Beck

TrackAlbum
Lazy FliesMutations
Blackbird ChainMorning Phase
Nicotine & GravyMidnite Vultures
TropicaliaMutations
Satan Gave Me A TacoStereopathic Soulmanure
Where It's AtOdelay
Black TambourineGuero
Little OneSea Change
BeercanMellow Gold
One Foot In The GraveStereopathic Soulmanure

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Contributor: Matt Roberts

I love individualist artists. Performers who carve out a niche for themselves and live in a cave of their own making – waiting for the masses to come to them rather than pander to the lowest common denominators. To me it’s a sign of strength, even from the most sensitive of artists. Beck is one such, singular snowflake.

Beck’s most recent brush with fame, as the guy who should have given his Grammy to Beyoncé (hell, shouldn’t everyone, according to Kanye?) has put him back on people’s minds after what they consider to be a long hiatus. The truth is, he never went away. He’s been quietly building a solid catalogue of well written, well produced, often brilliant, occasionally transcendent music that doesn’t adhere to any known genre but Beck’s own.

As with most people I know (of my advanced age of course) Beck hove into view on the back of his “alternative” mega-hit, Loser. It had the advantage of youthful energy and just the right amount of sarcastic nihilism to propel it to instant cult status. It was one of those songs that skipped the tracks and found itself on the lips of every sing-a-long radio listener at the time. It was the song of young, disaffected youth simultaneously projecting anger, plus the fact they just don’t care, man – perfect for that time.

That was 1994, the alternative boom was in full swing and with Loser, Beck was now at the bleeding edge. Although Loser was originally released by the small Bong Load Records, the accompanying album, Mellow Gold, contained no hint of the spark that created the single that made him famous around the world. It probably got a lot of attention due to the fact that it was released through Geffen’s subsidiary DGC. Whatever it was, it propelled Beck to alternative stardom. All the cool kids were into him, and all the alternative kids wanted to be him. Personal note: I may just be projecting here.

I remember watching him on his first tour here in Sydney coming through the closed curtains to a packed house in a reasonable sized theatre. Just him, his guitar, and a stomping board, for a full third (at least) of the show. Nobody seemed aware that he was essentially a folk/blues musician who had sprinkled that track with enough hip hop to make it relevant to the current market. They ended up baying for Loser and when the curtain opened to reveal the rest of the band, they lost their collective shit.

Beck was maybe a little miffed that it took putting beats over his music to get him recognised. He is, at heart, a blues/folk guy. But he certainly took to it and made it his own, and whether it was a cash-in or pure inspiration (and I know where I stand on that), when his second full album, Odelay, dropped, it hit the alternative scene like a bomb. It spawned at least three singles (Where It’s At, Devil’s Haircut, The New Pollution) and a few other tracks that I remember getting quite a lot of play on their own, at least here in Australia (JJJ especially).

To me, Odelay was a revelation. The Dust Brothers (production team with Beck for this album) had The Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique under their belt and Odelay has their fingerprints all over it. Beck’s surrealistic future-folk is splattered, Pollock-style, over the speakers with scattered samples, breaks for days and deep 808 goodness. In other words, it was perfect for its time and to this day, remains my favourite Beck album. In its entirety, it feels like the perfect musical statement, programmed expertly, but at the same time sounding like someone just threw it together in the time it takes to listen to it. The sonic tricks on this opus have no end. I still listen to it and hear things I haven’t heard before.

Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But worthy of praise? Absolutely. It really lifted Beck from a one hit wonder to an artist who had a singular vision and couldn’t be touched on his own field. And it wasn’t just the alternative nation giving him props. That album won him two Grammys (“Best Rock Vocal Performance – Male” for Where It’s At and “Best Alternative Music Performance” for the album itself) and got nominated for Album Of The Year.

That’s when Beck the individual snowflake came out to play again. He’d released a world beating, smash alternative hit album, so what’s a boy to do? How about record and release an album full of down-tempo, countrified, weirdo tracks so far away from Odelay that a lot of people were thrown? If Odelay was a futuristic, teenage pop dream, Mutations was its grown up uncle that just wants the kids to slow down and smell the roses a bit.

