The Classics 006

Friday, 03 December 2010

When Beck first released Odelay in 1996, it was to a very eager and excited audience and to critics just waiting to sharpen their claws. The success of “Loser” earned the singer an advance critical chorus of “probable one–hit wonder” and, given the deluge of small–potatoes albums released between Mellow Gold and Odelay [One Foot In The Grave, A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight and Stereopathetic Soul Manure all seemed to just 'appear' after Mellow Gold took off –ed], such concerns seemed genuinely warranted. At most, critics like Eric Weisbard of Spin were charitable enough to call Beck a “one–album wonder,” but no one realistically expected the novelty of Mellow Gold to endure. Because of that, Beck was staring down the barrel of an enormous critical cannon that was just waiting for him to screw up and justify lighting the fuse, but he didn’t give anyone the satisfaction when when the anticipated follow-up to Mellow Gold appeared on June 18, 1996. Odelay was a runaway success with critics and earned Grammy wins for ‘Best Male Rock Vocal Performance’ (for “Where It’s At”) and ‘Best Alternative Music Performance’ (for the album itself). It peaked on the Billboard Top 200 at number 16 and yielded five singles, four of which charted on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1996 and 1997. For fans, the record reprised Beck’s role as the channel–surfing slacker, except this time on steroids, some new techy hardware and a healthy dose of angelic Dust Brothers magic. To coin a phrase, at the time of Mellow Gold, Beck was perceived as the good–natured man–child but, after the release of Odelay, the singer asserted himself in the public and critical eye as a laidback übermensch.

Over a decade after Beck’s ascension, and Odelay remains untouched by both time and anyone that pretends himself to be the singer’s peer, partially because the album goes in so many directions as once that the songs – either separately of combined – defy easy classification and refuse to be pinned down. What, for example, do you call a song like “The New Pollution?” In between seconds, it’s a glittering monolith of lounge, pussycat swing, stream–of–consciousness freestyle and TV commercial cheesiness. That’s a mouthful even in print but, not only that, what is often overlooked about Odelay is just how experimental it was; at the time the album was being made, a new computer platform for recording, Pro-Tools, had just been released and the Dust Brothers were using it – but they had not yet mastered it just yet. A lot of what one hears on Odelay are early attempts to make the new technology work and that, presumably, is why the album chirps and burbles the way it does. Not only that, many of Beck's performances were throwaway takes; since the album’s release, the singer has gone on the record publicly saying that the vocal takes used for Odelay were the scratch attempts made so that when the proper ones were finished, the singer would re–record them with similar melodies, but that never happened. He has publicly said that virtually all of them are nothing more than half–baked gibberish and that’s honestly difficult to argue. The melodies on “Novacane,” “Hot Wax,” “Readymade” and “Minus” among others sound tentative (“Jack– Ass” sounds complete, as does “Where It’s At” – but they’re definitely in the minority as far as sounding perfectly “done” goes) and half-finished as the singer’s voice often trails off at the end of lines like “Yo soy un disco quebrado/Yo tengo chicle en mi cerebro” (direct translation: “I am a dial broken/I have chewing gum in my brain”) from “Hot Wax,” but that sort of word salad nonsense works here; the lines might not rhyme or make sense, but Beck’s sibilance works with them to make the listener’s brain fill in the gaps, thus making ballads of beautiful words which seem not only intelligible, but anthemic in a strange way.

