Beck rose to national prominence with “Loser” when its slacker refrain “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me” became a runaway hit with "alternative" hipsters and music critics. An acoustic folk song, "Loser" uniquely adds hip hop beats and what I believe is a sampled sitar, resulting in an instant classic that had many whispering "one-hit wonder." Fortunately, Beck turned out to be anything but a slacker or a one-hit wonder, and Mellow Gold has many more surprises in store. For example, "Pay No Mind (Snoozer)" continues with clever lyrics (“give the finger to the rock n’ roll singer as he’s dancing upon your paycheck") and a cool downcast melody that's topped off by a Dylan-esque harmonica solo (unsurprisingly, what with Bob being a major influence and all). "Fuckin’ With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)" then breaks out electric guitars for a busy, bustling groove on which I also like the layered guitar lines and vocal melodies, while "Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997" returns Beck to acoustic guitar territory for an effectively somber, moody song. Things then take a turn for the worse - "Soul Suckin' Jerk" is a groovy, singable rap song, but it's also deliberately noisy and irritating at times, and "Sweet Sunshine" likewise has groovy hip hop beats but is needlessly let down by its obnoxious electro-vocals. In between, “Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)” is an amusing tune about white trash that features nicely contrasting high/low vocals. "Beercan" is definitely an album highlight, being a rare sprightly effort on what is a surprisingly somber album; in fact, it sounds like it belongs more on his more upbeat, party-flavored follow up, Odelay, than it does here. “Steal My Body Home,” another moody, morose Middle Eastern flavored ballad, is more typical, though this one just kinda comes and goes despite being the album’s longest proper song (the kazoo is a cute touch though). Oddly enough, "Nitemare Hippy Girl" recalls The Kinks, and not in a bad way at all, while "Blackhole" delivers an appropriately atmospheric, mostly excellent ending to the album. Of course, the song's unnecessary extended ending exemplifies Beck's lack of discipline, and "Mutherfucker" also frustratingly defines the term "filler" and can be skipped entirely. So there you have it, a rather rambling account of the songs on Mellow Gold, an album that I used to think was incredibly overrated. I still think it's inconsistent, as Beck is at times too eclectic for his own good and his low-fi, everything but the kitchen sink approach is too often amateurish. However, I've grown to appreciate the album's downcast, druggy mood, as well as its catchy songs, which take some time to appreciate. I wish that Beck would cut down on his four letter words (which are troubling only in their desperation to shock) and distorted vocals, because I feel that he's most effective when he keep things low-key and simple. But being unfocused is a very correctable problem for a talented young artist, and Mellow Gold flashes plenty of promise amid a few erratic entries too many.
Odelay (Geffen ‘96) Rating: A
A more consistent step up in class, Odelay was widely considered 1996's best record. And it is a neat and often terrific little record (even the album cover is cute), even if it’s not quite the perfect masterpiece that delirious pundits declared it to be in their zestful search for the “next big thing.” Again wildly experimenting but generally (but not quite always) leaving the failed experiments in the wastebasket, Beck is assisted by the stellar production team of the Dust Brothers (of Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique renown) in mixing various musical genres together into an oddly engaging whole. The bolder, less lo-fi production helps immensely, as does their wide ranging plundering of samples from a multitude of sources, but equally important is Beck’s improved singing and songwriting. Also, rather than annoyingly getting in the way, the well-placed sound effects here embellish rather than detract from a song’s core, while the cheap, trashy thrift shop instrumentation gives this most contemporary album a timeless feel that ensures that it will age gracefully. Beck is comfortable with country, blues, cocktail jazz, r&b, hip-hop, electronica, film noir, rock 'n' roll (a shortcoming on Mellow Gold), and, of course, folk music, and he blends these disparate styles into catchy, upbeat, and danceable hybrids that are no less enjoyable because of their complexity. In fact, Beck makes it all seem easy, and his ever-ironic wordplay revels in pop culture references while revealing precious little about himself. Of course, he's not obligated to reveal anything, and Beck's sense of humor suggests that at least he doesn’t take himself too seriously, for above all this eclectic album is a heck of a lot of fun. Highlights on this classic album include “Devil’s Haircut,” “Hotwax,” “Lord Only Knows,” “Novacane,” “Jack-Ass,” “Sissyneck,” “The New Pollution,” and “Where It’s At” (the final two being the familiar hit singles), all of which are distinctly different yet undeniably Beck.