It was recorded in about two weeks, it came with no official videos and very basic advertising. It was almost like he didn’t want or care that it be seen immediately, preferring it to be discovered in time by those who were looking. Nigel Godrich (producer for Radiohead’s OK Computer) was at the helm for this one, and it shows. The production is slick without being shiny. It lets the raw, live playing by an actual band shine through. Beck’s songwriting betrays a maturity that really hadn’t been experienced by his record buying public yet. We had only really seen the apparently 12 year old boy who had a voice like an old blues man singing lyrics like “Temperature’s dropping at the rotten oasis, Stealing kisses from the leprous faces”.

Although it did have variations, Mutations generally showed a more serious side to Beck, that he was capable of songwriting that went beyond the surrealistic scatter gun and crunchy beats approach he had won his fame through. He was to use this to great effect on future albums.

In the spirit of confounding both listeners and critics, Beck’s next album, Midnite Vultures, was a difficult one. On the surface, he seemed to have attended an orgy, liked it, and written an entire album about how he was now a very grown up man. Underneath was a well produced funk/soul album, an homage to R&B (complete with brass section), and a party album. Sexx Laws did well, and Nicotine & Gravy got some airplay. He was still high from Odelay and this surely gave him a bump, but Midnite Vultures really took a while to grab you. It certainly did for me. Over the years though, it has become a staple in my Beck listening pile. Also, it does tend to rock a party fairly well.

Nigel Godrich was back in the production seat for Beck’s second ‘adult’ album in 2002, Sea Change. A much more sombre affair, this album was written and recorded in the wake of Beck’s divorce. It focused on a more straight-ahead folk-rock style and showed little to nothing of the party boy Midnite Vultures had given us a glimpse of. The songwriting, arrangement and production came together to showcase a simple but effective style that glued the whole album together into a focused whole, but Beck certainly wasn’t hiding his sorrow with titles like Lonesome Tears, Guess I’m Doing Fine, Already Dead and Lost Cause. Though, through the doldrums, the songs shine through and it’s hard not to roll a tear with him as he fights his loss on this album. Unlike Mutations, however, people were ready for this one, and it received serious critical acclaim, including another Grammy nomination. I caught Beck on this tour in Sydney, and he used the Flaming Lips as his backing band on this fantastic album.

Guero was next cab off the rank, and true to his schizophrenic nature, Beck was back to his party-bumping ways, and also back with the Dust Brothers. The single E-Pro, along with Hell Yes and Black Tambourine provided the lift for this album and it was certainly great, but for me, lacked a little something. Maybe Sea Change had affected the process and a little bit of sombre had slipped into the party somehow, because it lacked a certain something. Releasing a whole new version of the album, Guerolito, remixed by others, didn’t really help the issue either.

I’m going to go ahead and say that Beck’s next two albums were a bit of a no-show. The Information and Modern Guilt felt like treading water in an arty way. John Cage in floaties? He did all the right things with the artwork, the promo videos, the remixes, the collaborations. It just felt like not all that much attention was paid to the actual songwriting. He’s never been an artist who could rest on his laurels, and both albums felt like he paid a little for trying to do so – or he was trying to be too subtle. Either way, I feel they didn’t really pay off for him, though Modern Guilt got a Grammy nomination, so what do I know? Gamma Ray off Modern Guilt wasn’t too bad and The Information’s Cellphone’s Dead had a certain charm but neither could raise the albums from the mire. I was actually beginning to think that Beck may have run his course and we’d find him in an LA meth den with Devendra Banhart and James Franco in a couple of years time.

Then he tried something different again. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t in direct relation to music piracy, but he certainly dealt it a mighty blow with his next album, 2014’s Song Reader. This album was only ever released officially as written sheet music, encouraging fans to play it themselves. Beck played the album live a few times with some guests, but the majority of versions I have heard have been fans reading the music and doing their own interpretations of the songs. An ingenious idea really.

And so we come to 2015. Beck has been producing quality music for over twenty years and I’ve been listening for almost that long. It’s nice to not only see an artist grow over time, but to see them grow strong and come out with an album like Morning Phase – hmmmm, warms the cockles I tell thee.

