James Brown may be the hardest-working man in showbiz, but Beck must be the hardest-recording. A mere four months after the release of his debut album, the gold-selling Mellow Gold, he's already exercising the unusual clause in his Geffen Records contract allowing him to continue to record for smaller, independent labels with a new, 16-song album, One Foot in the Grave. What's more, tagged onto the CD of ''Beercan'', the play-that-bumpy-music-white-boy single from Mellow Gold, are-whoa-five bonus tracks.
Just who is Beck, beyond a prolific, media-shy West Coast slack-rocker who has coyly dropped his last name? As on Mellow Gold, his new music offers tantalizing hints but still leaves you guessing with a grin on your face. The ''Beercan'' maxi-single has two must-owns for Beckheads ''Totally Kunfused,'' a disarmingly vulnerable ballad, and an electric version of his ''Pay No Mind'' (here called ''Got No Mind'') that's far more melancholy than the droll original. But just when you think you've pegged him through these tunes, Beck hides behind such one-listen noise orgies as ''Asskizz Powergrudge,'' which sounds like a folk club under siege by terrorists.
If that's not confusing enough, One Foot in the Grave presents our hero as an earnest young student of vernacular American music, knocking off Guthrie-esque sing-alongs, loose-stringed slide blues, and originals (with titles like ''Cyanide Breath Mint'') that come off as the alternative-rock equivalent to folklorist field recordings. Coupled with Beck's curiously indolent voice, Grave is a genial throwaway both a loving tribute to, and a gentle mocking of, various folk musics that is clearly not meant to be Mellow Gold's big follow-up.
Nor should it be. Maybe Grave is meant to counteract the top 10 success of ''Loser'' (which sounds like Ace of Base by comparison). But at its best, Beck's collagelike folkie hip-hop and droopy-eyed wit seem like glorious results of a teenhood inundated with a dizzying amount of music and pop culture. So stripping his multi-colored music down to Grave's unplugged format only seems like half-make that one-twentieth-of his musical picture.
Oh, and speaking of ''Loser'': Keep the ''Beercan'' CD single spinning after its last song, and on comes a low-fi, pseudo-Muzak instrumental cover of his greatest hit. Jeez will this guy ever stop? With any luck, no. One Foot in the Grave: B+