Still where it’s at: Beck’s ‘Odelay’ turns 20



By Ian Flanagan / Culture Editor

The jigsaw jazz and get-fresh flow of “Odelay” has only improved with age.

Two decades hasn’t been enough time for many people to fully make sense of Beck’s alphabet soup raps or absorb all the details of the Dust Brothers’ stellar production, which just gets fresher with each listen. The chameleon-like singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s second studio album celebrates its 20th anniversary this Saturday, and its vigor hasn’t waned one bit.

Recent singles like “Dreams” and “Wow” reek of the 45-year-old’s desperate attempt to feed mainstream appetites following the renewed limelight last year’s unexpected Album of the Year Grammy win for “Morning Phase,” his most listless and uninspired album to date, generated.

Twelve albums deep, Beck is certainly beyond his prime — radically shifting his sound for each LP has turned into retreads as of late. “Guero” and “The Information,” both released in the mid-2000’s, live in Beck’s past while feeling calculated rather than animated, and “Morning Phase” companions his other classic “Sea Change,” just with no emotional measure. But in his youth, Beck conjured some peculiarly pleasing records fueled by berserk enthusiasm, and “Odelay” is his grotesque masterpiece.

On “Odelay,” — a play on the Mexican slang “órale” or “what’s up?” — the Dust Brothers built upon the zany, ironic jest of Beck’s thematic content and advanced it further. They were able to make dazzling compositions from the lines of Beck’s insane raps and cryptic, catchy hooks — not unlike the formula for his unexpected breakthrough hit “Loser” just two years before — and weave them into a rich puzzle of gut-busting rock-outs, soulful beats and ear-melting noise bits.

In an attempt to extinguish the “one-hit wonder” cries that followed “Loser” and to take full advantage of the creative freedom allowed by DGC Records who signed him initially, Beck decided to collaborate with the Dust Brothers, consisting of producers E.Z. Mike and King Gizmo.

Despite forming as early as 1985, the Dust Brothers have been fairly selective in their work, releasing only two works in the ’80s, including the innovative, sample-based sound behind the Beastie Boys’ rhymes on their finest record “Paul’s Boutique.” “Odelay” is their only full album of production from the ’90s, aside from the score of David Fincher’s “Fight Club.”

Recorded in a tiny room in the Brothers’ house in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, the sound of “Odelay” reflects the lo-fi environment of its conception, incorporating abrupt changes and collage-like composition. Despite generating two charting singles and peaking at 16 on the Billboard 100, the album’s sound — only made accessible at all by the Brothers’ buoyant touch — is bracing, novel and often bewildering.

Take “Hotwax,” the album’s second track, which has a Spanish chorus translating to “I am a broken record / I have bubblegum in my brain.” Less than four minutes contains eight diverse samples, Beck’s looped slide guitar, some electric riffs and a few dank verses, ending with “All my days I got the grizzly words / Hijack flavors that I’m flipping like birds.” The song is his boldest fusion of hip-hop and folk, unfolding into new waters every 20 seconds thanks to the Brothers’ arsenal of wild drums and noise breakdowns.

Though “Where It’s At” is perhaps Beck’s coolest song — I could listen to its final 90-second jam out all day, and the main riff is severely funky — “Hotwax” is easily the most exemplary track on “Odelay.” It captures the way Beck’s redneck wordplay and the Brothers’ sleek, screwy production complement and elevate each of their sounds into something confident and undeniable yet completely bonkers.

In “The New Pollution,” Beck gets his heart broken by a woman “riding low on the drunken rivers.” Describing a girl who has “a cigarette on each arm” and “a paradise camouflage,” the spirited and original portrait of a femme fatale was about as romantic as he ever got on the album. As the lightest and most radio-friendly piece of the whole, it works as a slightly twisted yet comfortably grooving pop song.

The wilder side of Beck shows much more though, as he raps fiercely — “blowing static on a paranoid shortwave” — through the insanity of “Novacane,” screams about frogs at the end of “Minus” and becomes a morose snake-charmer on the Middle-Eastern-esque “Derelict.”

The easiest criticism of the eclectic performer’s work is that Beck has little meaning behind his words — but through the nonsense, Beck is communicating to listeners that life is absurd, and a line like “Let your bottom dollars fall / throwing your two bit cares down the drain” somehow makes the chaos a little clearer.

He takes a breather at the end of each half of the album. Beck slowly ventures through pseudo-profundity on “Ramshackle,” the perfectly solemn closer, which was recorded along with a few similarly melancholy B-side tracks prior to the Brothers’ involvement. “Cause there’s no kind of wealth / your suiting yourself / You leave yourself behind” he explains on the final verse of the album. And on “Jack-Ass,” Beck gets real — this time with more danceability, singing “Loose ends tying a noose in the back of my mind.”

In 2008, “Odelay” received a reissue with a wealth of bonus tracks and B-sides, revealing the depths of inspiration in those long bedroom sessions. On the quirky record, just as the Brothers’ oozing beats, electronics and vibrant samples matched the nihilism of “Fight Club” a few years later, their style aligned seamlessly with Beck’s absurdist imagery and playfully tongue-in-cheek, anti-folk hip-hop rock star persona.

Beck would go on to work with producers like Nigel Godrich and Danger Mouse, even reteaming with the Dust Brothers a decade later on “Guero,” but the magic never matched “Odelay,” proving the record truly earns the “lightning in a bottle” cliche.

While his mid-’90s counterparts were busy taking rock music into grunge and similarly dreary places, Beck put the fun and the freedom back into the idea of a man jamming on a guitar — by adding two turntables and a microphone.

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