Review by: B.B Fultz
Album assigned by: E.D.
My first acquaintance with Beck was Loser, back when it first came out and it got a lot of radio play. I’d never heard anything quite like it. It really clicked with me. So I went out and bought the Mellow Gold CD, and played the hell out of it back in the mid-90s. I really liked it from beginning to end. I was still young and relatively unjaded, still able to be impressed by weird visionaries putting new spins on old dogs. After awhile I stopped playing Mellow Gold as much and fell back on more familiar music, but I never forgot the initial effect it had on me. Of all the new artists I explored in the 90s, there was nobody and nothing quite like Beck. I never bothered buying his other albums, maybe because they didn’t get much airplay (that I know of), thus there was never a “Wow!” moment like that first time I heard Loser on the car radio. So when I was assigned a Beck album from 2005, I wasn’t sure what to expect, except I knew I probably wouldn’t be bored.
What I didn’t expect was that I’d really like this album. Because I really like this album. It’s Beck doing what he does best — Making Music Interesting. There’s a magic at work here. It’s not the same magic you’ll find in Mellow Gold, but it’s still magic because it’s still greater than the sum of its parts. Every song makes that magic in its own way, some more than others, but they all work. I couldn’t find a complete version of this album online, so I looked up the tracklist on Wiki and just searched out the individual songs and played them in order, muting the occasional commercials.
E-Pro rocks, sort of. It has drive, it has direction. A lot of early Beck seemed to meander, as if it was looking for itself. This is more “point A to point B.” I’m not quite sure what point A and B are supposed to be, but it’s an interesting ride.
Que Onda Guero was more along the line of early Beck. A catchy backbeat, random horns, surreal rapping, and lots of call-and-response in Spanish with comical little asides about popsicles and ceramic classes. More familiar territory with Mellow Gold, which is probably why I like it.
Girl was a departure. It sounded less like Beck and more like … I dunno, Dandy Warhols? Maybe someone else, I don’t know that many pop bands from the last couple decades to make accurate comparisons. Girl begins with a simplistic techno-riff, “beep-boop-beep” stuff. It’s less weird and more accessible than the other songs. It’s hooky enough to be a half-decent pop song, but it’s not what I look for when I put on a Beck album (but then maybe that was the idea?).
Missing is this weird flamenco piece, sort of like if The Girl From Ipanema decided to drop acid. There’s a weird stuttering feeling to the song, as if it’s trying to move forward but the wheels are spinning in sand. It’s got a catchy hook all the same — “Something always missing, always someone” really sticks in your head (assuming your head is my head).
Black Tambourine is a little like E-Pro — it has a good groove and forward momentum. It’s probably a little catchier also. It also has reverb-laden guitar breaks reminiscent of Where It’s At. It’s a funky and catchy little break among the trippier stuff.
Earthquake Weather goes right back to trippy, starting with the title itself. It reminds me of his old song Sweet Sunshine, at least in the beginning. But it’s tricky. It changes mood and direction less than a minute in. Sunshine mostly plods along without changing, but Weather has these strange jazzy-sounding choruses (“I push, I pull”) to break the monotony and keep things interesting.
Hell Yes is a weird little rap, set to a timing I can’t even begin to figure out. Is it 9/7? Or 11/7? Or Pi/square root of Pi? No idea, but it’s fascinating stuff. The lyrical approach is rappy, but the structure is reminiscent of some of Frank Zappa’s more experimental work with time signatures. To make an understatement, that’s a hell of an interesting combination.
Broken Drum is a mellow groove, with guitar elements and a great “never forget you” hook. It’s got this draggy, sleepy, almost hopeless feeling that reminds me of the best parts of Mellow Gold. I’m not sure if melancholy was what Beck was going for, but melancholy is how it made me feel (and not many songs can make me feel that way these days, so that’s saying something).
Scarecrow is a little less interesting and kind of fillerish. A solid backbeat, funk-pop riff, classic Beck vocal overlays. You can tune into it halfway through where there’s no singing and still probably figure out that it’s Beck just by the arrangement itself. It’s mostly Beck retreading old ground, so it’s a little formulaic (for him I mean), and it seems to peter out rather than come to a conclusion. Almost as if he got bored with it. Still, it’s not half-bad.
Go It Alone is another one that sounds a little fillerish. A simple bass/percussion riff, some adequate vocal layering in the chorus (“na na, na na na na”) … not bad I guess. Just Beck doing a little shuffle to pass the time. But that’s fine by me, because Beck has a neat way of shuffling.
Farewell Ride makes it interesting again. A “badass” blues pattern that reminds me a little of the Breaking Bad intro, propped up with some great bluesy harmonica phrases, stretched over a jangly handclap backbeat like bleached bones hung over a barricade at the edge of the map where everything beyond is blank white space. “Some may say this might be your last farewell ride” … and it sounds like what it says. It’s like the prelude to the final shootout of some surreal Western where you probably won’t understand the ending but it’s destined to become one of your favorite movies. Beck meets Sergio Leone? I wanna be there for that. Maybe the most haunting Beck song I’ve heard since Hotel City 1997, and that’s saying something. I could listen to this stuff for hours.
Rental Car is so grungey that it sounds like a Soundgarden riff dropped in the middle of a Nirvana song. In fact Beck’s vocals on this really, REALLY remind me of Nevermind-era Cobain — not just the way he sings it, but the voice itself … “Hey now girl, what’s the matter with me” sounds like it was sampled from On A Plain, and those “yeah yeah yeahs” are more Kurt than Kurt. Then those helium high “la la la la la las” come in from out of nowhere, and you realize it can only be Beck.
Emergency Exit closes things on a mellow note, almost like the album is just winding down and running out of whatever weird fuel that Beck albums run on. It’s reminiscent of Loser — the same comical guitar phrases and the same playful rap of random images that hooked me on Beck in the first place. I’m thinking the emergency exit in question is about death and whatever lies beyond, if anything. It speaks of God and angels and faith, but in a way that’s not really religious. As if Beck’s saying he doesn’t know either, but he’s betting kindness will find you on your deathbed and children will wander until the end. And all the while that draggy twangy guitar from Loser rolls on and on, like the tongue-in-cheek blues track of the Universe.
And that’s all I can really say about all this. Hopefully I’ve touched on enough interesting points to convince you this is an album worth listening to. It’s not every day you hear an album like this. I’m not sure what the future of music holds, but it’s good to know that Beck will be a part of it, at least for awhile. It gives the rest of us Losers some hope 🙂