Mutations (Geffen ’98) Rating: A-
This is the album that Geffen went through great pains to proclaim “not the true follow-up to Odelay,” making me wonder if perhaps they were ashamed of their "product." They needn’t have been, and more likely they were simply trying to downplay grandiose expectations for what is a fairly modest record. Though not as wildly original, "cool," or creative as Odelay, Mutations was simply a very good album. Though this hastily assembled album has more in common with Beck’s earlier indie release One Foot In The Grave than any of his other Geffen outings to date, it’s hardly a patched together affair, as producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Pavement) provides the album with a polished, professional sounding sheen. Basically, Beck tones down the production tricks and instead concentrates on strong songwriting, with songs that share a similarly laid back sound, in direct contrast to Odelay which was all over the place. The lushly melodic "Cold Brains" gets the album off to a fine start, and "Nobody's Fault But My Own," a brilliantly self-reflective and moody Middle Eastern-tinged effort (Beck + sitar = excellent), is an obvious highlight on which Beck's lyrics turn stunningly personal. Arguably Beck's best song to date, I find its lyrical directness to be a refreshing departure from his usual clever but often nonsensical wordplay. Anyway, Beck then brings more energy to the excellent "Lazy Flies," a rare upbeat endeavor whose "la la la" vocals illustrate its singable nature, while "Canceled Check" effectively tosses together piano, harmonica, pedal steel guitar, brass instruments, and assorted sound effects. "We Live Again" and "Dead Melodies" are especially evocative standouts (I'm a real sucker for a prettily played harpsichord), and "Tropicalia," another clear high point, can best be described as Beck's supremely modernistic yet surprisingly successful take on Brazilian music. Though I wouldn't place any of them among the album's strongest songs, the loping melody and singable chorus of "Bottle Of Blues" is also enjoyable, "O Maria" is a moody, tuneful, horn-filled piano ballad on which Beck duets with himself, and "Sing It Again" is a lonesome late night folk song that has really grown on me. Finally, "Static" brings the curtain down in (surprise, surprise) low-key fashion - or does it? - not quite, for "Diamond Bollocks," a surprise unlisted track, then pops up and lurches about like a long lost Odelay track. Perhaps the song was Beck's apology to fans of that record, but no apology was necessary, for though it starts stronger than it ends and can be a bit one-note and boring at times, the consistent quality of Mutations went a long way towards silencing the critics who had complained that Beck was all style, no substance.
Midnight Vultures (Geffen ’99) Rating: B+
This is one of those strange records that was very well received at first but is in retrospect now lightly regarded by many. As surprising as Mutations was to many, it did nothing to prepare anyone for Midnight Vultures, which I'm surprised the suits at Geffen didn't promote as "still not the true follow-up to Odelay." Beck himself declared that he was simply trying to “create a fun party record to have sex to that would be fun to play on tour," and though my idea of a sex album would be Al Green, Marvin Gaye, or Sade, this most definitely is a fun party record. Turns out the skinny white kid is pretty funky after all, as Prince and cheesy ‘70s disco and soft soul have displaced Bob Dylan and hip-hop as his primary inspirations. The ultra-modern production tricks are again out in full force, but a hot live groove also carries most of these songs, and Beck hits high notes I didn’t think he was capable of. For example, check out his striking falsettos on “Peaches and Cream” and “Debra,” the two most Prince-ly tracks and probably my favorite songs here along with "Sexx Laws," the get this party started album opener. There are several other cool songs as well, and often it's a surprisingly neat little vocal line that lifts a song, such as the catchy female "I don't wanna die tonight" line on "Nicotine and Gravy," Beck exhorting us to "turn it up now - ooh ooh ooh" on "Mixed Bizness," the hooky female raps and singable harmonized soul chorus on "Get Real Paid," and the Cameo-like raps and Beasties-styled shout outs on "Hollywood Freaks." Elsewhere, “Beautiful Way” provides a lovely change of pace, and I already mentioned “Debra,” but the second side in general offers fewer aural pleasures, while the lyrics again often lapse into sheer silliness. Granted, the lyrics are often amusing and they fit the overall tone of the album, but they're also the main reason those "style over substance" charges are more likely to stick when discussing Midnight Vultures. Truth is, I really need to be in the mood to fully enjoy listening to the disposable disco pop on display here. However, this was a creative update of styles not often considered “significant,” which was a bold step to take for an artist who could’ve easily pumped out Odelay II like everybody (i.e. his record company) wanted him to. Besides, when the proper mood does strike me I find this album to be irresistibly trashy fun, just like Beck intended it to be.
