Classic Album Revisited: Beck – Odelay, 20 years on

Classic Album Revisited: Beck - Odelay, 20 years on 1

As if you need any reminders that you are getting older, try getting your head around this one, Beck’s blockbuster album Odelay turns 20 this month. It feels like just yesterday that this quirky but ever so addictive installment in Beck’s worthy discography was released. Let us review Beck’s career predicament at the time. He had finally arrived on the popular music scene after a long tedious apprenticeship in the backwaters and dives of the music business; finally finding success with 1993’s Mellow Gold. The unforgettable hit Loser gave Beck some well deserved love from the music community. That song was an addictive and definitive zeitgeist track that was the gateway to his splendid album.

However Beck had grown increasingly frustrated with the fact that many only listened to “Loser” and got no farther into the album than that one selection. The record industry was all too ready to hang the one hit wonder title around Beck neck and walk away. Unbeknown to the music industry Beck was only starting on his now legendary career. “Odelay” was Beck signaling he was more than a one trick pony and that he had plenty of ingenious and original creations up his sleeve.

The initial music created in the sessions for “Odelay” was completely different from what would eventually result on the release. The original songs were somber acoustic affairs that reflected the personal tragedies Beck had recently experienced, with the passing of his Grandfather Al Hansen being the most significant. The song Ramshackle was the only song to survive from those sessions, with “Feather In Your Cap” and “Brother” being released in a later reissue version of “Odelay” years later. Beck also halted working with producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf and began working with The Dust Brothers.

Beck - Odelay

The Dust Brothers were and are a famous production team who were hip hop focused and had a resume in that period that included working with; The Beastie Boys, Tone Loc and Young MC. The introduction of The Dust Brothers into the production booth caused Beck to scrap the melancholy works already on tape and move towards creating intentionally disposable pop songs. In many ways it was Beck pulling a “George Costanza” doing the opposite of what he thought he should do. Quickly Beck and The Dust Brothers experienced a mind meld of sorts and like kids in a candy shop took advantage of Beck’s ability to be the “MacGyver” of post modern absurdist music. His audacious musical collage making skills when added to his adept quicksilver ad lib abilities made for a fun and accessible album. Odelay held appeal with the music listening public because although it was elaborately styled with complicated edits and samples; it felt organic and off the cuff. Beck also benefited from the record company having extremely low expectations for the album.

The situation was witnessed by The Dust Brothers who have stated that there was no pressure to finish the release and that they were left alone by the record company. This freedom allowed the release to develop and Beck with the Dust Brothers to follow their own dictates. Beck has often described their studio approach as “What can we do to this song to make it more fucked up.” He would spend a year and a half cutting, pasting, layering, dubbing and sampling to reach his final product.

There are two elements to “Odelay” that reflect the times it was recorded within. The album rode the peak wave of the sampling trend with 28 different samples that were culled from numerous genres; Schubert, Grand Funk Railroad, Sly Stone, Lee Dorsey, Rare Earth and Edgar Winter are just some of the credited samples. In addition there were a significant number of contributors: Beck of course played everything you can think of and in addition; Joey Woronker, Mike Millius, Mike Boilo, David Brown, Greg Leisz, Charlie Haden and Ross Harris all made worthy and significant contributions. The utilization of sampling and the various musicians and contributors made for an approachable recording loaded with infectious ebullience. It showcased Beck in all his smart-ass glory as he shamelessly genre bent throughout the record.

Although the label placed no pressure on Beck in studio, when the album was delivered to the label Beck was haunted by the feedback. His greatest nightmare was realized when a record executive said,” Odelay was a large mistake for Beck’s career.” Beck spent months thinking he had blown his music career forever. Thankfully the record executive was wrong. The album was embraced by radio and fans. It reached #16 on Billboard in the US and become the first hit album for Beck in the UK reaching #17. There were five singles released; Where it’s At, Devil’s Haircut, The New Pollution, Sissyneck and Jackass. “Odelay” was nominated for Grammy’s Album of the Year in 1997, and won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album; additionally Beck won the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for Where it’s At. The success of “Odelay” put to rest the opinions of many in the industry that Beck was a lightweight novelty cult act.

On “Odelay” Beck jumps immediately into the deep end with Devil’s Haircut which was written in a day. It is a perfect display of defying logic; where things went perfectly together even though they should not. The cranking gritty guitar and the familiar beat meld for a grand accompaniment to this surreal walk through the Post Modern end of the century. The song should have come with a warning because it lodged itself in your brain and you could not get it out. It displayed the brilliance of Beck’s off the cuff quicksilver brain. This song will always reside within the pantheon of spectacular Beck tracks.

In contrast Hotwax took six months to create. Here the genres switch quickly careening from folky blues to psychedelic and then into hip hop. That neck snapping switch up should be unsettling but this is Beck we are talking about and he ends up producing another winning track. The lyrics are stream of conscious but unforgettable with my favorite still being, “silver foxes looking for romance in the chain smoke Kansas flash dance ass pants.” … and epic catchphrase “the enchanted wizard of rhythm”. The song is a bridge from Mellow Gold into “Odelay”.

