Eclectic Light Orchestra

David Fenton reviews Beck's album "Odelay".

Published June 10, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

We loved you, Beck. But then, of course, we hated you. The massive about-face that spread through our ranks was as contagious as your famous refrain: "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me." We sang along happily when your rootsy folk-hop piqued our ravenous appetites for tasty hooks and catchy choruses. Then we shouted you down when you tried to teach us the Delta blues at Lollapalooza. We loved you, baby, when your cheesy iron-on retro-tees and shit-brown corduroy flares matched ours. Then we laughed in disgust when we saw your crooked teeth and realized that thrift stores were where you'd always shopped. We anointed you spokesman, you loser -- we even called your song "anthem" -- and then used the oil left over to lube up the waiting alternaculture grist-mill. And off you went, doe-eyed and laconic, acoustic guitar in hand and harmonica in mouth, right through our gunsights and into the sad, sad life of the one-hit wonder. Right?

Not really. It seems you were hard at work, actually -- a mad musical alchemist, collecting samples, performing experiments, trying to fuse together from an improbable jumble of musical ingredients -- hip-hop, blues, country and Western, old-school rap, flatpicking folk -- a solution so potent as to magically assuage the collective snot-rash of all those who let "Loser" and its endless rotations write your ticket.

Consider your time well-spent. "Odelay" is as seamless and coherent as any mix of honkytonk stomps, jeep-rattling beats, twisted electro-grooves, plaintive pop ballads, and genuinely bizarre lyrical vignettes could possibly be. This is the semi-parallel universe where Charley Patton meets EPMD, where Lefty Frisell meets a "Paul's Boutique"-era Beastie Boys, where Pavement's Steven Malkmus meets Biz Markie.

What's most startling about "Odelay" is not just the mere presence of this unholy conglomeration of influences but the fact that it all seems so damn natural. Steel guitars and harmonicas seep effortlessly into place alongside rolling hip-hop bass and drum combos on tunes like "Sissyneck" and "Hotwax, " while the country-rock ramble of "Lord Only Knows" seems perfectly, and logically, poised for the beat-centered breakdown that appears at its end. Like the post-apocalyptic cowboy that he is, Beck rides those miles of honkytonk fences in a lowered mini-truck.

On relatively straight-ahead rap tracks like "Novacane" and "High 5 (Rock the Catskills)," Beck's healthy command of old-school beats becomes apparent. The fuzz factor is at critical mass, of course -- remember who we're dealing with here -- but the layers of overdriven guitar, bass, and vocals, battling for control with a collection of squelches, beeps, and skronks rich enough to rival any self-respecting arcade's, never quite lose their grounding, thanks to the crisp, clean, and ever-so-solid beats maintained by the Dust Brothers production team (Beastie Boys, Tone Loc). Shout-outs, come on y'all's, I get down all the way's, even a Midnight Star freakazoid-style voice announcing, "I got two turntables and a microphone" on "Where It's At" -- it's all here, like a flashback to a late-'80s rapper's theme park.

"Odelay" isn't all bump and twang, though. That sweet, gentle, babe-in-the-woods persona that somehow made so many of us come to revile Beck stakes its claim here too, and holds its own quite well alongside the lonesome cowpokes and pimp-limping b-boys. "Jackass" is a delicate, melancholy ballad, with tinkling, chime-like electric guitars vibrating nicely alongside muted acoustic strums and a positively blue harmonica (though you couldn't resist closing it with a drum break and some sampled pig squeals, could you?), while the closer, "Ramshackle," is similarly blue and woeful, sounding and reading like a sad and heavily sedated Kurt Cobain: "Your train's in the sand/Your ramshackle land/Let the rats watch the races."

It's lyrics like these -- cloudy and indirect, but somehow lucid and still pointed enough to paint vivid, if fragmented, little portraits --that form the glue that binds "Odelay's" crowded pastiche together. We don't always know what Beck means, but God knows it sounds like he really means it. From "Devil's Haircut: "Pistols are pointing at a poor man's pockets/Smiling eyes rip them out of their sockets...Love machines on the sympathy crutches/Discount orgies on the dropout buses." Heavy, I think.

While we were busy searching for the next screechy chanteuse or hoarse-voiced Brit-boy to batter around the modern rock playground, it seems you were studying, Mr. Beck. Pulling odd bits of vinyl from old stacks of milk crates, sorting through dusty boxes of cassette tapes, perfecting your slide guitar licks and honing your mike skills in the same quiet way -- making us a collage, saying, "This is what it's like." So, we're sorry, we guess. We thought we'd passed you up, but it was really you that was way ahead, up the road a bit, chanting in your tweaked border Spanish, "Odelay, odelay" -- "Hurry up, hurry up."

By David Fenton

David Fenton is a regular contributor to Salon.

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