Morning Phase is the third album of song-oriented acoustic tracks (after Mutations and Sea Change) and although Nigel Godrich isn’t in the picture (Beck produced it himself), it retains the quality of the other two. Beck’s songwriting has never been stronger, the folk/country vibe is back in strength, and tracks like Heart Is A Drum, Blackbird Chain, Say Goodbye, Wave really lift him above most songwriters on the charts today. I was really pleased that the Best Album Grammy went to him. It felt like a friend had been recognised after years of hard work.

I know, I should really get some real friends.

Beck is an artist worth delving into for many reasons, not least of which is the ability to watch his talent grow over his career rather than burn brightly and fizzle out prematurely. Take some time to hear the songs behind the trickery on his more party-oriented albums. Be soothed by his sorrow on the slower, countrified albums. But most of all, be happy that we live in a world where Beck can exist as an artist. Let’s hope the next generation, as exemplified by the teens in the following video, can grow up in this same world.

TRACKLIST NOTES

Lazy Flies (Mutations)
On first listen to this album, this is the track that really gave me chills. It seems to be an exercise in trying to fit as many chords into the structure as possible while surrealistic poetry forms the basis of the lyrics. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to this and I have no idea what he’s going on about. “Out in the mangroves the mynah birds cry, in the shadows of sulphur the trawlers drift by, they’re chewing dried meat in a house of disrepute, the dust of opiates and syphilis patients on brochure vacations?” I mean, what the fuck right? But it matters not. It’s upbeat but stately. Confusing but comforting. Do I really need to know what it’s about to enjoy it? No. The chord structure allows for several surprises throughout. I-IV-V this is not. Its twists and turns reward repeated listening.

Blackbird Chain (Morning Phase)
At first glance at these lyrics, you could be forgiven for thinking that Beck had suddenly decided to construct a song with a followable lyrical structure, but dammit if he doesn’t throw that away in the second verse. I had to look up the word “exegesis” and I still don’t get it in the context of these lyrics. I am more than happy to assume that the song means something very deep to him and I’m just not quick enough to get it. The track starts out country-tinged and acoustic guitar driven with lovely splashes of almost surf electric guitar and Beck’s vocal up close and personal. The pre-chorus opens the reverb up a little bit but when the door opens fully on the chorus, you’re bathed in gorgeous, string laden waltz-time sunshine – bright sunlight shining in through stained glass windows in a church where a choir of Becks sing to the faithful, before closing the door again to come back to the closed verse. A stunningly beautiful song.

Nicotine & Gravy (Midnite Vultures)
A song of devotion to some crazy girl – the object of Beck’s attention. The Dust Brothers pick up the slow burn hip hop feel with a whole lot of soul while Beck croons his mush mouthed love note. Horns, pianos and drums are gummed up in the mix to give it an old school 70s cop show feeling while spinning samples cover the stereo field without detracting from the focus. The chorus is really pushed forward by a fantastic, rhythmically piano note creating tension. Groove-laden and soulful, this track really epitomises Midnite Vultures in a way that the more upbeat tracks don’t. The album isn’t the life of the party, it’s the sleazy guy with indoor sunglasses you didn’t invite talking to the skanks in the dark corner.

Tropicalia (Mutations)
This is a slight departure from the rest of the Mutations album. Its soft Brazilian lounge music style provides a background for what seems to be a description of decay in a tropical setting. I have always pictured a Hunter S. Thompson-style ex-pat holed up in a country with dubious extradition laws having stayed too long and gone native. “Misery waits in vague hotels, To be evicted.”

Satan Gave Me A Taco (Stereopathic Soulmanure / Golden Leftovers)
A three-chord straight up folk tune that literally details the difficulties Beck had when (you guessed it), Satan gave him a taco. No more, no less. It’s a decent indication of where Beck was coming from pre-Loser. The Golden Leftovers version is a lowest-of-lo-fi stage recording of just him and the guitar, but the studio version builds instrumentation and background vocals as the song progresses. The song finishes as Beck brings the taco story to a circular conclusion, starting his own taco stand.

Where It’s At (Odelay)
As the sound of a needle dropping on vinyl gives way to a Hammond organ slinking its way toward a sampled groove that won’t quit, Where It’s At never, ever takes its sunglasses off indoors. It remains self-consciously funky for the entirety of its five and a half minutes. This is a pure party track for when you absolutely, positively need to get everyone in the house on the floor. Whereas other tracks on Odelay sit up and beg for your attention a little, Where It’s At waits for you to come to it, but throws a non-existent lasso from the dance floor to pull you in with each well-crafted loop. Give in and slip, hips-first, onto the floor.