Sea Change (Geffen '02) Rating: A-
After the Prince inspired Midnight Vultures brought Beck considerable criticism for the first time in his career, he retrenched, perhaps sensing that people were growing tired of his ironic postmodern takes on pop culture. When his girlfriend of almost a decade dumped him, Beck decided to ditch the ironic detachment and open up his heart. The resulting album, Sea Change, connects with an emotional directness that Beck has rarely attempted before. Armed again with Mutations producer Nigel Godrich, who ensures that the guitars on even the lesser tracks here have an attractively glistening gleam, Beck delivers a beautiful downer of an album. The album begins strongly with “The Golden Age,” which contains country guitars and lines like “I don’t even try, these days I barely get by.” “Paper Tiger” is one of several string heavy tracks that also features an unexpected guitar solo, and it is little surprises like said guitar solo that ultimately makes this album more than it seems upon first listen. The sad country guitars and haunted lyrics return on “Guess I’m Doing Fine” (he doesn’t sound too convincing), one of the album’s clear high points along with “Lonesome Tears,” on which strings swell dramatically. Continuing, the gorgeous “Lost Cause” (probably the album’s best-known and arguably best song along with “Guess I’m Doing Fine”) sees Beck in a dismissive mood, the clavinet on “End Of The Day” is one of those surprises I just mentioned, and an emotionally fragile Beck looks back on the bittersweet “It’s All In Your Mind.” However, as inevitably occurs when relationships break down, bittersweet turns to bitter on “Already Dead.” These songs’ stripped down folk melodies fit the album’s overall mood, but “Sunday Sun” and “Little One” pack a little more of a sonic punch; at least parts of them do, and these songs also stand out because they’re rare songs on which Beck’s world-weary voice rises above a whisper. They don’t break up the album’s atmospheric overall mood, however, and neither does less memorable songs such as “Round The Bend,” which coasts on atmosphere alone, and “Side Of The Road,” which ends the album on a nondescript note. Much like the Flaming Lips did on The Soft Bulletin (the comparison seems especially apt given that they're touring together), Beck has sacrificed some innovation and excitement for a gorgeously somber mood and a genuine honesty. It’s a tradeoff that was probably necessary for Beck to make to continue evolving as an artist, and though I enjoy Beck’s less serious side as well, by and large his bold risks here have paid off handsomely. This is an intensely personal album that, like the best work of Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, or Elliott Smith, will surely have staying power. After all, Beck touches on a universal theme here (who hasn’t loved and lost?), and though it’s something of a monotonous “mood album,” Sea Change nevertheless provides a comforting companion for anyone going through tough times.