For the reissue of Odelay released in 2008, the weirdness gets further examined three tracks appended to the original album’s track list here (“Deadweight” appeared on the Life Less Ordinary soundtrack, but “Inferno” and “Gold Chains” have gone unreleased until now). “Deadweight” is still the perennially disquieting tune in Beck’s songbook from the era. With far more coherent lyrics than can be found anywhere on the original release of Odelay and a shopping mall muzak refrain combined with Spanish-sounding guitar, the song foreshadows the delirium of “Tropicalia” (which would appear two years later on Mutations) and remarkably poppy dalliances of Midnite Vultures while still retaining the flow and all–encompassing retro stabs at overly modern sounds of Odelay. If that doesn’t exactly make sense, envision a cybernetic ’57 Chevy with hovering capability and you’ll get the idea; Odelay was, after all, one of the first records made with Pro-Tools and, with that information in hand, it suddenly becomes easy to understand the clash of modern sonics with vintage aesthetics that drives the whole record. In some ways, it’s easy to understand why “Inferno” was left off of the original Odelay release. Granted, the heavy beats, schizophrenic production and fast–as–hell freestyling vocals have a place among these songs and Beck’s self–referencing in the lyrics sums up the content of Odelay nicely, but the track feels superfluous given that the singer explored all of the sounds in this single song over the course of the album’s fourteen others. “Inferno” sounds as if the entire feel of the album was condensed into one seven-minute epic – almost like a Cliff’s Notes approach to Odelay or the song that could have been used to promote the album in a commercial. It works, but isn’t essential. “Gold Chains” is something completely different. Swirling country western gee–tars and harmonica cut with some gangsta boasting and a spat vocal delivery are at the core of this song while the rest of the stray sparks of energy that fly from it vibrate with conceptual flow and rolls on the cybernetic sounding grooves laid out by The Dust Brothers. Again however, while the song is great, it’s understandable why it was left off of Odelay. The shiny production and tidy, seamless nature of the parts in the mix are flawless and hence not anything like Odelay at all. While very well done, it would have derailed the vibe that the album established; for fans though, it is an excellent glimpse into where the album could have ended up had Beck been allowed to tweak all of the songs further. Disc two of this special edition, however, is where Beck takes Odelay off the map completely. A weird collection of B–sides, rarities and outtakes, disc two pulls everything imaginable together in a fairly haphazard but interesting mix. Fans will recognize a fair number of songs (“Clock” appeared on a special disc attached to an issue of NME, a more polished demo of “Thunder Peel” returns from the Stereopathetic wasteland and also explains the song’s entry into the Odelay tour set lists) but, for the uninitiated, the CD yields a treasure trove of oddities that could only have been B–sides for a major label artist (“Burro” is a flamenco-injected push through “Jack–Ass” complete with a Spanish–translated lyric sheet), but are excellent distractions from the original release. Opening with a series of three monstrously overworked versions of a couple of the blockbuster hits (unfortunately U.N.K.L.E.’s remix of “Where It’s At” lasts twelve minutes, Aphex Twin’s altered version of “Devil’s Haircut” can only be characterized as E–drenched masturbation and Mickey P’s ambient reworking of “New Pollution” is absent), the disc immediately improves as being more finished than you’d expect. Often more underground informed in both sound and production (“Electric Music And The Summer People” sounds like a throwback to Mellow Gold complete with click track as does “SA–5” and the subdued acoustic “Feather In Your Cap” hearkens back to “Pay No Mind” while “Erase The Sun” re–examines No Wave), the songs are usually only ideas half sketched and committed to tape for prosperity or to be referred to later on the off–chance that some portion of them could be used later (the “I get down all the way” refrain from “Clock” wound up manifesting on “Hot Wax” for example) but it’s unlikely that any of them were ever intended for mass consumption. As stated, they are song sketches, but some are more finished than others and thus of more interest. “Strange Invitation,” for example, is a more straightforward and real-time version of “Jack–Ass” that’s more conventionally rockist in structure and “Brother” is a fantastic ballad that hints at Beck’s innate songwriting ability better than anything that appeared on either Mellow Gold or Odelay, “Devil Got My Woman” is a busted blues demo, and “Trouble All My Days” is a lame horse of a no–waver that would have been considered the weak link in Mellow Gold too. Realistically, none of the tracks on the second disc in this set that didn’t also appear on a larger scale elsewhere (like “Clock” and “Thunder Peel”) are vault material for completists or curiosity seekers only. Happily though, this review is being written by both a completist and a curiosity seeker and, with that said, while the original release of Odelay is rightly essential listening, the reissue is definitely worth checking out too.



Both the original release of Odelay and the 2008 reissue remain in print. Buy them here on Amazon .

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