Forecast for the Future

"Every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself. The reason is that everyone has trouble accepting the fact that he will disappear unheard of and unnoticed in an indifferent universe, and everyone wants to make himself into a universe of words before it's too late. 

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not that far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding."

- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Week 9: An Brief Guide to the Common Music of Bek Hansen Campbell

I am working furiously on my Beck b-sides evaluation (yeah, still not done). But for you, reader, before attempting to digest a lengthy compendium on the most obscure bits of an already left-of-center artist, it will help to have some context of his central output.

Here, very briefly, is a simple discography of his albums:

1993, ?: Golden Feelings (tape only), Sonic Enemy Records
1994, ?: A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight (10" only), Fingerpaint Records
1994, February 22: Stereopathetic Soulmanure, Flipside Records
1994, March 1: Mellow Gold, DGC
1994, June 27: One Foot In the Grave, K Records
1996, June 18: Odelay, DGC
1998, November 3: Mutations, DGC
1999, November 23: Midnite Vultures, DGC
2002, September 24: Sea Change, DGC
2005, March 29: Guero, Interscope
2006, October 3: The Information, Interscope

And the art...

1993 Golden Feelings (tape only)

1994 A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight (10")

1994 Stereopathetic Soulmanure

1994 Mellow Gold

1994 One Foot In the Grave

1996 Odelay

1998 Mutations

1999 Midnite Vultures

2002 Sea Change

2005 Guero

2006 The Information

Many of these releases will probably be familiar to the average music listener, but some of them probably much less so. Throughout his 15ish year career, Beck has released a lot of music and to varying fanfare, so the point when you first checked in with Beck and the degree to which you've ever cared about him probably informs which of these releases you may be familiar with.

For starters, Beck's first big single, "Loser," appeared on Mellow Gold in '94 and for most people, this is where it all begins. Mellow Gold is commonly thought of as Beck's debut, but obviously this isn't the case. The first two releases, Western Harvest and Golden Feelings, are certainly the least familiar here, as each came out in very limited runs on tiny--and now defunct--labels, and in formats that were obscure for even '94 (cassette only and 10"??? how many people own a single 10" record???). Western Harvest had a number of subsequent re-releases throughout the 90s and I know a number of folks who own a copy, but I have never before seen a copy of Golden Feelings or know anyone who possesses one. At the end of the day, neither of these two discs are that important in the grand scheme of Beck appreciation, as the music on each largely consists of slight lo-fi acoustic tracks and trying noise experiments; however, there are a few nuggets to be mined (namely "Totally Confused") and they are worth seeking out if you want to learn more about Beck's roots and early influences.

His next three releases though usher in the era of "mature" Beck, and are a great place to start if you want to get to know some great but less familiar Beck. You might have noticed that these three, Stereopathetic Soulmanure, Mellow Gold, and One Foot in the Grave were all released within a few months of each other in the first half of '94. All three were released in the period following the debut of his first buzzbin single "Loser," which after huge radioplay in LA led to a signing with Geffen's DGC. Operating with a near-Pollardesque rate of prolificness at the time, Beck wanted to ensure that he'd be free from the one-album-a-year major label expectations and signed an open-ended contract with Geffen allowing him to release music concurrently on other labels. Not all of this music was created during this time period (some of Stereopathetic comes from his recording archives going back to '88), but this period for Beck was an exciting time where he was literally puking out songs each time he opened his mouth.

Mellow Gold, the DGC release, is probably well-known to most or at least many, especially the singles "Loser," "Pay No Mind," and "Beercan." The other two, however, have flown much further under the radar (though in the Internet seeker era, One Foot In the Grave, with it's Calvin Johnson/K Records associations, has become something of a minor indie 90s canon entry among music nerds). Largely alternating between country ditties and punk/noise experiments, Stereopathetic Soulmanure features some of the great early Beck songs, including "Rowboat" (later covered by Johnny Cash on American II: Unchained, click to listen here) and "Satan Gave Me a Taco." Some of the noise tracks are sophomoric and less exciting, but the hi-to-lo array of tones on the album is probably wider than any other release in his discography.

One Foot in the Grave, on the other hand, is the most sonically uniform album in Beck's discography. A lo-fi folk album (with two lo-fi thrasher exceptions) cut with Calvin Johnson (of 80s indies Beat Happening and owner of K), and Chris Ballew (of Presidents of USA aka "Lump" fame) while living in Olympia, WA, these spare tunes function as the distillation of "Beck, indie folkster" and have given him his largest cache of his non-mainstream indie cred. I love this record, but in my honest opinion, it's kind of overrated by the small few "in the know." A sweet and pleasant album, but it ain't no Times Are A-Changin' or nothing.

