On today's episode: BECK! And a new feature! Instead of naming highlights in the body of the reviews, I'll break down the "key tracks" at the very end. Streamlining and whathaveyou.
When 'Loser' hit in the spring of 1994, it was so out of place on MTV —and, hell, everywhere else for that matter— that I don't think I had any choice but to like it. When you're 13, any song that makes it to top 40 radio that contains the phrase "Gettin' crazy with the Cheez Whiz" is golden. Throw in a name check for your hometown and it's just about the coolest thing ever. Of course, the parental advisory warning label on the album prevented me from being brazen enough to buy it, and I'm pretty sure I would've hated it if I had purchased it and tried to digest it back then. But at this juncture in life, some twenty years later, I'm rediscovering Beck in a new way. Yeah, he's a wacky scientologist (sidebar: I love that Firefox marks that as a misspelled word), but I think he's an interesting study in being able to separate the art from the artist. And he's basically made a career out of being completely and utterly unpredictable. That's just fun, no matter how you slice it. Mellow Gold is like funky noise folk for stoners. Everything imaginable is thrown into the musical blender and it absolutely should not work, but somehow does. It's very lo-fi psychedelic and messy-sounding. Nothing sounds intentional — it's as if the entire record was a complete accident upon its creation and Beck and his collaborators simply had the good sense to realize its uniqueness and kept the tape rolling. A good summary would be: clattering trippiness. The fact that Beck was even allowed to release such a strange album on a major label speaks to the "anything goes"-edness of the mid-90's. A challenging album, but one that sticks out because of its sheer weirdness. Key tracks: 'Loser', 'Beercan', and the surprisingly pretty closer 'Blackhole.'
Beck — Odelay (1996)
Of course, 'Where it's At' was so huge, it's easy to overlook just how awesome it is musically. It's essentially the nonsensical goof-hop of 'Loser', redux, with a bigger budget and a funkier backbeat. The whole thing sounds so cliched "90's man" in retrospect that it's easy to lose sight of just how unique this music was back then. Nobody sounded like Beck. It was easy to look at as purely pop music and subsequently ignore it — which I did for a long time. Even when I reassessed him in the early 2000's, I glossed over these two early records in favor of the less popular stuff. I missed out. While Beck's less popular stuff is arguably his more rewarding music in the long run, this early stuff was popular for a reason. And that's because it's just so darned catchy and fun. There's just something joyful about a genuine weirdo making hits records and Odelay is no different. Key tracks: 'The New Pollution', 'Jackass' and 'Where It's At' of course.
Beck — Mutations (1998)
Beck goes fully 70's folk rock for the first time here. It's a guise he would assume every few albums continuing forward, so it's easy for us now to look at him as a neo-folk rocker that gets occasionally silly all along. But when Mutations was new, it caused a stir like you wouldn't believe. Because where the hell did Beck get this idea that he could sing all of a sudden? It was my first Beck album, so this is a reacquisition and it has all sorts of great sentimental value for me. It was the first time Beck was in the studio with a live band it was also the first time he worked with the Brit Nigel Godrich on production (and, to be sure, this thing is lush as heck). It was a bid to be taken seriously as an artist and not just a novelty act, and it worked. Key tracks: the lush psychdedelia of 'Nobody's Fault But My Own', 'We Live Again', closer 'Static' and the lively hidden track 'Diamond Bollocks.'
Beck — Guero (2005)
This came out when I was working at Tower, so I have fond memories of it being one of the things on the store stereo to look forward to. It reunites Beck with the Chemical Brothers and, subsequently, to the alternative hip-pop of Odelay. Some really great pop tunes here, mixed in with funky whiteboy musings and a bit of the thoughtful folk rock that he's come to be known for. It's an all over the place stylistic mish mash of an album and a cursory description would be Odelay meets Mutations, but that doesn't do it any favors whatsoever. Something like 'Broken Drum', for instance, meets the requirements of that comparison with its dreamy slide guitar riff and electronic beat, but it transcends and becomes something else entirely. Pretty spiff. An album that definitely has highlights, but very little cohesion (perhaps contrarily). Key tracks: 'Broken Drum', the pure pop of 'Girl', moody 'Earthquake Weather' and the blues stomp of 'Farewell Ride.'
Beck — Guerolito (2005)
Beck set trends again in the early 2000's with the idea that an entire album can be remixed and revised by other musicians. This only enhanced the feeling that Guero was never really meant to be viewed as anything except a compilation of new Beck songs and not really a proper album — but not to its detriment, either because the music was still decent, as much of a scattershot of styles as it was. The remixes, generally speaking, are more hip hop-centric than their source material and the highlights generally remain the same. It's a good remix album because it doesn't require the listener to be all that familiar with the source material to be able to enjoy it. It certainly seemed to set up the foundation for Beck albums to follow, as the similarly mish-mashy The Information received its own full length remix not too long after its initial release. Key tracks: Boards of Canada's meditative reimagining of 'Broken Drum', Air's synth-heavy take on 'Missing' (retitled here 'Heaven Hammer'), El-P's melodramatic 'Scarecrow' mix and the proper album outtake 'Clap Hands.'
Beck — Modern Guilt (2008)
And, just when the formula seemed to be firmly in place, Beck decided to return back to the psychedelic melancholia of Sea Change. Except, with Dangermouse on board, everything has a funkier, spookier backbeat. I've seen and heard a lot of talk about this album that mentions the word paranoia and I'm not sure I completely agree with that. Because, while it does have a spooky funk vibe to it, I find something like 'Chemtrails' to be about Beck's state of mind, not everyone else around him (and a beautiful tune, as well). So, I get a very Ray Davies on Muswell Hillbillies type of vibe from this album. He's a 21st century man, but he doesn't want to be here, as it were. This sort of thing might be considered dour if the tunes weren't as catchy as heck, but as it stands, it was arguably Beck's most introspective work at that point. Key tracks: the spaghetti western-ish title track, 'Volcano' and the utterly gorgeous 'Chemtrails.'
Beck — Morning Phase (2014)
Man, some people are just straight up trashing this thing! Whatever. Sea Change is easily my favorite Beck album, so if he wants to rehash that sound for all its worth, I say let him. The singles he released in the last year leading up to this album held no indication of what was to come, but here is an absolutely stunning new long player that's as slow and brooding as it is pretty. Nigel Godrich is not around, but the lushness is played up despite his absence and the album is all the better for it. But where Sea Change was about an in-the-moment breakup release, Morning Phase is more about long term emotional unrest and trying to make connections with the world around you. I would have called Modern Guilt Beck's most personal work until this album. He has successfully recaptured and rebranded that classic Laurel Canyon/LA studio scene of the early 70's for a new generation. Excellent. Key tracks: the searching 'Heart is a Drum', the eerie and borderline contradictory 'Wave' and the swelling odd time signature centerpiece 'Blackbird Chain.'
Sorry it's been so long between updates.