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Beck – [Album]

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Wednesday, 17 June 2009

There are moments – and this is one of them – when the benefit of hindsight can incite an enormous sigh of relief that comes from the knowledge that, realistically, events in history could have played out very differently but, because they didn't, it makes the world seem like a better, saner place. Take the early workings of Beck's career for example – when Mellow Gold hit in 1994, it gave Generation X and the earliest-born of Generation Y their single most blunt and self-deprecating (but fun) anthem in “Loser,” made it safe for rocker kids to like hip hop and vice versa, and amounted to the ideal springboard for Beck to break into the popular consciousness. Later, the singer would cement his stake in pop culture with Odelay and continue to be met with positive feedback at every turn – no matter how risky – right up to and continuing through this writing.

Things could have been very different if One Foot In The Grave had been released first. Even being released just three months after Mellow Gold (as it was) threatened to collapse Beck's career before it really got legs under it because, in the pre-Information Age, that embryonic fan base just didn't know what to make of it; being indie-identified was a status symbol for listeners at that time, but being submerged in the underground still made the pop crowd nervous. One Foot In The Grave was neither poppy in sound nor slick in execution and a lot of new fans turned a blind eye to the album because of that; choosing instead to stick to Mellow Gold (which wasn't slick either, but had pop hooks to spare) and tentatively and hope that there may be more of that kind of bong load coming through the pipe. What a lot of those that did notice One Foot In The Grave didn't know was that the album had actually been done for over a year and the label it appeared through (K Records) was withholding the release until such time as it had sufficient capitol to properly put it out. After they did though and after the initial shock wore off, One Foot In The Grave became regarded (as did its predecessor, Stereopathetic Soulmanure) as an oddity that was a treat for truer fans but ignored by the fair-weathers – particularly after Odelay exploded in 1996. The album did remain in print though, for the devout and curious to find and relish in.

Fifteen years later, and it's far easier to appreciate One Foot In The Grave – particularly within the context of what would follow it. In many ways, the album offered a more definitive and lasting template for Beck than Mellow Gold did – Mutations and (to lesser degrees) Guerolito, Guero and Modern Guilt all bear elements of folk that can be traced back to One Foot…, and the album is a better showcase of the singer's stark songwriting talent than any of the other early albums. Beginning with “He's A Mighty Good Leader” (which is sort of a cover of “Jesus Is A Mighty Good Leader” by Skip James) and stripped right down to just acoustic guitar and voice, the song would be a very welcome introduction for the uninitiated but made listeners at the time of the album's release who were expecting at least a comparable form of the folkie, hip hop anonymous melange of Mellow Gold thoroughly squeamish. For the few that did play along though, as One Foot In The Grave breaks through and finds an archly two-dimensional groove through “Sleeping Bag,” the drunken Calvin Johnson duet “I Get Lonesome” and the inept hardcore sing-along “Burnt Orange Peel,” even the most hardened and cynical listener finds himself hypnotized by the almost tidal flow that the assembled tracks develop. Of course, not every song is a winner – the broken blues cacophony of “Ziplock Bag,” multi-voiced confusion of “Forcefield” the garish but flat sounding “Outcome” and warped out-of-tune ballad “Girl Of My Dreams” are all a little too low-fi and loose for their own good – but when everything falls in line (“Hollow Log,” “Painted Eyelids,” “Cyanide Breath Mint” and “Asshole” all qualify as essential) the results are stellar as Beck proves he's capable of writing solid folk and rock songs without the benefit of much backing or production. In that way, those listeners willing to remain open to new artistic possibilities will find One Foot In The Grave to be far more illustrative of the singer's ability than any of Beck's prior releases.

