From the Record Crate: Beck – “Odelay” (1996)


20 years, 12 records and a handful of Grammys later, it can be difficult to reconcile all the King of the Slackers, one-hit novelty baggage that followed Beck’s breakout single “Loser”. I suppose if one of the things you’re singing about is how in the time of chimpanzees, you were a monkey, I guess it makes sense that those viewing genre classifications as proven formulas for making profits could have some trepidation over how a sample heavy, folk-meets-hip-hop-meets-noise-punk record would be received in a world of sugar pop and grunge. Though to everyone’s surprise at the time of its 1996 release, Odelay ended up being Beck’s comprehensive magnum-opus completely devoid of any of the shoegazing pretensions of his contemporaries.

At first glance, it is a finely-curated scrapyard of old school influences and pop culture clichés. A record filled to the brim with brash, head-scratching lyrics, jury-rigged drum loops, head-bopping rhymes, and out-of-context vocals. In 1996, Mark Kemp of Rolling Stone wrote “Like the Beasties, Beck is among the few white-boy hip-hop wanna-be’s with a clue”. Now, who would’ve known that a moonwalking, hip-thrusting high school dropout would be the one responsible for producing one of the most sophisticated hallmark albums in alt-rock history? Perhaps not record producer and Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin, who, as rumor has it, told Beck he should shelve Odelay and work on something else (something perhaps more distinctly hip-hop) with his new label American Recordings

Odelay, much like the artist himself, is the kind of record that refuses to be tied down by any genre. It wants to be all things. Do all things. All at once, without ceasing.

Produced by the Dust Brothers, Odelay is the record that most exemplifies Beck’s awareness of those generational threads that connects bluegrass to jazz, hip-hop to experimental rock, and punk to electronica – repurposing these contrasting styles into something surprisingly cohesive, funky, and original without being too cerebral about it.

The album opens with the second hit single off the record, “Devil’s Haircut”, which is essentially a blues song overloaded with distortion riffs, Rasgueado-style guitar strumming (based of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything), metal-esque screaming and 60’s R&B-inspired drumbeats throughout the verses. Lyrically-speaking, the song seems to take some cues from The Doors’ “People Are Strange” in that both songs offer disorienting, first-person accounts about a surreal, almost out-of-body experience that leads a person to feeling an unsettling sense of paranoia.

Lines like “Ghetto blastin’ disintegrating” and “Discount orgies on the dropout buses” can also easily come across as incomprehensible mental shortcuts about…what exactly? Is this song simply a foreboding tale about the spoils of vanity? About feeling your way through the void? What’s a Devil’s Haircut, anyway? The only consistent answer Beck has to give regarding these lyrics is that it’s basically a rewrite of the 1920s folk song “Stagger-Lee”. Staying true to its bluesy roots, the song is more about the feeling of what is being expressed than anything conclusive.

Beck’s Dylan-esque, stream-of-consciousness lyricism also really lends itself to “The New Pollution”, a song that opens with a cheery la-di-da before quickly disintegrating into a loungy, carnivalesque groove consisting of a fuzz-tone bass riff, Jim Thomas’ jazz saxophone (sampled from “Venus” off of Thomas’ 1976 Feelin’s From Within record), organ motifs, and Beck going on about a fondness for a young woman who seems to just be wandering among the smoke-and-mirrors of her own mundane, post-modern existence. For an album that certainly sounds upbeat instrumentally, many of these songs are actually quite melancholic in its satirical depiction of what it means to feel lost in an overwhelmingly commercial world.

The making of “Where It’s At” was apparently a product of Beck wanting to appeal to the fans that were still loyal to “Loser”. It’s the most instantly identifiable song off the album – serving up some catchy hip-hop beats, quasi-rapping, and a sort of call-and-response in the chorus. It was made to be irreverent and fun for those who enjoyed the cool, self-deprecating goofiness that made his first album, Mellow Gold, a hit. Though if anyone was hoping for a Beastie Boys homage as well, on account of The Dust Brothers’ hand in Paul’s Boutique just seven years prior to Odelay, well they got it with tracks like “High 5 (Rock the Catskills)” and “Novacane”. Both songs are sort of the culmination of all these recycled bits of styles and genres that come together like alchemy. Beck apparently had used walkie-talkies to create those fuzzy, distortion vocals that best resembles the Beasties.

The eclectic spirit of Beck’s records as a whole is certainly indicative of his Bohemian upbringing: having been surrounded by the folk songs of his father, the avant-garde-ness of his mother and late grandfather, and the Salvadoran Los Angeles neighborhood where he’s spent most of his childhood. With tracks like “Que’ Onda Guero”, “He’s A Mighty Good Leader”, and “Novacane”, Odelay, One Foot in the Grave, and Guero are perhaps the more definitive homages to his childhood roots.

Around the time he was still conceptualizing Guero, Beck reunited for the last time with Mike Simpson (E.Z. Mike) and John King (King Gizmo) with high aspirations to build upon the template of which the trio had concocted when working on Odelay. He would continue to build upon that template in both The Information and Modern Guilt, abandon it for something lush and instrumental with Morning Phase, only to resurrect it once again with his two recent singles “Wow” and “Dreams”.

Just from these singles alone, you get the sense Beck is really experimenting with the sounds of the times – testing the waters to see if he can find some footing in the haze of auto-tunes and party-hard anthems that seem to dominate the rap-pop scene these days. And while I feel the tracks don’t quite hold up to say “Sexx Laws” or “Mixed Bizness”, it is refreshing to see the prolific deconstructionist return to his funky, hip-hop roots. The sexed-up collages and sunny aesthetic of his latest lyric video for “Wow” is an obvious call-back to the one he made for “Nicotine & Gravy”. And the summertime jam feel of the track also shares some of those same screw-art-let’s-dance, house-party themes that made “Groove Is In The Heart” – the Deee-Lite hit from the 90’s that also resembles the backbeats and horns heard on “The New Pollution” – a household name.

Now, I wasn’t really around when Odelay had come out – ok, I was actually, but I was 7 – so I can’t necessarily compare how it sounded at the time of its release with how it holds up now. Though I can say that, from a more personal standpoint, listening to the record these days gives the immediate sense of it being a relic of the alt-MTV culture of the 90’s yet strangely timeless all the same.

Mellow Gold was my first introduction to Beck back when I was 14 and awkwardly forging my identity amongst the dust-free stacks of used vinyl records and fresh CD releases at the Barnes & Noble local to my hometown – back in the day when I was heavily into artists like Nas, Bow Wow (when he was Lil’ Bow Wow), and Jay-Z. While songs like “Beercan” and “Loser” had made a significant impact on me as a kid, Odelay became my anthem. Much like Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra“, it was my beginner’s-guide-through-the-history-of-music, and it blew my tiny, little world. It was one of those rock albums that made me realize just being yourself is enough to overpower the naysayers and skeptics, and served as an example of the things that can be accomplished provided an individual has enough creative integrity and ideas to burn.

“That’s the nature of music,” Beck once pontificated during an interview on the PBS series “Sessions at West 54th””. “That’s the way it was meant to be. You know, people blowing it up”. Not only did he do just that, he set the tone for the next wave of alternative music. The tracks and live performances that came out of this record reset the possibilities of what it means to be a hip-hop artist, an indie rocker, and a 21st Century pop superstar, and will forever be remembered as a soundtrack to a by-gone era dominated by a culture that was desperate to kill the cliché.

Jennifer Baugh is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and contributor for The Young Folks. She also writes and draws her own comics and other wonky illustrations over at her personal blog