Tuesday, 25 November 2008

How To Buy: Beck

A prolific musician, Beck Hansen has released more than a few CDs in his time (which is fancy talk for “I haven’t checked Wikipedia to see how many he’s made”), all of which vary uncontrollably from good to bad, and go through a range of different styles. Ever helpful, we here at Wilftonville decided to put together a hitlist, so you can decide for yourself which albums might appeal to you, should you wish to start listening to his back-catalogue. We know, we know: there’s no need to thank us. Just tell all your friends we exist, and force them to come here and leave comments – that’s all we ask.

The records we think are most important are his mainstream releases, so we’re going to focus on those instead of the practically rubbish records he released independently. If you happen to be the sort of person who only listens to music which sounds like it was recorded round a back-alley, possibly next to an illegal abortion clinic, then go listen to those records, by all means. They don’t interest us here at Wilftonville. Everyone else – here are your options.

Have you just been dumped?
Then you need to be listening to Sea Change.

After breaking up with his girlfriend of nine years, Beck scrapped all plans he had for future recording, and holed up in a studio. Only a few weeks later, he emerged from the studio with twelve ballads in hand, which made up Sea Change. The record has since been named one of the greatest of all times, and is perhaps his most admired record (although Odelay is more popular/well known). With dry, stark lyrics which often recall - instead of flowers and the usual talk that springs from love song – deserts, vultures, and dust as metaphors for relationships. The result is a record where the songs feel vastly different to traditional ballads, because of the way he refuses to romanticise. From time to time he puts in something different, like some piano or a string section, but the main focus at all times is placed on Beck himself. For the first time, he showed himself, and his gruff voice sounds almost woozy with despair as he sings his heart out. It’s a beautiful record, for sure.

Are you insufferably camp?
Then Midnite Vultures is the one for you.

Sometimes a musician feels like a change in direction, although few can claim, like Beck now can, to have taken the step into white funk. Emulating Prince is a strange way to go with your music, but he did just that with Midnite Vultures, a series of party tunes which embrace oddity and cheese with open arms. The music became more listenable and bizarre, with lyrics such as “I think we’re going crazy/her left eye is lazy/nicotine and gravy” and “have you ever let a cowboy sit on your lap”? With one album, Beck managed to confuse almost everyone, although the end result is easily his most fun album, and a record that strikes a different chord to anything else.

Do you like music which is sometimes barely listenable?
Mellow Gold is right up your alley.

His first proper album, this is the album which features Loser. Aside form that, however, the record is crushingly patchy, and over half the songs are godawful messes. Whilst Loser remains a generation-defining anthem, there is nothing else on here to match it. At all. You’re almost certainly better off without it.

Do you wish the 60’s had never ended/are you a hippie?
Then you should like Modern Times.

The most recent Beck album sees him put on a black hat and head back to the times of psychedelia. As a result, almost every song employs a heavy drum machine beat behind it, as Beck details each and every one of his growing concerns with the world we live in today, one after another, with his usual incoherent rapping style. From the quick rhythm of Gamma Ray right across the spectrum to the weird spectral style of Chemtrails, Modern Guilt is a record which looks back to the past with a knowing eye, and as it does so it flips off The Grateful Dead, having just topped their entire back-catalogue. Just we just go there and say that this is better than The Grateful Dead? Better believe it, Buster.

Are you a science-fiction fan?
Then get a copy of The Information, because you’ll probably like it.

Although not hailed as the return to form it was after the limpness of Guero, The Information… was a return to form for Beck after he released the limp Guero album. Taking cues from his religion – Scientology, of course – he started talking about ghosts and exoskeletons, whilst bringing that weirdo Theremin instrument in. This was the album where he reintroduced sampling to his work, which means that on ‘Cellphone’s Dead’ he duets with a disembodied female voice. Odd, but weirdly compelling.

Do you want to have most of the famous songs?
Go with Odelay.

Odelay is the famous record, which has ‘Devil’s Haircut’, ‘The New Pollution’, ‘Where It’s At’ and ‘High 5’ on it. If you want to hear a record which will utterly kick your arse every time you hear it, then buy this record. In fact, even if you plump for one of the other options… buy this one as well, anyway. It’s without any doubt (in our minds) one of the best, most innovative, most entertaining records ever made. Come for the great “beats”, stay for the disjointed raps about orgies in buses and twin turntables. From start to almost-end (the last song is rubbish), Odelay is purely fun.

Did you like Odelay?
Then listen to Guero.

Beck wasn’t selling very much in the early 00’s, so he decided to go back to his beginning, employ the producers who helping him make Odelay, and repeat the formula. It’s a diminished return, sure, but the opening three songs are fun enough. However, you’re much better off sticking with the original.

None of that interest you?
Then maybe you should get Mutations.

It’s an album of odds and ends, which just about make a cohesive whole. After Beck made Odelay, people were asking him to make sure that his second album was more of the same – well, Beck’s a weirdo, he’s not going to listen to that. Moving away from the gravel-voice rap, he instead sings here a slight precursor to Sea Change. There is a far greater depth to that record than this one, but Mutations still retains a quirky charm. Just don’t expect for every song to be monumental, and you’ll be alright.

Not interested in buying any Beck records right now?
Then you’ve just wasted five minutes of your life.

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