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Beck - Odelay (Deluxe Edition) Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 March 2008
ImageOf all the no-trick ponies and gimmick acts, no artist ever seemed more destined for one-hit wonder status than Beck. Though he had been kicking around the indie rock and anti-folk scenes for a half decade before 1994’s “Loser” became his entry into the pop culture lexicon, even an optimist wouldn’t have expected the shaggy kid with the clumsy rapping and generation X angst to amount to much more than a footnote for the grunge era. To be fair, there were those at the time who recognized Mellow Gold – the hastily assembled album that was rushed to capitalize on the unexpected success of “Loser” – as the ingenious mixing pot of creaky folk music and noise-damaged hip-hop that it was. But despite his innovative streak, Beck was just so strange – so obsessed with bugs and food and death – that it was hard to imagine him ever being much more than a cult artist, the kind of guy who would have his two months of fame and then quietly fade back into the underground from whence he came. He might make more interesting albums, but if anyone was going to hear them he was going to have to find a way to make his eccentricities palatable to a mass audience. With Odelay, he did exactly that.

Rightly canonized along with Nirvana’s Nevermind and Radiohead’s Ok Computer as one of rock music’s definitive albums from the 1990s, Odelay was the moment that Beck arrived as an artist that was going to be impossible to ignore. This time around he was still plenty weird but now he was a cleaned up auteur, having shed his hippie-punk image and his fixation on post-industrial decay in favor of three-piece suits and surreal non sequiturs. With sample-obsessed producers the Dust Brothers in tow, Beck was now in a party mood, and Odelay was crammed to the hilt with funky grooves, glistening hooks and jokey asides, and was quickly recognized as a turning point in the history of pop music. Though the Beastie Boys had made hip-hop safe for white kids, Beck was breaking down the final wall between traditional songwriting and rap, adding in shades of pedal steel-drenched country music, ramshackle blues and slippery lounge rock to make anyone who dismissed hip-hop as the music of those too lazy to learn how to play instruments or sing think again. Beck was a living bridge, a post-modern music dictionary who implied that all forms could be recombined in new and interesting ways. In 1996, Odelay wasn’t simply another acclaimed album; it was the harbinger of a new way of making music.
All that would be irrelevant, of course, if Odelay’s songs weren’t so good, and 12 years later they still sound remarkably visionary on this deluxe reissue. From the ubiquitous smooth-flow anthem “Where It’s At?” to the swooning doom riffs of “Devil’s Haircut” to the psychedelic layers of “The New Pollution,” even the album’s singles are stunning in their willingness to include every idea, no matter how outlandish and incompatible. Songs mutate and turn right when they should be over, absurdities pile on top of each other and samples are sewn together into a vividly dizzying patchwork of songs that are precise in their haphazard charm. But unlike Mellow Gold and Beck’s more avant-garde sound experiments, these are pop songs, honed to a fine point and designed to fit together as an album that would reward repeated listens. For many, those songs provided the map to the future, a challenge that still has been unanswered, even by Beck himself.

After Odelay, strict adherence to genre seemed silly. If Beck could jump from the dewy dream-pop balladry of “Jackass” to the giddy country-inflected sweep of “Lord Only Knows” and the old school hip-hop of “High 5 (Rock the Catskills),” how could a self-respecting artist get by with appeals to tradition and paint-by-numbers clichés? For the first time since Bob Dylan ushered in the era of the modern singer-songwriter, the job description had shifted, and now everything – samples, abrasive noise, ironic rap – was fair game. No doubt it was a difficult balancing act Beck maintained throughout Odelay, as he pushed the album right to the edges of alienating just about anybody who fancied themselves a purist in any sense. In retrospect, it’s a remarkably idealistic record. The logic goes, if hip-hop fans could digest the country pedal steel licks in “Sissyneck,” then country fans could tolerate the crusty funk of “Hotwax,” and Odelay might be one of the few times when such optimism actually works. And while it’s not an album that needs re-examination to fully understand, this two-disc deluxe edition promises to tie together any loose ends that have dangled over the last dozen years.

To that end, it doesn’t appear that Beck left much off-the-record, as all but two of the tracks included have been officially released elsewhere. As such, the true appeal of this collection is that it brings together all of Odelay’s b-sides and remixes into one convenient set, creating an impression of just how fertile a period of creativity it was for Beck and his collaborators.