Guero (Interscope '05) Rating: B
With a new wife and child, Beck was unlikely to repeat the mournful mood of Sea Change, and indeed this is a lighter, brighter creation that reunited Beck with the Dust Brothers production team. Whereas every previous major label album came as a complete surprise, Guero attempts to transverse the variety of styles introduced on previous albums. I guess you could say that an artist who constantly pushed himself in the past has earned the right to coast for once, but this album's lack of innovation and "been there, done that" sense of ennui is slightly disappointing. That said, the songs are mostly good, in particular "E-Pro," an Odelay-like rocker with a catchy "na na na na na na na" chorus, and "Girl," whose airy summer harmonies are among Beck's most hummable to date (interestingly its dark lyrics are at odds with its upbeat music). Yet despite Beck returning to his melting pot of styles, including elements of folk, hip-hop, psychedelia, soul, and garage rock (The White Stripes' Jack White plays fuzzy bass on "Go It Alone," another catchy album highlight), there's nothing really new here. Indeed, this album sees Beck treading water somewhat, as it lacks the cohesiveness of recent efforts and aside from “E-Pro” and “Girl” it also lacks truly classic tracks, though there’s little outright filler either. As for additional highlights, I’d vouch for the trippy, easily singable “Earthquake Weather” and “Rental Car,” a bright, poppy, playful multi-sectioned rocker. The Latin-flavored fluff of "Qué Onda Guero" is fun as well, as is the outright silly “Hell Yes” (featuring actress Christina Ricci on backing vocals), while moodier fare comes in the form of the heavily orchestrated and atmospheric but still groovy (“groovy” being the word that best describes most of these songs) “Missing” and the slow, droney Middle Eastern-flavored ballad "Broken Drum" (which most recalls Sea Change). Other bass-heavy songs such as “Black Tambourine” and “Scarecrow” are simple but effectively funky booty shakers, but some of these songs, particularly on the album’s less memorable second half, tend to blend together for me. The Dust Brothers and Beck add their usual assortment of bells and whistles, thereby ensuring that the album will always be unfavorably compared to Odelay, but Guero lacks the readily identifiable sonic traits that had characterized his previous albums, as perhaps Beck is suffering from an identity crisis, trying to be too many different things to too many people. As such, the album seems scattershot and adds up to less than the sum of its individual parts. Again, most of those individual parts (songs) are enjoyable to listen to while they're playing, but the overall end result lacks the staying power of his previous major label releases.
The Information (Interscope '06) Rating: B+
Expectations are a bitch. Everybody’s favorite Scientologist (slim pickings, to be sure) spent 1994-2002 reinventing himself at every turn, so last year’s return to the style of his most popular creation, Odelay, seemed like a rehash that while good wasn’t nearly as good as the original. Now comes The Information, which Beck started before Guero three years ago but which only now has been finalized, and in all honesty the album’s mishmash of styles again seem overly familiar, as if Beck is merely content to repeat himself now, his trailblazing days long gone. As such, I can see how those looking for something completely new and/or more cutting edge from this former artistic chameleon would be a bit disappointed. However, I’ve been quite enjoying the album, whose spacey white boy folk funk is again enhanced by producer Nigel Godrich, though at 15 songs and over an hour long Beck has unfortunately joined Yo La Tengo, The Mars Volta, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and countless other current artists who seem unable or unwilling to properly edit themselves (this could’ve been a really good 11 or 12 song album). The album gets off to a strong start with “Elevator Music,” whose at-times awkward raps (this is Beck’s most rap-filled album in ages) are more than counterbalanced by its enticing sitar-enhanced chorus, “I Think I’m In Love,” a rare straightforward pop song and a very good one at that, “Cellphone’s Dead,” whose funky yet atmospheric groove is a keeper, as is its cute “one by one I’ll knock you out” female sung hook and overall ambitiousness, and “Strange Apparition,” which effortlessly recalls the Rolling Stones in country soul mode, albeit with dance beats. The singable, highly rhythmic folk funk of “Nausea” was a solid if unexceptional first single, while other catchy tracks include “No Complaints” (I dig its laid-back, loping groove and airy backing harmonies) and “Motorcade” (quotable if nonsensical lyric: “we’re all pushing up the tin can mountaintop”). Elsewhere, “New Round” is pretty and dreamy, "Dark Star" delivers moody trip-hop, and “Movie Theme” has a melancholic Air about it, while much of the rest of the eclectic