Friday, November 23, 2007
Release Date: June 1996
Producers: Beck & The Dust Brothers (Mike Simpson & John King), with Mario Caldato Jr., Brian Paulson, Tom Rothrock & Rob Schnapf
“I can’t believe my way back when
My Cadillac pants going much too fast
Karaoke weekend at the suicide shack
Community service and I’m still the mack”
- from “Hotwax”
The 1990's were the decade of attention deficit disorder, with the complete entertainment takeover of the MTV-style jump-cut edit, ruining a portion of a generation of youth with trouble getting through a magazine article, let alone a book. Information was scattered out to the world in compressed snippets with skewed angles, and the surface became more commercially essential than the substance. At first glance, Beck was the best artistic representation of this cultural movement (which has only increased in power since), but he thankfully had way too much depth to stay the peg in that hole. With the record label feeding frenzy that blew up in the wake of Lollapalooza and Grunge, and the subsequent rise of the Alternative Nation, the world was faced with a new age of One-Hit Wonders, ones that weren't necessarily faceless studio Pop creations. You had 'real' bands that were tasting fleeting success that disappeared faster than anyone predicted, and Beck, like fellow demented-genius survivors Radiohead, looked like he'd be the next discarded new face after Mellow Gold's other singles didn't follow "Loser" to the Top 40. So when Beck started to throw Odelay together, he realized that there were some key adjustments he was going to have to make in order to stick around and really make his 15 minutes last.
He saw the increased emphasis placed on the exterior, the glamour, so he ditched the bum/busking folk singer look from Mellow Gold, and reinvented himself as a thrift-store fashion plate, the coolest guero in the barrio, the funkiest man-boy you ever seen bust a move, sliding onto stages worldwide doing the robot, decked out in western shirts with ascots, or seersucker suits, or sequenced cowboy get-ups. He also knew that if he wanted people to get on his side, he needed to play up the fun quotient, so he re-molded himself as a cross between "Cold Sweat"-era James Brown and a televangelist, busting his mad moves with abandon whether he was embarrassing himself or not, giving high fives to the Catskills and shouting out denim kingpins of the 80’s (“Ooh-la-la Sassoon! Sergio Valente! Jordache turns it out!) He took himself out of the role of the inadvertent frat-house-approved Loser with a one-stop shopping angst anthem, did a twirl and a Soul Brother #1 split, and transformed himself into the ultimate party starter for anyone who wanted to shake what their momma’s gave ‘em; but more than that, it was a gift to the kids, the freaks on the fringe, stuck in a time when everything on their radio was gray – Beck brought the Technicolor.
The word on the development of Odelay is that it was originally going to be a somber collection of folk songs inspired by recent deaths in Beck’s life, produced by the Mellow Gold tandem of Rothrock & Schnapf, but he ditched this template to go in search of a more upbeat sound, saving only the elegant “Ramshackle” to close the album. When he met and immediately clicked with Cali production duo The Dust Brothers, famous sonic architects on the Beastie Boys’ underappreciated opus, Paul’s Boutique, Beck knew they would be the men to help him captain his ship to a new land that rejected no artistic impulse. Witnessing the Beastie Boys’ resurgence and rebirth into being as much a cornerstone of the Alternative world as the Hip-Hop one, Beck and the Dust Bros. used the Boys’ taste for eclectic styles on Check Your Head and Ill Communication as aesthetic guidelines, and begun crafting an album that was a natural progression from Mellow Gold, instead of a holding pattern of Anti-Folk and novelty Rap breaks. Right from the starting line, the bluesy riff of “Devil’s Haircut” is more in sharp focus than Beck had ever been, with the broken rhythms slipping in a vague air of the Swinging London of the mid-to-late 60’s that Austin Powers would parody just a year later.
On the surface, riding in with the fanfare of Brady Bunch choruses and choreography, pimping the bassline from The Beatles’ “Taxman” to set the roof on fire, it could be misconstrued as kitsch and gimmick for kitsch and gimmick’s sake, but this was the “New Pollution”, as they put it, a movement of people itching to hang that flannel in the back of the closet and get down, people that grew up with short attention spans, who craved new aural pleasures and didn’t care what part of the galaxy they came from. Odelay was the perfect album for its time, songs that could best be described as junk music, the percussion of the apathetic “Derelict” sounding like just a bunch of shit rolling around in a trunk when a car hits a bump in the road, Beck and the Dust Bros. cast as vultures scavenging the remains of music and culture for tasty morsels to satisfy their insatiable appetites for the type of sounds that make you want to jump up and down in glee. The filthy funk of live highlight “Novacane” is a battle rap at its core, but couldn’t have been made without the Pixies or Sonic Youth either. Special mention must be made of the live band that Beck drafted for the lengthy Odelay tour. They had his back for all his Looney Tunes antics, whether it was animal masks or popping and locking or the electric slide. The airtight rhythm section of drummer Joey Waronker and future Ima Robot bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen were the motor of one of the best live bands of the decade, and the multi-talented Smokey Hormel on guitar and Roger Manning Jr. on keyboards didn't hurt either.
