Play That Funky Music
When an artist emerges with an unexpectedly powerful and ground-breaking
first CD, it is hard not to expect the follow-up release to be nothing
more than anti-climactic. And, when an eccentric indie artist manages
successfully to cross the line into mainstream pop with at least one
billboard hit record, it is hard not to wonder whether the lure of pop
fandom, as well as the millions that accompany it, will drag the musical
heroic recluse into -- god forbid -- the shallow and superficial world of
Neither fear was actualized in the case of Beck, in his stunning follow-up
CD release to his debut Mellow Gold . Although much of
Odelay is remnicient of his first Geffen CD, with his second
major-label effort Beck continued to break new ground in music through
creative use of voice, microphone, sampling, and almost superhuman genre
versatility. In the middle of the 1990s, when so much music is the exact
same, Beck provides a breath of outlandishly free-spirited, funky fresh
In order to satiate his voracious appetite for variety, infusing nearly
every music genre possible -- classical, jazz, blues, soul, funk, Latin,
African, country, rap, hip hop, folk, noise, lounge, psychedelic, and punk
-- Beck collaborated with two of the most innovative producers in the
market today, the Dust Brothers, a.k.a. Mike Simpson and John King, along
with Mario Caldato, Jr.. This same crew was responsible for producing the
groundbreaking Beastie Boys CD, Paul's Boutique , which set a new
standard in sampling, hip-hop, funk and punk, and which also marked a
change of tide for the Beastie Boys, from a pop-rock- to a punk-driven
Similarly, Odelay is an elaborate and confident achievement that
marks Beck Hansen's impressive progression from his work on Mellow
Gold , which was almost haphazardly assembled on a four-track at a
friend's house. If anyone harbored ideas that this performer had anything
in common with the 'King of the Generation-X Slackers' reputation that his
hit single 'Loser' built for him, Odelay squelches the question for
once and all. Odelay is planned down to the smallest single beat
and softest sound. Fortunately, when Beck and the Dust Brothers plan
together, they create nothing less than magic.
Each song in Odelay has enough disparate elements to warrant a review in
itself. Beck comes off in the studio as the ultimate kid in a candy store
-- wanting to taste a sample of it all -- refusing to decide on one type
over another. He creates a bag of ear-food that is colorful, exciting and
unpredictable, yet surprisingly synergistic and completely complimentary.
For example, the CD's opener, 'Devil's Haircut' starts with a strong
guitar line, adds funky psychedelic mixes and powerful hip-hop drum beats,
and ends with synthed vocals: 'Love machines on the sympathy
crutches/Discount orgies on the dropout buses/Hitching a ride with the
bleeding noses/Coming to town with the brief case blues.'
Beck's style runs from rapper-meets-square-dance-caller in 'Hotwax'; to an
almost-angstlike scream fading into a country-blues-folk-Dillanesque
ballad in 'Lord Only Knows', with lyrics to match it's easy-going rhythm
('Goin' back to Houston/Do the hotdog dance/Going back to Houston/To get
me some pants ...'). I think I could listen to this song a hundred times
in a row and not tire of it. Actually, that could be said of every song
on this marvelous CD.
'Alone in the New Pollution' is another gem. Beginning with a
cutsey-puppet-show children's music sample, it transitions to a
late-Beatles-sounding rock ballad, accompanied by cheesy organ and smooth
saxophone, remnicient of Stan Getz, apparently one of Beck's favorite jazz
influences. 'Novacane,' on the other hand, sounds like the Beastie Boys
and Paul's Boutique more than any other song on the album.
'Novacane' showcases Beck's new skills in rap and mixing, and maintains a
level of energy that is frenetic, wild, and anxious: 'Test-tube,
still-born and dazed/ Chump scum plays in the razor's haze/ Got the
momentum radioactive/ Lowdown!'
The best songs on the CD are arguably the first single (and accompanying
music video) 'Where It's At, (I've Got Two Turntables and a Microphone),'
and 'High 5: Rock the Catskills.' In 'Where It's At,' Beck celebrates,
'There's a destination a little up the road
From the habitation and the towns we know
A place we saw the lights turn low
The jig-saw jazz and the get-fresh flow
Pulling out jives and jamboree handouts
Two turntables and a microphone
Bottles and cans just clap your hands
just clap your hands
Where it's at!
I got two turntables and a microphone ...
I got plastic on my mind ... '
Every time I listen to this song -- and I must have listened to it 100
times over the last week -- I want to dance. And this is Beck I am
listening to. 'Where It's At' is outright groovy -- a fabulous
choice for Odelay's ultra-fly first single.
In 'High 5,' another high-energy anthem, infused with both classical
tracks and synthesized fusion, Beck exhorts, as
Rocky mountain low we gotta go Put that gadget in the random mode Cripple
candy rocking the candy Rhumba, brickshot, doing the foxtrot
(Turn that shit off, man! What's wrong with you? Man, get the other
High 5! More dead than alive! Rocking the plastic like a man from the
And, to wind up the party, Beck commands, by means of a sample from early
'80s rap, a theoretical audience to 'Do like designer jeans. Everybody,
designer jeans! say, say, say, say, say: Ooh, la la, sasoon! ... Say
'High 5' is ironic, eccentric, hyped, and more than a little subversive.
Odelay balances its enthusiastic hip hop tunes with several mellow lyrical
songs, such as the haunting 'Derelict,' easy-going 'Jack-Ass,'
country-funk 'Sissyneck,' and the gentle, absolutely beautiful acoustic
ballad, 'Ramshackle,' which was the sole tune co-produced by Beck with
Tom Rothrock and Schnapf, who were responsible for co-producing with Beck
all of Mellow Gold . Even these slower, melodic tunes, however,
come with interspersed with mixed and sampled unidentifiable sounds and
noises like dogs barking, humans speaking, phones ringing, records
scratching, blender-processed voices crooning, bellowing, or screaming,
and microphone feedback screeching.
There simply is no boring ten seconds on all of Odelay . It is a
virtual music-deconstructer's shangri-la. Yet, it all melds together so
What's best about Odelay is how well Beck succeeds in paying
genuine tribute to the roots of so much current music -- old-school funk,
soul and rap; 1950's jazz; Latin, classical and country. Yet he does this
with style, pizzazz, and sense of humor, and adds his own twist to the
best of the terrain that was built by the masters of the past. Beck
appears to have no regard for what is in 'fashion,' and instead seeks out
what is novel, interesting, and just plain 'good.' In this way, Beck is
one of the few true pioneers making music today.
Ultimately, Beck presents a new challenge to musicians today -- to
experiment with rhythm, voice, and in particular genre. Instead of
joining in the ranks of the stagnant funk to which so much of the recent
music scene has fallen victim, Beck serves up an old idea with a 90's
Beck does indeed know 'Where It's At.' Let's hope that other artists are
creative -- and brave -- enough to follow him there.