material is a not atypical hodgepodge of styles, with typical ingredients being Beck’s deadpan singing or rapping (for the record I much prefer it when he sings), bottomed out beats along with a big bass sound, and playful lyrics that are difficult to decipher. The album is definitely a “repeat listens” kind of creation, as sometimes I wish that the hooks were a bit more upfront and obvious, but then again the album has an enjoyably spacey, psychedelic edge not seen so consistently since Mellow Gold, so even when the songwriting isn’t up to snuff Beck, with a major assist from Godrich, usually manages to keep things sounding interesting. That said, sound and texture sometimes take precedence over memorable songs, and the ambitious 10-minute album closer, “The Horrible Fanfare, Landslide, Eskoskeleton,” definitely doesn’t warrant its long running time. Don't get me wrong, the majority of this multi-sectioned opus works very well as it runs the gamut through noir-ish atmospherics, throbbing beats and bass grooves, deceptively catchy vocal hooks, surprising guitar solos, and ambient textures, but the long-winded, annoying spoken word section at the end sees Beck losing his focus (which also brings Mellow Gold back to mind). That same weakness prevents this album from being all that it could've been, though Beck’s crafty songwriting and instrumental ingenuity, when coupled with Godrich’s meticulous sound sculpting, makes for another invigorating set on the whole. As for the unique packaging, in a bid to beat MP3s, or at least entice consumers away from that digital format, The Information includes a blank cover with stickers that listeners can use to create their own cover art. Also included is a DVD of weak homemade videos for each song, so overall the added enticements aren’t all that enticing, so feel free to obtain the album however you see fit.
Modern Guilt (Interscope '08) Rating: A-
Beck's trailblazing days as a mix 'n' match auteur may be over, but that's fine with me if he continues to make albums as enjoyable as Modern Guilt. First of all, at a concise 10 songs clocking in at a mere 34 minutes this album by design corrects the primary problem of The Information; in fact, if anything this album is too short and leaves you wanting more, but better that than the other way around in my opinion. The loud, repetitive "Soul Of A Man" is the only song here that I don't much care for, and the first six or so songs especially are all standouts. The airy, melodic "Orphans" starts things off on a strong note, as per usual with Beck, while the briskly-paced "Gamma Ray" sports cool bass riffs and creeping rhythms, plus it’s enticingly singable and atmospheric too. Next up is the albums best song, "Chemtrails," which features excellent if low-key falsetto vocals and fantastic drumming from Joey Waronker. I often admire Beck's craftsmanship, cleverness, and creativity, but he rarely makes me go "wow that was an awesome song," and that's just what "Chemtrails" does. Come to think about it, I love the drumming throughout this entire record, which is very beat-driven and whose swirling psychedelics often hark back to the '60s. The title track, with its noir-ish atmosphere, toe-tapping beats, and catchy chorus, is another terrific entry, and the danceable "Youthless" is another strong album track, though maybe its snaky grooves and electronic embellishments take a little longer to appreciate. The worst I can say about the memorably melancholic "Walls," with its pots and pans percussion, is that it's too short because I really like it, and though perhaps it's a notch below what preceded it, "Replica" likewise has neat beats and a real ambiance about it, as does this album in general. The propulsive "Profanity Prayers" is also enjoyable if less than essential, but the last minute in particular, when it slows down and gets all psychedelic, with a brief guitar solo and everything, is really good! Finally, "Volcano" closes the album with the only ballad, and it's a pretty good one with a bit of an epic feel, even if it does nothing to change my opinion that this is a frontloaded album. Still, by and large even the lesser songs on side two are pleasant to listen to, as producer Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz fame) likely deserves some of the credit for helping Beck tighten things up and trimming off any excess fat (plus he’s credited with “beats” on most tracks). Perhaps the album seems a bit under-developed at times, and its brevity makes it seem more like a very enjoyable minor effort than an "important" major one, but Modern Guilt is Beck's best album since Sea Change, not coincidentally because there's not a single rap on the whole album. Beck's spiritually questing, cynical lyrics may be a downer, but musically speaking this tuneful album is anything but, as Beck continues to deliver impressive albums long after what is generally regarded as his prime period (Odelay through Sea Change).
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