A tale of three Beck albums (Part 3--"Odelay").

There's no cool narrative transition here. Unlike "Modern Guilt" and "Guero", one of which directly led to the other, the third Beck album that I've been playing a lot lately didn't attract my attention for any reason that had anything to do with the other two. Because, see, I've actually owned this album for about a decade. I didn't get it when it was new, in 1996, but a couple of years later I found a copy with a cracked case, on sale for a buck at a yard sale. The CD itself was in good condition, so there was no excuse for not buying it at such a reasonable price. But I didn't listen to it much once I had it; before a few weeks ago, I'd be willing to bet that I'd listened to my copy of "Odelay" less than a dozen times.

Because see, the thing about "Odelay" is that it's easy to convince yourself that you already know it as an album. It spawned four hit singles, two of which are ubiquitous on "new rock" radio to this very day, and there are only 13 total songs on the album. That means that someone like me has heard about a third of this album a whole whole lot of times. Now, I like "Where It's At" a lot, even though I've heard it a zillion times. I still get the whole "two turntables and a microphone" chorus stuck in my head at times (it's like the second verse of "Beercan" that way). I never much liked the "doo doo, duh-doo doo doo doo" intro to "The New Pollution", but the rest of that song is pretty excellent. But the fact that I know those two songs like the back of my hand in no way means that I know the entire album, that it's got nothing else to say to me. But I guess that's what I've spent the last decade or so thinking, because I never listened to this record.

Then a few weeks ago, my friend Eric felt like going to a party on the night of his usual DJ set at a local bar. With about 15 minutes before he was supposed to start playing records, he called me and asked if I wanted to do it instead. I was already on the way to the bar, but I had no problem with turning around, going home, grabbing some records, and heading back. I'll jump at any chance to DJ, and besides, they would be paying me $40. That's not much, but I was dead broke, and could really use it. So I hit my house with about 10 minutes to grab some music, and did a haphazard high-speed run through my record and CD collections. I ended up grabbing "Odelay" completely at random. If anything inspired me, it was the fact that I'd discussed "Devil's Haircut" with someone on a message board recently. The person in question had been surprised to discover the guitar riff that drives the intro and choruses of "Devil's Haircut" was the main riff in "I Can Only Give You Everything". What's more, he only knew the song from an obscure garage rock comp. I guess sometimes my irrational devotion to garage rock causes me to lose perspective, because I was sure that everyone already knew this 1966 Van Morrison single, and had no idea how this guy on a message board hadn't previously noticed the nicked riff on "Devil's Haircut"--the original version is on the second Nuggets box set, for cryin' out loud! I know, I know, not everyone has the Nuggets box sets... (they should, though).

Anyway, getting back to Beck, I'd been thinking about "Devil's Haircut" since that conversation, and I thought it would be a pretty sweet song to play while DJing. After all, it was a song from that album that people knew, but never got played to death the way "Where It's At" and "The New Pollution" had. So I took the CD with me, and I played "Devil's Haircut" during my DJ set (to a pretty much empty room--everyone who is usually there was at the same party Eric went to). It was awesome; I had forgotten how much I liked that song. That night, when I got home and prepared for bed, I put "Odelay" into my CD player and listened to the whole album straight through. And it was kind of a revelation. I realized that, for every awesome song on the album that I already knew, there was at least one more that I didn't know. So ever since then, I've been carrying my old, beat-up yard sale copy of "Odelay" around with me and listening to it at least every couple of days.

"Hotwax", the second song on the album, is the first big revelation I found. It's kind of similar to "Loser", in that it's Beck rapping over a drum machine beat and an acoustic guitar riff played with a slide. It seems like it might have even been conceived as a sequel to "Loser", now that I think of it--it's really similar to that song, at least in construction. The melody is really different, though, and Beck's lyrics are just as inventive on this song as they were on "Loser". Plus, the song's chorus doesn't feature a ridiculous sentiment that's gonna start embarrassing the singer or the listener (or both) after they've heard it a dozen or so times. Finally, the harmonica break in the middle of the song is awesome.