Ultimately, Odelay persists because it created a singularly distinctive and previously unexplored sonic universe, one complete with its own language and laws. Like few records before or since, it holds its secrets closely and cares little whether you bother to unravel them. Unlike most experimental records, it’s one with very little pretense or conceit, a high-minded party record that could be enjoyed by anyone and in most any setting. And while the extra tracks don’t prove much aside from the fact that even a record as eclectic as Odelay couldn’t encompass Beck’s hugely varied tastes, they provide an interesting snapshot of an era that he has made no effort to revisit. Thus far, Beck has been too clever (or possibly too scatterbrained) to ever try to repeat Odelay’s formula, and as a result his reinventions have yet to yield an album that is quite so imaginative or far-reaching. But for a man who could have been just as easily become the most curious of his generation’s discarded symbols, to have escaped the shadow of one-hit wonderdom is no small feat. To have that escape be remembered with reverence 12 years later is nothing short of amazing.

Extra Features
Some of the extra tracks easily could have made the final mix; the breezy sing-along pop of “Electric Music and Summer People” was a precursor to the atmospheres he would explore on 1998’s Mutations, and the folk balladry of “Feather in Your Cap” would remain a fan favorite for years. For the most part, though, Beck’s instincts as a pop craftsman were dead on, and he was wise to leave most of this on the cutting room floor. Take one listen to noisy diversions such as “Thunder Peel” (itself a less chaotic version of a track from 1994’s Stereopathetic Soul Manure) and the shape-shifting drum stomps and folk guitar of “Lemonade,” and it’s obvious that Beck had carefully (and wisely) kept his most experimental music off of Odelay.

Still, there are moments where it’s fairly obvious qualitatively just why songs were left off the proper release. Despite being an utterly delightful mélange of bongos and farfisa, the tropicalia-tinged “Deadweight” overstays its welcome at over six minutes. Similarly, the distorted synth riffs and muffled vocals of “Clock” could have easily fit on Odelay stylistically, but it’s simply an inferior track, lacking the urgency of anything that made the final cut. The menacing backmasking and sludgy drones of “.000.000” doesn’t fare any better, as the track takes a simple melody and effectively runs it into the ground with five minutes of slow motion doom riffs. These seem now to have been wise merit calls; as any student of his catalog knows, Beck is an artist who has never shied away from releasing even his least accessible sonic concoctions.

Adding a menacingly heavy thud to its backbeat and adding layers of ominous atmosphere, U.N.K.L.E.’s remix of “Where It’s At?” struggles to stay interesting for all of its 12-minute running time, really needing only about five minutes to make its point. Distorted and sped up to chipmunk speed, Aphex Twin’s remix of “Devil’s Haircut” (entitled “Richard’s Hairpiece”) will probably come off as sacrilege to some, as it ruthlessly reinvents the song as an uneasy ambient fever dream. Far less imaginative is “American Wasteland,” Mickey P. Remix’s refashioning of “Devil’s Haircut” as an old school punk trope, basically grating the original song’s vocal to careening power chords. And though it’s an undeniably beautiful song, we probably don’t need both the (admittedly lovely) symphonic remake and Spanish language version of “Jackass,” though the latter’s mariachi horns are certainly a fascinating touch.

As far as the previously unreleased tracks are concerned, the two songs pulled from the vaults aren’t exactly revelatory. Shedding its sonic skin about every 15 seconds, “Inferno” is a frantic seven minutes of drum loops, scratching and blasts of melody and guitar distortion that serves as something of a one-song distillation of everything on Odelay. Acoustic blues guitar, spaceship synths, handclaps, sleepy electric piano, hoarse screams and quiet crooning – it lacks the focus of the rest of Odelay but is admirable for its unfettered sprawl. More accessible is “Gold Chains,” a willfully silly mash-up of folk music references and hip-hop boasts that wraps Beck’s laconic drawl in simple acoustic guitar lines and soft synth bloops. Here, as always, he was mostly interested in pairing together elements that seemingly had no business fitting beside each other.

Detractors might point out that Odelay often sounds a bit fuzzy around the edges and unevenly mixed, but it’s obvious that Beck and the Dust Brothers took great care to retain the fingerprints of hands that had dug through countless crates of dusty old records to assemble these samples. The point is just that: this is largely an album created out of samples, and if the album sounds dated in any way it’s because there is never any attempt made to hide that fact. Even so, the minute details in the production are astounding, and close listens and high-end equipment are necessary to pull apart the tangle of layers and samples that give the album such a distinctive sound. Those interested in that task better pack headphones.

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