Beck – Odelay: Round 67 – Ed’s choice

beck-odelay2Hello, new face Ed here. Graham invited me along to give his record collection a rest every now and then. Round 67 is my second meet and it’s been thrilling to witness the passion, dedication, encyclopaedic knowledge and the sheer fun that the four of them have been having in Record Club. I’ve very quickly realised that compared to the others my knowledge of contemporary music is pretty shallow but it’s going to be fun exploring.

In 1996 Britpop was reaching a peak, Blur and Oasis were about to fight it out for number 1 slot and I was at college. Studying classical music I didn’t have much headspace left for popular stuff but apart from Blur Beck managed to sneak in and something stuck. I’ve kept touch with a few tracks from Odelay; Devil’s Haircut, Hotwax, Where it’s at, mostly because to my ear these are the catchiest. A big feature of Odelay that appealed to me as a teenager was Beck’s surreal lyrics and in opening track Devil’s Haircut he seems to be deliberately odd – “mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline”. This gives the repeated pay-off line “I got a devil’s haircut in my mind”, one of the few understandable sentences, more strength. He is setting a theme of the album as a battle between him and his brain; indeed, the opening line of the album is “Somethings wrong coz my mind is fading”.

The surreal lyrics are matched by Beck’s boredom at staying in one style for too long. He hops about between soul, blues, country, folk, a bit of rap. Instruments, samples, riffs, styles all come and go within the space of a single track but its testament to Beck’s skill that they, and the album, do not feel fragmented. Even the donkey braying at the end of ‘Jack-Ass’ somehow feels appropriate, especially as it contrasts beautifully, after a pause, with the soft, groovy keyboard opening to ‘Where it’s at’.

Revisiting the album now it’s the softer, calmer tracks that leave the greatest impression. ‘Lord only knows’ starts with a scream (there he goes losing his mind again) but develops into a country track complete with slide guitar and dodgy solo. The track ends with Beck muttering ‘Odelay’ over and over again like an old man, whilst the musicians play out.

The one false note for me is the 5th track ‘Derelict’, where Beck sticks with the same chord structure throughout, apart from a sitar-led break half-way in. It does not have the restless, upbeat nature of some of the other tracks. Compare with the next track, the excellent ‘Novacane’, with its soft opening interplay between guitar and bass, then harmonica, then in-your-face two-note repeated power guitar, then another 4 or 5 changes in texture all of which fit seamlessly into each other.

I like Odelay because I admire Beck’s songwriting skills, his musicianship in playing so many of the instruments heard, his experimentation in different styles but mostly because the album is just so damn cool.

Tom listened: For me, Beck was another one of those artists I was highly suspicious of when they first appeared on the scene. Naturally, I knew best….until, that is, I actually listened to the stuff. I think my prejudice was propagated by the hype surrounding Loser and the sentiments of the song itself. What’s more Beck looked too good to be making good music, moved too well too, and had bloody awful cover art (particularly on Mellow Gold – what was all that about?).

It wasn’t until Odelay (probably Devil’s Haircut) that I became acquainted with the music and it turned out to be right up my street – crammed with ideas, pretty edgy and inventive and the hipster cool was well earned as opposed to expected. So I fell hard for Odelay, even harder for its more wayward younger sibling, Mellow Gold, and even tried One Foot In The Grave…which was just about OK, at a push.

These days, I only listen to Odelay every so often. I find it a little bit dated, a little bit patchy (by far the worst track is High 5…Derelict is great, Ed) but there are enough crackers on the album for it still to sound like a bit of a treat (and Jack-Ass is as wonderful as ever).

Rob listened: Most of the reasons I didn’t like ‘Odelay’ at the time don;t really stand up to serious examination. Nonetheless, here they are. Examine them seriously if you so desire.

It’s way too tricksy. Too deliberately tricksy. Too distractingly tricksy. Sure, I see the attraction, the giddy thrill of hearing someone smash together disparate sounds in ways you’ve never heard done before. But enough already. Once said person has been smashing those disparate sounds together in disparate ways for 20 minutes or so, you just want them to stop and choose some of their favourite sounds, disparate or not, and see what happens if they smash those ones together for a while. You never know, you might make an album full of Jack-Ass and that would be great.

I like unsettling and disturbing juxtapositions, even restless and unceasing splicing (see ‘R Plus Seven‘ for instance) but Odelay always sounded like a cocky dude showing off a scrapbook they just knocked together. I never felt there was anything coherent or heartfelt underneath and that these things were being done (there’s a giveaway, I think of them as ‘things’ rather than ‘songs’) to show how clever or skilful Beck was. And, when i’m in a particularly bad mood, this sometimes began to feel like a queasy-making exercise in (whisper it) hipster appropriation.

I like ramshackle records that veer all over the place and have songs which seem not to resolve or even be whole or finished, but the best have intrigue, hidden places, fascinating, nagging qualities and, sometimes killer tunes. ‘Odelay’ always seemed to lay everything it had out in front of you, like a rich kid spreading out his toys, and ultimately none of them seemed more than surface to me.

Most of the people I knew absolutely loved it. I thought they loved it because they thought it was wild and kooky. I thought it was calculated, soulless and boring.

I guess I still do. I’m listening to it now and, half way through, it’s bleh. I’ve been thinking of how much i’d prefer to be listening to Sebadoh III for most of it, so I think that’s what i’ll do now. There’s a record with commendable lack of focus which is shambolic and endlessly intriguing and just happens to have ‘The Freed Pig’ for a kick off.

I like Beck. He seems to do interesting things (Karl – those puppets are completely amazing), have ideas which no-one else seems to have, play and compose his music with virtuosity and passion. I’m really glad he’s around. I just think ‘Odelay’ is totally over-rated. And boring.

Nick listened: Cracking singles, fun album, bought it way back when, don’t care about it or Beck. That’s about as much as I can say; there’s something about his wanderingly eclectic Scientologist troubadour schtick that keeps me at arms’ length. I’ve barely investigated anything that came out after this, and I seldom revisit it on its own terms. I’d much rather take another dive into Paul’s Boutique.


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