You've probably read a lot more about the releases that folllow so I will only hit them briefly:

- Odelay: The album that elevated Beck from one-hit buzzbin novelty wonder to Serious (For the Kids) Artist. Odelay took the explorative funk and hiphop elements found in his earlier music and, using powerful rock, soul, and country samples as a backbone, melded them into a definitive 90s post-hiphop (Paul's Boutique in particular) concoction to blow away the masses. This album blew my mind in 1996 and still does wonders for me now, hundreds of listens later. Like nearly all of Beck's releases, Odelay lays out rules for a sonic form and sticks to them, but unlike everything else, the Odelay blueprint runs a wide enough gamut so as to allow for the widest variety in tone and timbre--translating into a feeling that this is "the mostest Beckest" you can get (that's scientific terminology for you). Other releases may have some greater moments, but Odelay still ranks as the best and most concise presentation of Beck's importance in the strata of modern popular music. So umm, yeah... if you don't own it already you might wanna look into stealing getting it.

- Mutations: Cut in two weeks at one song per day (literally--14 songs from these sessions, 12 of which were used on the album), this album was intended as a tossed-off stopgap to whet appetites until a "proper" Odelay followup to come a year later. However, the results, a Nigel Godrich-helmed study of 60s baroque pop, became what stands today as the second best album of his career. For my money, I still stick with the widescreen inscrutable absurdisms of Odelay, but many folks would cite Mutations as their favorite Beck and--though I didn't always feel this way--I can certainly understand why.

- Midnite Vultures: crudely, Beck's voyage to Minneapolis to shake hands and kiss the ring of , the funky one. Of all his albums, this one stands out--now as it then--as the most obvious "genre exercise" of his many forays into curated musical exploration. On its own, it has its pluses and minuses. Mainly, it literally bursts with excitement; when I listen, I can practically see Beck dancing around the room and shouting, "Smokey, GUITAR, now! Guitar, NOW!" It's also the apex of his eccentricalia maximalism, e.g. "Dance floors and talk shows, hot dogs, No-Doz / Hot sex in back rows" (little did I know in '99 that this would turn out to be the case). Tracks like "Sexx Laws," "Nicotine & Gravy," "Mixed Bizness" and, of course, "Debra" crackle with excitement and each are revelatory in their celebration of Beck As Kooky AloofDanceSexGodMaster. ...But. I like Midnite Vultures, honestly, but it's definitely one of those records that I sort of "have to be in the mood for" (a damning statement, obviously). It's almost "too much" at times, and freaks me out a little. Also, again as I said first, it's a "genre exercise" and encompasses the sort of limitations that you might expect from such a venture. In '99 I said, "Well, neat, let's see what comes next"; had I known what was to come I might have listened differently.

- Sea Change: Argh. Schlock. Shittiness. Disappointment. Hype taglines: "Beck's return to 'songwriting craft'", "Mutations II", "his breakup album", "his confessional explorations of singer/songwriterism". My tagline applied September 24, 2002, hours after my first listen: "Lost creativity, confused direction, bloated head... frown and, especially, zzzzZZZZZZZ."