"Lord Only Knows" starts with a grungy guitar riff that Beck screams over, but that falls apart after three or four seconds and it turns into an indie-folk acoustic-slide guitar song. On "Odelay", which was Beck's fourth album overall and only his second one for a major label, he was still working well within the boundaries of the style he'd set out on "Mellow Gold", and although there's a good bit of the folk-Beck tunefulness coming through here, the Dust Brothers backing track is more indebted to the hip-hop-Beck template. The result is a song that would have fit right in on "Mellow Gold", and clearly marks itself as an artifact of the earlier days of Beck's career.

"Derelict" is another undiscovered treasure, which is driven by samples of what sound like tubular bells. This song is straight-up hip-hop, but with Beck singing the chorus hook and the Dust Brothers putting their creative and original twist on things, it's far from standard. It's followed by "Novocaine", which has a mournful, bluesy intro, but quickly morphs into a hard-hitting hip-hop tune that's driven by snarling electric guitar riffs. Both of these songs are perfect tracks to dance around your room to--just make sure no one's home while you're doing it; otherwise, they might come upstairs to tell you to turn your stereo down and catch you doing ridiculously unfunky dance moves in your underwear.

"Jack-Ass" marks the halfway point of "Odelay", and while it was one of the hit singles that came from this album, it felt more like an undiscovered treasure to me when I heard it again. Out of all of the singles from this album, it's had the least amount of rock radio exposure, and therefore, I'd pretty much forgotten about it. When it started playing, though, it all came rushing back, and I remembered how it had been one of my favorite Beck songs back when "Odelay" was still his brand new album. Despite it getting the least radio play, it was my favorite of the singles from "Odelay". If that's due to any one factor, it is no doubt the fluttering tremolo guitar hook running throughout the song, which creates a nice counterpoint to the vocal melody Beck is laying down. The boom-bap beats of the majority of "Odelay" are exchanged for shaken percussion instruments, giving "Jack-Ass" a minimal beat that works well for its softer, more melodic approach. The words are goofy and somewhat nonsensical, as many of Beck's lyrics were at this point in his career, but nonetheless, the song has a heartfelt, emotional feel, which connects it more to the songs on "One Foot In The Grave" than to the rest of "Odelay". Hearing it again after so long, I realized that this song had been reason enough to drag the album back out and get (re)acquainted with it.

There are a few more interesting tracks on here, and my favorite of them has to be "High 5 (Rock The Catskills)", another hip-hop tune that features a hard-hitting chorus, weirdly contrasting verses that seem purposely quieter than the choruses placed around them, and all kinds of strange samples, some of which stop the song completely. The best of these hits at 2:40, after the verse beat has continued for several measures beyond the end of the actual verse. Suddenly everything stops and some guy screams, "Turn that shit off! What's wrong with you, man? Get the other record!" Then, after a second of silence, under his breath: "Damn". Just then, the chorus kicks back in, even louder than before. It's a totally silly thing to do in the middle of a song, and that's exactly why it's so awesome.

The album ends with "Ramshackle", a quiet, straightforward blues song. For once, the Dust Brothers seem to have no hand in things; Beck plays acoustic guitar and sings, backed by session pro Joey Waronker on drums, and the legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden (best known for his long membership in Ornette Coleman's quartet). This song's understated approach is 180 degrees from the rest of "Odelay", and much closer to that of "One Foot In The Grave", his independently released folk album from two years before. If anything, it probably harks forward to his next album, 1998's "Mutations" (another Beck album I've never really listened to all that much). Its low-key sound makes it easy to miss or forget about, but when you pay attention, you'll find that it's one of the best songs here.

Lately I've been finding that the more of Beck's stuff I listen to, the more of it I like. For an artist who has been releasing records for 15 years, and in a bunch of distinct and different styles, maintaining such a consistent level of quality is quite impressive. I'm hoping he can continue doing this for a while longer, and that I can avoid writing off albums of his before giving them the proper chance in the future. After all, so far, every time I've done that, it's been the wrong thing to do.

Beck - Hotwax
Beck - Jack-Ass



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