Black Tambourine (Guero)
Another groove-based number, but this time with a darker edge. As advertised, Beck’s tambourine is still shaking, but something in the lyrics gives us pause. “Black hearts in effigy, We sing a song that was hated, All dressed in rag and bones, Sharks smell the blood that I’m bleeding.” It sets up a shuffling, jittering groove that goes nowhere until it suddenly peters out at the end of the track, as if having forgotten where they are.

Little One (Sea Change)
Another track that uses the closed verse/open chorus idea (See Blackbird Chain). The dark, acoustic guitar driven verse is underpinned by barely heard, descending instruments and far off scraping sounds that give it a menacing air until the chorus kicks in with the full band, extended reverbs and background vocals. This track also includes the menacing lyric “In the sea change, nothing is safe” – a foreboding look into his psyche at the time. Dark, but beautifully moving.

Beercan (Mellow Gold)
Another weirdo groover from his first solid album, Mellow Gold. Beck lets rip with a reversed keyboard loop under his crazed lyrics, whilst accompanying himself as a Camille-style backing singer. The groove is broken up by a bridge comprising sampled kids describing clouds, rainbows and “a soft and snuggly place” and concluding that they are “sad, and unhappy”. Given his nu-psychedelic image at the time, this track fits entirely with the album’s vibe.

One Foot In The Grave (Stereophonic Soulmanure)
This is straight up, one man, refrain-driven, full-tilt boogie blues. A super lo-fi live recording, just Beck with a stomping foot and harmonica, stinking up the joint with a story of stress, dead hobos, Satan dressed like a snake and mayonnaise. Completely daft and a lot of fun.

Beck official website

Beck Discography

Beck interviewed by Thurston Moore (1994)

Beck biography (iTunes)

Matt Roberts is a musician, audio engineer and graphic artist from Sydney, Australia with a blinding love of all things sound. His tastes are catholic, ranging from Esperanza Spalding to Slayer and everywhere in between. He writes angular pop and rock, crafts and remixes many varieties of electronic music, and fronts a Frank Zappa tribute act called Petulant Frenzy. More about Matt here and catch up with Petulant Frenzy here.

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7 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    May 8, 2015

    Thanks, I haven’t explored Beck deeply enough. This will inspire me. Song Reader … I didn’t quite get that. I have the 2014 CD, which postdated the original project. Beck does Heaven’s Ladder himself, but among the other 19 are Jack White, Laura Marling, Norah Jones, Swamp Dogg, Jarvis Cocker all doing their interpretations. It was put together by Beck.

    • Matt Roberts
      May 8, 2015

      Thanks Peter, one can only ask that you do give him a go. He’s far deeper than most give him credit for!

  2. Rick Leach
    May 8, 2015

    Matt – a really great piece, many thanks! I have a bit of Beck but not enough I think. This has really piqued my interest to dig out the music I have got & listen once again as well as go deeper & further. With you re Morning Phase as well; I think that it’s an album that became overlooked through last year and in time will be seen as an absolute classic. Beck always strikes me as one of those artists that you always want to know what he’s up to next; you may not always love what he comes up with yet it’s invariably interesting!

  3. Jerry Tenenbaum
    May 8, 2015

    I’ve been with Beck from ‘Loser’. He is an artist in the true sense, creating and honing and delving and investigating and digging and refashioning and doing all the things which make him a special gift. Like Dylan, one never knows what one will get but whatever one gets, it’s good and it’s interesting. Thanks for a great review. Beck can be elated and Beck can be sad. It’s all good!

  4. Keith Shackleton
    May 8, 2015

    That’s a very fine list, Matt. Midnite Vultures, as you say, took a while to click, but it now is the Beck album at the very top of the pile for me, and the only one that gets played on a regular basis.

  5. Stephen Lawrence
    May 8, 2015

    Nice piece Matt, good to see Beck’s masterpiece “Mutations” get the credit it deserves.

  6. Matt Roberts
    Jun 29, 2015

    Thanks for the kind words guys! Much appreciated. I loved writing this one, and I hope my love of his work comes through in reading it.

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