In his review of Sea Change for Rolling Stone, David Fricke said,

"Sea Change is the real thing -- a perfect treasure of soft, spangled woe sung with a heavy open heart. ...As a young folk singer at the turn of the Nineties, Beck set out to be his own Dylan. With Sea Change, he has made it the hard way, creating an impeccable album of truth and light from the end of love. This is his Blood on the Tracks."
Ah, one more reason why music criticism and the influence it wields kills me sometimes. Fricke's review is touching and beautifully written (check it out, really), and is about the greatest piece of PR Beck's management could hope for. Honestly, there's no way I wouldn't want to go buy the album after reading it. But as far as applying his insights to what's actually there... well, let's put it this way: there is more excitement (as well as truth, light, and love) in the last 30 seconds of "Debra" than in the entirety of Sea Change added together and multiplied by four. I think I can safely say that never in my life have I been more let down by a piece of music than the first time I heard tracks from Sea Change (debut day was spoiled slightly when Shrimp Cracker brought home a four track album sampler from the radio station which clued me in to the impending doom). After the crazy excessive "I'm Beck, motherfuckers!" of Midnite Vultures, the sound alone of Sea Change was completely shocking, even after having heard the pre-album buzz that it would be song-based album in the vein of Mutations. I thought nearly every song sounded flat and lifeless. The lyrics, which up til then in his career contributed integrally to the total package of Beck As Someone Outside the Circle, were limp, cliched and, worst of all, mundane. Of all 12 tracks, only trick non-album closer "Sunday Sun"(ah, "No Surprises" Nigel!) spoke to me in any kind of an interesting way. The rest? Opener, "Golden Years," umm... ok, I guess sorta. What else? "Paper Tiger" is at least a little different than the others, a little. And the strings on "Lonesome Tears" (arranged by Beck's Grammy-winning musician/Scientologist father David Campbell), while completely over-the-top, are sort of enjoyable in a slurpy schlockalicious sort of way. Worst worst of all though is the fact that it all sounded not even "bad" but just so goddamned BORING, to the point that it convinced me that the man might have lost it completely (like Rod Stewart releasing Smiler as followup to four great albums, the last two among Rock's greatest, spelling the completely and total end of the true rock n' roller we'd come to know and love). This crushing and depressing disappointment of Sea Change, coupled with seeing him perform a terrible show a month later in Syracuse where he acted like a prima donna and took FOREVER between set breaks, ruined this disc pretty badly for me. To be fair, I will say that over the years, my reflexive HATE-HATE-HATE-sadness-HATE for this album has subsided somewhat, but it's still just blah and depresses me that it seems to have meant more about the future than the present.

- Guero. More written about this one in the b-sides piece to come. The verdict? Not good: his worst album, probably. Would have also been a huge disappointment (pre-buzz PRspeak: "Beck's return to Odelay roots and form!") had Sea Change not already prepared me to imagine a world in which Beck no longer had anything to say. "Girl" is best track, by a landslide, though it says it all that the bonus disc includes a remix by complete unknowns who best Beck at his best; another remix ("Broken Drum") by J Beaumont-faves Boards of Canada bests everything Beck has done in the entire third millennium.

- The Information. Honestly, I just listened to this album for the first time ever this week. Perhaps you can tell, but I felt so badly burned by my hero after two straight limp and toothless shitbox albums that I assumed I would never have a reason to hear new Beck again. Hyperliving, however, is all about reconsiderations and seeking new paths of understanding, and so in the interest of not being a total fuck, I downloaded and gave it a spin. And you know, really, it's not bad. I've only listened straight through twice so far, but "Nausea" has been on repeat since I first heard it. I don't think I'll ever move "The Information" into the category of revelatory, but I'm just a little overjoyed to have "enjoyable" from this man.

And that's it, his albums from beginning to now. One thing you might have noticed is that he had FIVE albums come out between '93-94. Unfortunately, the sad and killer thing about the great abundance of Beck during this time, coupled with an awareness of the open-door contract, is the fact that, album-wise, his prodigous output dropped off precipitously after One Foot In the Grave. From there, Odelay came two years later, followed by Mutations two and a half years later, Midnite Vultures one year later (speedy), Sea Change three years year and then Guero two and a half years after that. Meaning, after five releases in '93-'94, Beck released only five more albums over the next eleven years. Part of this is because beginning with Odelay, Beck stopped making kitchen sink funk and folk ditties and began crafting ambitious and complex pop albums. Part of it was personal shit in his life, leading to misstarts and pressure and the consequences of burgeoning stardom. But another part of it is that Beck never actually stopped making music; he kept churning out tunes, great ones even, but left them in the studio or the cutting room floor, where they were only to see the light of day in release as random singles, b-sides, and/or compilation and soundtrack filler.

Ah yes, and why we're here: Beck's vast trove of non-album material. From 1993-2005, Beck made tons and tons of great music that, in my mind, truly supplements his legacy as a great artist. But so much of it never appeared on albums and is therefore basically unknown to the general public. And so, now I will bring it to you. Tomorrow.


For shits and giggs, here's some bonus bonus goodies for you. Made available for your downloading pleasure now are four releases below from the very beginning of Beck's career: Of most musical value are his first two proper albums (as mentioned above), Golden Feelings and A Western Harvest Field by Moonlight, but also included are two of a great number of self-released lofi cassettes of acoustic/noise ramblings dating prior to Golden Feelings. Of these, Don't Get Bent Out of Shape includes many songs which later appeared re-recorded in fleshed out technicolor, and A Banjo Story, from 1988, featuring a young and tiny EIGHTEEN year old Beck--his very first tape ever. Also, these are all neat since none are available on CD or mp3 as of now. So, enjoy.

Tapes n' tapes:
A Banjo Story tape (1988)
Don't Get Bent Out of Shape tape (1992)
Golden Feelings
A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight


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