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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Beck: Odelay

BECK: ODELAY (1996)

1) Devil's Haircut; 2) Hotwax; 3) Lord Only Knows; 4) The New Pollution; 5) Derelict; 6) Novacane; 7) Jack-Ass; 8) Where It's At; 9) Minus; 10) Sissyneck; 11) Readymade; 12) High 5 (Rock The Catskills); 13) Ramshackle; 14*) Computer Rock.

Looking back on the huge amount of lavish praise that Odelay had garnered upon release — for many a critic, the album was almost like a super-symbol of the mid-1990s — the record seems to have taken more of a beating recently, still standing the test of time, but not without bloodstains and lacerations. Judging by various «amateur» opinions on the Web, what seemed trendy, auda­cious, boundary-melting, and just plain «hip» at the time slowly comes to be regarded as a tempo­rary, and somewhat silly, triumph of cool form over thin substance. As a new wave of artists, inspired by Beck's genre mish-mashing, made people get over the initial excitement, more and more of them began to realize that... yeah, cool is cool, but does Odelay really have all that re­play value? Is there, like, a message in there? How has it really enriched humanity and all?

Admittedly, there is nothing shameful or unethical in the want to take Odelay down a peg or two. It captured one of those rogue «Zeitgeists» which one never really knows how to treat properly — by appeasing them or flogging them away — but it does not really have the kind of emotional depth that is usually required for a de-luxe pedestal: if there ever was the slightest chance of Beck wearing the «Most Important Artist of the Decade» crown, the release of OK Computer the next year would bury it forever, branding him as one of the industry's leading tricksters instead. And now, way too often, the actual tricks seem dated and not even particularly curious.

But it is also unwise to go all the way to the other side of the pole — whatever be the case, Ode­lay is not just an experimental hackjob carried out by a no-goodnik with too much free time on his hands. It is a logical follow-up to Mellow Gold, carrying Beck's penchant for genre-fusing to its culmination, and it certainly does not lack emotional content — it merely conceals the troub­led singer-songwriter behind a thick wall of overdubs, and it may be a little difficult to ex­tract him from behind that wall if one is not familiar with Beck's history of trouble and toil. If anything, this is the proper use of Beck's early indie albums: they may be technically flawed on their own level, but simply being aware of them helps gain a deeper affection for Odelay.

And beyond all that bullshit, the album is just a fairly solid collection of inventive songs. Already ʽDevil's Haircutʼ establishes the basic standard — take an old songwriting technique, merge it with a modern beat and sampling style, throw in a pinch of Beck's own «murderous depression» image, and you got yourself a readymade contemporary classic. It does not matter that the song is way too repetitive (you don't usually put it to all those hip-hop tunes that Beck draws his influen­ces from, so how could he be guilty?) — all it takes is a jarring fuzz riff, some haughty, mur­mured vocals transplanted all the way from psychedelic 1967, and a final surprising touch of swampy harmonica. Or perhaps the final touch are the lyrics. "Everywhere I look there's a dead end waiting" — if this were Robert Smith, the accompanying music would be suicidal, but Beck is simply way too cool, calm, and collected to let his music lead you into depression. ʽDevil's Haircutʼ is loud, noisy, screamy, and impossibly urbanistic — the accompanying video, with Beck strolling through various locations in NYC with a boombox under his arm, matches the atmosphere of the tune to perfection.

What gradually emerges from the next few songs is... well, I'd say, a brave stab at a «new Dylan» for his generation. ʽLord Only Knowsʼ, whose mysterious final chant gave the album its title, starts off with a hoarse scream, some feedback, a false start (already a bit of Dylanish noncha­lance), then turns into upbeat country-rock, set to some angry, accusing, but generally meaning­less lyrics directed at everyone in general and no one in particular. Unfortunately, Beck is no­where near Dylan in terms of vocal performance — most of his deliveries are fairly monotonous and by-the-book, as he treats each following word exactly like the one that preceded it. Most of the work is going into spicing things up — for instance, with a little bit of Steve Vai-style guitar arpeggios instead of a «normal» bridge, and suchlike. It's unpredictable enough to keep your attention in a steady hold, but for the first listen only: later on, there is a chance that many of the «intrusions» will become obnoxious, being so out of place and all.

Still, the basic structures are consistently fun, no matter how derivative they are — ʽThe New Polutionʼ revives the old ʽTaxmanʼ / ʽStart!ʼ progression with an added «astral» flavor (Eastern organ, Mellotron, acid sax licks, you name it); ʽDerelictʼ is like a flat-out musical opium den, with smelly smoke rising from the speakers; ʽJack-Assʼ begins as a tough'n'tender ballad in Lou Reed style, then ends with some atonal guitar and genuine jackass noises; ʽSissyneckʼ is just simple, catchy country-rock with a hyperdriven rhythm section and a pop chorus that is every bit as unforgettable as it is bizarre ("I'm writing my will on a three dollar bill in the evening time"? he must know that a "three dollar bill" is, among other things, a euphemism for a flaming homo­sexual, right?); and so on.

I do not find as much joy in the more openly hip-hoppish numbers on the album — ʽHigh 5 (Rock The Catskills)ʼ and ʽWhere It's Atʼ, both of them surprisingly «normal» celebratory odes to the joys of DJing, might appeal to Beastie Boy fans, but on the whole, they seem to have more to do with The Dust Brothers (who co-produced the album with Beck) than with the musical and atmospheric personality of Mr. Hansen. I certainly prefer him when his passion for beats, samples, and rapping plays second fiddle to his passion for «Ye Olde Urbana Americana», rather than when it is thrown into the limelight — and it isn't even my anti-hip-hop bias speaking, it's just that ʽSissyneckʼ and ʽWhere It's Atʼ aren't really destined for necking on the same album.

But this is just a minor personal quibble, which can be easily disregarded. The major quibble is that Odelay may not be one of the greatest albums ever made — which is a quibble with the cri­tical world rather than Beck himself, who cannot be blamed for the headlines. It's just high qua­lity hipster music that will be forever representative of its own time and space: which wasn't the best of times and spaces, perhaps, but definitely not the worst, either. It may not deserve all of its reputation, but it certainly deserves its thumbs up, no reservations applied.

Check "Odelay" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Odelay" (MP3) on Amazon

5 comments:

  1. Nice review of an overrated, yet still worthy, album. Personally, I find Mellow Gold to be my favorite of all his albums. Not sure why, but it took most of my life to firmly establish itself as my favorite.

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    1. For most of my life, Odelay didn't exist. Literally. Thanks for making me feel old ;)

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    2. I've always preferred Mellow Gold to Odelay too. And while we're at it, I prefer Sea Change and Guero to this album too. But Odelay is certainly a good album and deserving of thumbs up.

      For me, Where It's At is Beck's best though. Not his most inventive work, but his most enjoyable. And I just love that old-school neo-soul hip-hop sound on the song.

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  2. Have you heard Paul's Boutique? Despite your distaste for hip hop, I still feel that should be an enjoyable listen for someone with such knowledge of the history of rock and roll. Also its cult popularity over the years undoubtedly was a factor in the widespread acclaim Odelay received, since this was the Dust Brothers first major project since Paul's Boutique.

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  3. An album like thousands in the world. You know, nineties... Someone has to shout "hey, this is great!!!" and that's how it begins. Because the album itself doesn't shout at all. Nah.

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