Friday, February 15, 2008

A Junkyard Masterpiece and Other Treasures: Beck's Odelay

Upon hearing the 2-disc Deluxe Edition of Odelay immediately makes me want to talk historical context at length about the album. Given that the album was huge, full of hits and inescapable for the alt-rock crowd, I'll feel better resisting the temptation beyond barring some thoughts. If folks haven't heard it, they should. To this day it remains Beck's most singular expression of not only what makes him tick, but just how deep the pool of influence he pulls from actually is. Plus, it was an album that captured the entire scope of 90s music, all of which looked back while moving forward.

From the opening swagger of "Devil's Haircut" to the somber denoument of "Ramshackle" everything great about this album remains true, pure and completely ageless from its release 12 years ago. Cuts like "Hotwax" and "Where It's At" can still rock a party. "New Pollution" still induces humming along. And others like "Jack-Ass," "Novocane," "Sissyneck" and "High 5 (Rock the Catskills)" still show that Beck was at a creative peak that few will say he's matched since. Basically, for those who've not heard this album, seek it out.

The tail end of disc 1 begins supporting why Special Editions are completely worth the trouble. The 3 cuts that close out the first half of this release are the absolutely phenominal "Deadweight" and the non-lp cuts "Inferno" and "Gold Chains." The first, though rightfully left off of Odelay, deserved to be on the album becasue it's on par with its best moments. However, his movement from the funk here hinted at his long term direction while his next proper album Mutations would baffle, yet again. It's heartening for me to see this on a Beck release because for 10 years I successfully avoided buy the soundtrack to A Life Less Ordinary, thank heavens. More foreshadowing comes from the other non LP tracks. While Mutations, Midnite Vultures and Sea Change would feel like clear departures, "Inferno" and "Gold Chains" (albeit to a lesser, folkier extent) cover the same funky, 80s atari-lined digi-funk that Guero would bring forth 9 years later. This is why special editions can be so valuable: In 3 tracks recorded around the same time, we see the artist growing towards the future.

In fashion that is pure Beck, we receive not 1, but 3 arguments against special editions. Disc 2's opener, an UNKLE remix of "Where it's At," is literally 13 minutes you can't get back. UNKLE does its big beat, sci-fi thing with "Where it's At" playing underneath it. Aphex Twin's and Mickey P.'s respective remixes of "Devil's Haircut," to me just don't cut it. Of course, that could be my love for the original talking, but I'll stick by it. Following these 3, disc 2 really seems to take off with "Clock," "Thunder Peel," and "Electric Music and the Summer People." These three are made in the spirit of Odelay with there balance between hip-hop and indie rock, but sound altogether different than the album. In fact, their sequence on the disc plays like a spectrum from one to the other that takes a turn to experimental electronica at the end.

This different sound takes us back to why special editions are useful. Sure, they show what, for better or worse, didn't make the cut. However, some of the experiments concocted and extremes reached on disc 2 in songs like ".000.000," "Lemonade" and "Erase the Sun" show that Beck could've released 2 albums simultaneously that sounded completely different a la One Foot in the Grave and Stereopathetic Soul Manure in 1994. Sure, if one ended up being Odelay and the other something else, simple deduction leads us to what the better would've been. This isn't to say that disc 2 isn't worth its salt. In the 'sketches-in-a-notebook' sense it truly is something to behold. The tangents, sounds and ideas that Beck was playing with at the time will continue to spark discussion among fans and those who give them a chance. But ultimately, the right decision was made and a masterpiece was unleashed at the sacrifice of several gems who's destiny was the cutting room floor. The fact that we can hear and enjoy them in one place without having to try and hunt down the various singles they might've appeared as b-sides on is great service to both fans and collectors. Beck is one of a severe minority of artists whom this type of reissue can achieve a maximum result because he pulls from such a vast range of ideas and influences and even his throwaways are better than most of what tops the charts.