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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Beck: One Foot In The Grave

BECK: ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE (1994)

1) He's A Mighty Good Leader; 2) Sleeping Bag; 3) I Get Lonesome; 4) Burnt Orange Peel; 5) Cyanide Breath Mint; 6) See Water; 7) Ziplock Bag; 8) Hollow Log; 9) Forcefield; 10) Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods; 11) Asshole; 12) I've Seen The Land Beyond; 13) Outcome; 14) Girl Dreams; 15) Painted Eyelids; 16) Atmospheric Conditions; 17) It's All In Your Mind; 18) Feather In Your Cap; 19) Whiskey Can Can.

Beck's last original release on an indie label is arguably the most accessible of his «experimental snippet» collections — where one can spot talent and intelligence without too much irritation. Or, to put it differently, where Beck's pissed-off «anti-folk» hooliganry, generated by one too many downers, slightly abates in favor of pensiveness and seriousness. Not to mention that it is also the best produced record in the whole group: no more of that «bedroom aura» which, in retrospect, feels so unnecessarily pretentious.

Which is not to say that the album is a «must hear» — this is the kind of stuff that helps you put Beck in a larger context and understand where it all comes from, but certainly not the kind of stuff that could help put the guy in any «rock'n'roll hall of fame», officially or informally. Just sixteen more snippets, ranging from acoustic blues and folk to rowdy noisefests — carrying on with the post-mo­dern take on Neil Young. The material was recorded before the release of Mel­low Gold, so it does not yet bear the seal of an emerging superstar, but it is quite possible that, at this point, Beck was still testing out several roads to follow, and, had Mellow Gold not proven to be such an overwhelming success, we could have yet witnessed the guy burying his samplers and going on to pursue this strange path of trying to update ye olde Americana for the 1990s, rather than simply get inspired by some of it.

The guy with the somewhat vacant stare to the left of Beck on the album sleeve is hardly one of the nobodys: Calvin Johnson, one of the seminal figures in American underground, father of Beat Happening, Go Team, Dub Narcotic Sound System, and other projects, who acted as producer for this album, provided his own label's services to release it (K Records) and also co-wrote and co-sang the final track (ʽAtmospheric Conditionsʼ) in his trade­mark bass drone. This is probably an important «legacy link», but on the whole, the album certainly does not look like an equal parts collaboration — it's the Hansen show all along.

I am not sure how much actual composing was involved here: quite a few of the songs are no­thing but traditional old tunes, set to new lyrics — ʽFourteen Rivers Fourteen Floodsʼ, for ins­tance, is based on the old ʽSittin' On Top Of The Worldʼ / ʽYou Gotta Moveʼ set of chords, sliding and vibrating in deliciously authentic Thirties fashion; ʽI've Seen The Land Beyondʼ is a guessable variation on the Woody Guthrie style; ʽPainted Eyelidsʼ never goes beyond a standard up-and-down rockin'-horse country rhythm, and so on. In any case, the deal is not really about finding new sounds — it's all about relocating Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, and Jimmy Rodgers away from crossroads, plantations, and railway stations to the big modern city, without improving the conditions. ʽPainted Eyelidsʼ, in typical Beck fashion, continues to tell us about trash bags, sewer drains, chemicals, and debris — only this time, with clean sound, well-tuned acoustic guitars and pleasant, dreamy singing styles.

Some of the tunes eventually forget about their pre-war commitments and veer off into grim indie pop territory — sometimes, with pretty cool results, as it happens on ʽAssholeʼ, a particularly good one because it has what I call the «Lennon effect»: a seemingly trivial melody that is never­theless delivered with a subtle intensity and then resolved into some sense-shocking hook, like a discharge of slowly accumulating electricity, in this case, Beck's subliminal "she'll do anything, she'll do anything..." turning round and slapping you in the face with "...to make you feel like an asshole". These turns of events are quite common on Lennon's acoustic material, and here, Beck lets us know that he can have the same touch if he just keeps focused on it.

The screechy / noisy numbers on the album are, in comparison, rather scant — ʽBurnt Orange Peelʼ is a fuzzy comic-rocker à la Pixies, ʽZiplock Bagʼ is ugly noise-blues with harmonica blown through Lucifer's own sonic filter... and that's about it, actually, unless we also throw in a few dissonant overdubs on ʽAtmospheric Conditionsʼ. They seem mostly to have been placed here for diversity's sake, so that the album couldn't be that easily pigeonholed. But no worry: even without the electric numbers, it is not easy to place it into any one particular category.

Despite all the obvious shortcomings (or, at least, all of its obvious aspects that could be easily called «shortcomings» by those who think that the real Beck begins with Mellow Gold and con­tinues straight on with Odelay), I think the record deserves a thumbs up. At the very least, it could, and maybe even should, be taken seriously. Stereopathetic Soulmanure was still «punk» in spirit — and, consequently, quite contradictory, because Beck Hansen's guts aren't really punk. This stuff, on the contrary, does seem to stem directly from the guts. Sure, it is more about an in­dividual artist's guts than about shaking up the musical world of the mid-Nineties, but it should usually be an interesting venture — peek into the guts of an artist who dared to try and shake up the musical world all around him.

PS: Additionally, the idea that the album must have meant much more to Beck than Golden Fee­lings or Soulmanure is indirectly confirmed by its having been re-released in 2009 in the form of a «deluxe» edition, with an overwhelming sixteen extra tracks from the same sessions — I have not heard them, and I do not really believe they could significantly swerve one's judgement into either direction, but the very fact that Beck took such good care of this part of his legacy is well worth noting.

Check "One Foot In The Grave" (CD) on Amazon
Check "One Foot In The Grave" (MP3) on Amazon

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