Beck wasn’t the only artist like this, he was just the most visible and the most devoted to the Pop craft of it; he moved in time with artists such as Tricky, Björk, DJ Shadow, Moby, Perry Farrell, and The Chemical Brothers (who originally called themselves The Dust Brothers in tribute), following the lead of chameleons like David Bowie and Prince, coming off like the post-Hip-Hop Bob Dylan, packing Odelay with every quick left turn he could make, from the warped chitlin circuit Soul of “Hotwax”, complete with distorted harmonica, slide guitar, and, um, polka accordion, to the lazy meditation of “Readymade”, blending discordant indie guitar with flecks of Bossa Nova and a Roots Reggae gait. Even the psychedelic Funk of the “Hotwax” outro can expand your mind, “the enchanting Wizard of Rhythm” performing his magic in only 30 seconds.
Beck has yet to make an album this broad in scope again; he mostly resigns to filter all his songwriting for one period through a single, stylistic portal derived from the a songs on Odelay, whether it be the Parsons/Stones Country of “Lord Only Knows” or the stripped-bare Punk of “Minus”. It’s hard sometimes as an artist to try and live up to the special things you might have created in the past, and I for one wouldn’t want to be Beck trying to make another “Sissyneck” or “Where It’s At” or “Jack-Ass”. “Sissyneck” is basically a blues song plastered with surrealist post-Beat poetry (like most of the record), a grimy breakdown of a beat, and a redneck twang just to keep it interesting, Beck funking in up, trying to tell you something about smoke machines, a rhinestone life, and everybody knowing his name at the recreation center, offering a masterful summation of Odelay’s genre fusion. A glistening, Summery ballad, “Jack-Ass” is one of those great Pop recycling jobs, like The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” or Jay-Z’s “Takeover”, built entirely from the scraps of another song, in this case, Them’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Beck drifts along, just as he says, singing plainly that “it’s a strange invitation”, then drifting back out on his burro, playing his harmonica. When he returns, he flies on the wings of the epochal “Where It’s At”, building its megaphone fiesta for no boundaries and all parties, the jigsaw jazz and the get-fresh flow melting over smooth electric piano and horns, Beck putting his show-stopping foot forward, rocking the party, and proving that, while two turntables and a microphone are good to have, all it takes to get through to an A.D.D. nation is to speak their language.
01. "Devil's Haircut"
03. "Lord Only Knows"
04. "The New Pollution"
08. "Where It's At"
12. "High 5 (Rock The Catskills)"
"Devil's Haircut" [live at the 1997 Bizarre Festival]
"The New Pollution" [live at the 1997 Bizarre Festival]
"Where It's At" [live on Saturday Night Live, 01.97]
"High 5 (Rock The Catskills)" [live at the 1997 Bizarre Festival]
- BONUS: "Devil's Haircut" [video]
- BONUS: "Devil's Haircut" [live on French TV, 11.96]
- BONUS: "Hotwax" [live on MuchMusic, 06.96]
- BONUS: "Lord Only Knows" [live in London, 09.03]
plus some "Hot In Herre" and "One Foot In The Grave"
- BONUS: "The New Pollution" [video]
- BONUS: "Derelict" [live at the 1997 Bizarre Festival]
- BONUS: "Novacane" [live, 11.96]
- BONUS: "Jack-Ass" [live on Sessions At West 54th, 08.97]
- BONUS: "Jack-Ass" [live at the 1997 Bizarre Festival]
- BONUS: "Where It's At" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Where It's At" [live on MuchMusic, 06.96]
- BONUS: "Where It's At" [live at the 1997 Grammy Awards]
- BONUS: "Where It's At" [live on Austin City Limits, 2002??]
with The Flaming Lips on the back-up
- BONUS: "Minus" [live at the 1997 Bizarre Festival]
- BONUS: "Sissyneck" [live on MuchMusic, 06.96]
- BONUS: "Ramshackle" [live on MuchMusic, 06.96]