previous albums, including the critically acclaimed 2011 collection Kansawyer billed to W.C. Beck & The Valiant Swains, the multi-talented rootsy hybrid singer-songwriter should already be on most of our radars. But for those new to the Beck experience, there’s a caveat when reading the first line of the press materials for his emotionally compelling, lyrically insightful, musically soulful and robust new album First Flight.
It bills him as a “Brooklyn based folk singer,” which conjures up images of a hipster with an acoustic guitar playing NYC clubs the way Dylan did in the early 60’s. True, he’s made the borough his new hometown, and yes, the alternately rousing/raucous and intimate/heartfelt batch of 10 tunes was recorded at various studios in and around New York with, among others, Vanity Sound engineers and producers Myles Turney (Philip Glass, Beirut, Boy George) and Joel Arnow (Loudon Wainwright III, John Scofield). Yet despite the album title, Beck’s latest songs reflect a powerful essence of travel, both physically and spiritually – and also, as per the wistful and bluesy track and video for “The Long Way Home,” a profound sense of displacement, loneliness and longing to fit in.
After working for years in Portland, OR and touring with The Portland Country Underground, Blue Giant, Bobby Bare, Jr. and Quiet Life, and supporting tours with The Dandy Warhols and The Decembrists, Beck opted to go to grad school – a choice which led him to Paris, where he wrote many of these songs during a period of profound transition. So all that makes his designation as a Brooklyn cat somewhat limiting. Same with just dubbing him a “folk singer.”
Jump into the rollicking twang of the opening track “Steel Bird,” and you’d swear you were listening to a hot new country (with a twinge of Americana) upstart. Same with “Colosseum” (but with a crackling blues organ and guitar energy) and “Powder Blue,” a barnburner which could be bro-country if not for the clever, inspirational storytelling. The only truly folky tune is the stark, meditative closer, “Cathy Jo” -but even that has a subtle blues element. However we choose to define Beck genre-wise, he and the First Flight he takes us on are overwhelmingly magnificent.