Lord Only Knows provided even more catchphrases as the protagonist of the song laments the inevitable craziness of the world. Here Beck fully utilizes a world weary blues and gospel undertone to emphasize his gleeful abandoning of all hope in making sense of the nonsensical. The song is jam packed with ironic truths that became instantly quotable.

The album shape-shifts again with The New Pollution and it’s off kilter marriage of Brit wave 60’s pop and Day-Glo irony. The surface of this song is squeaky clean and innocent but lyrically is actually quite disturbing. Punctuated drums, Hammond organs and the distorted drum loop act as a time machine taking us back decades in sound. It is a whip crack crisp pop song. Where The New Pollution is an irony laden pop confection of sorts, Derelict delivers something completely different. Once again Beck messes with conventions blending an Asiatic feel with psychedelic and produces a feeling of madness with world beat percussion. The song attempts to portray a beggar/derelict exploding into a word salad of thoughts with no edit. “Novacane” delivers a hard edged ballsy hip hop attack. The bassline sets the platform for a song that explodes into a hip hop/P funk fest. The title of the song is apt as it conveys the deadened feel of the analgesic drug. This song sounds simply spectacular coming out of the speakers as Beck creates another unique collage that would become his trademark.

After the heavy Novacane, Jackass has an almost dainty dreamy feel. It is the most balladlike track of the release. The accompaniment does not overpower the lyrics. There is a feeling of detached ennui throughout as if in a daydream of sorts where you can’t move off the couch. Take note as Beck applies the dictate that each song need to be messed up. The braying donkey at the end added just the right amount of derangement to the song; along with the outré of Mexicali influenced folk in the jam out finale.

Where It’s At was another intentional bridge from Loser. It truly is the song to point to when explaining the genius of Beck. There are so many catchphrases including the epic, “Two turn tables and a microphone” that have stood the test of time are still being used 20 years later. The amazing thing about the song is that there is a little something here for everyone; even a total square could totally buy into the vibe Beck was laying down. On the track Beck takes us for another trip through the bizarre yet none of it seems strange. The real brilliance is Beck weaving the disparate sections of the song into one unified massive track with throbbing bass and Hammond organ bring the selection home.

Minus Is another nonsense poem that becomes something wondrous in Beck’s capable hands. Here a post punk garage band feel pervades. The track utilizes insistent drums and LoFi crunch production to perform its dirty work. The selection bounces along and then there is that slo mo tempo shapeshift before it returns to a hellbend beat. The track is like a bad LSD trip, with Beck yelling the word “frogs” at the end as the song grinds to its cacophonic end.

Sissyneck is a spectacular blending of funk, R&B and country rock providing one hell of a groove. Presented is another hard luck Joe trying to make rational the irrational. The chorus is priceless, “I got a stolen wife and a rhinestone life and some good ol’ boys. I’m writing my will on a three dollar bill in the evening time.” The pictures painted with the lyrics are at once classic and disturbing as we meet various dodgy characters. The Hammond organ and stuttering drums deliver a locomotive feel to the accompaniment.

Readymade is a wonky track with the marriage of Mexicali influence with techno. It portrays a fly blown traveler as he passes through life. Illuminating the track are lyrics like, “and my bags are waiting for the next life”, as if Beck is saying I’ll be waiting for the karmic paybacks for the wrongs done in this life. The electronic effects of the track punctuate the intentionally tawdry feel of the song.

High 5 (Rock the Catskills) is an ebullient rocking hip hop song, in which the Dust Brothers were channeling their Beastie Boy experiences through Beck. The mind meld between producers and artist are at their most obvious on this track. It is a blast of a song that is totally shambolic and should not work but is a great piece of music.

The final listed song on the original release is Ramshackle which was the only song to survive the original recording sessions. It draws the album to a close with a beautiful folk feel. It also gives hints to the beauty that will surface on later releases, Sea Change and Morning Phase.It is a poetic melancholy rambling illuminated by sage advice and insight, calling to mind the works of Woody Guthrie. The song is made more poignant by the not quite on key loose string acoustic guitar. The song ends at the 2:45 mark and runs silent until the hidden 45 second wonky tech track with a repeating robotic vocal. Again a straight forward song is meddled with in order to meet the requirements of being messed around.

With Odelay Beck was able to slay the doubts many had about his prospects for longevity in popular music. Many musical experts at the time made the mistake of assuming because Beck makes what he does look so easy and does it with a happy go luck journeyman’s approach that he was not trying or working very hard. Those people could not have been more wrong. Beck’s output looks effortless because he is that gifted. The brilliance of Odelay is Beck’s almost supernatural ability to weave immense texture and genre shapeshifting together on the release and come out with so many beloved hits. Beck would move on from “Odelay” continuing to follow the twists and turns of his own unique musical inklings. He secured his career with “Odelay” making sure his future ventures would get the notice they deserve. If you want to introduce the younger generation to an ambitious musical adventure “Odelay” is an excellent way to start.

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