The reissue of the album is undoubtedly the definitive document for that period in the singer's growth. Featuring a whopping thirty-two tracks to the original's sixteen, the disc continues the threads rolled out by the original release of One Foot… as well as including studio versions of some well-established, staple songs from Beck's live shows that have never been given proper release. Fans will be thrilled, for example, to finally get the studio representation of One Foot In The Grave's title track (left off the album the song is familiar to those that caught Beck on the Odelay tour) as well as “Feather In Your Cap,” “Teenage Wastebasket” and the best cross between No Wave and Folk that Beck has ever penned, “Whiskey Can Can.” Realistically, the only imaginable reason these songs got left off of the original release of One Foot In The Grave was because of space constraints – the quality is more or less on par with the loose and wooden delivery of those songs that did make the cut – and long-time fans will be thrilled that they're finally being let out for air; even if some of the more mainstream-leaning, pop-obsessed fans will (as they always have) shake their collective head and wonder at the reasoning for such effort being put into an album that never really broke in the first place. This edition of One Foot In The Grave isn't for them; it's not (and never was, presumably, even upon its original release) designed to win a host of new fans to Beck's banner, it's designed to inform those already hungry fans of where Beck was coming from and functions as a sort of manual to understanding one portion of Beck's voice. One Foot In The Grave continues to fill in the gaps of reasoning that have always existed in Beck's body of work and, while it might not be the best or most representative album in the singer's catalog, it's no less important than Mellow Gold when trying to understand and appreciate that period after it when the going got great.

Artist:

Beck Online

Beck myspace

Album:

The reissue of One Foot In The Grave is available here on Amazon .

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Beck – [Album]

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Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Sometimes when a producer begins to get legs under him and gets known as an “it” producer, anyone paying attention knows that the paths of the individual in question and a particular musician will cross. It’s a foregone conclusion; they’re destined to work together because they’re cut from the same musical cloth and their established previous patterns would mesh well together. For example, when Danger Mouse crowned his string of successes (Gorillaz’ Demon Days, The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Gnarls Barkley’s The Odd Couple) with The Black Keys’ Attack And Release, all roads seemed to point to a collaboration with Beck. Amazingly, it happened in shorter order than anyone could have imagined.

Given that, of the pair, Danger Mouse has been more consistent that Beck in recent years(the singer has genre and style jumped so often in his career that he has earned the reputation of being a wild card in this hand), the onus falls to the singer to carry this endeavor off. If his song writing and mindset are in the right places, Modern Guilt could rival Odelay for ‘definitive work’ status; if not, the album could do irreparable damage to the singer’s career.

Happily though, it all works out marvelously on Modern Guilt – even if, in a lot of cases, the songs sound like they’re leftovers from 2006’s The Information.

“Orphans” opens the record with a modest re-envisioning of the “Think I’m In Love” aesthetic and is possessed of the sweetest vocal melody that has ever escaped Beck’s lips and is made all the more romantic with the understated harmony from Cat Power's Chan Marshall that sets the re-assuring tone for the album and, from there, the retread (but not really in a bad way) begins. Beck dusts off some old ‘cocktail/lounge/dance’ pastiche numbers in “Gamma Ray,” the title track and “Walls” that are all good plays to the singer’s recent strengths, but where Modern Guilt shines is in the new coats of paint that both singer and producer use to dress up the later half of the record.

With a healthy dose of nervous energy, Danger Mouse turns “Soul of A Man” – what could have simply been a throwback to One Foot In The Grave in lesser hands – into a stomping slab of well-produced no wave that will instantly get old school fans excited while making newer fans dance. The result is somehow instantly relieving – like you`ve been holding your breath so long that you`ve forgotten how to breathe – and from there Beck seems to recapture some sort of energy that vanished almost without people noticing right around the release of Mutations.

It isn`t so much that Beck is trying to move forward with Modern Guilt as it is that he’s re-examining what he’s done before and let Danger Mouse loose on the material to finally clean up the loose ends one a series of records with something noticeably lacking even if listeners couldn’t qualify exactly what it was. Songs like “Profanity Prayers,” “Volcano” and “Chemtrails” all go back and re-examine the singer’s time spent in the underground (read: pre-”Loser”) and turns the sleepy, mid-tempo numbers that were once the forgettable moments back then into the most spectacular and compelling tracks on this album.

It might be wishful thinking to assume that Modern Guilt is anything more than a desperate attempt to re-invigorate Beck (the singer has done material like this before after all, before shooting off out of the known stratosphere; so Modern Guilt may amount to nothing more than the safe play in the greand scheme of things), but this album does have the stray sparks of excitement that have been absent from the singer`s work for a while. Danger Mouse might be responsible for those (it`s difficult to tell because the duo does work well together) and, if that`s the case, we can only hope that the pair cross paths again because, after such a lengthy `perfectly average` spell, this is the best its been.

Artist:
www.modernguilt.com 
myspace.com/beck

Album:
Modern Guilt is out now. Buy it on Amazon.

 

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