Originally released June 18, 1996, Beck’s second major label album, “Odelay,” was his chance to prove that he was no one-hit wonder. His major label debut, “Mellow Gold,” had produced the hit single “Loser,” but there was a sense he hadn’t quite won over everyone. It was hard to tell who this guy was. Was he joking? Was he serious? Was he simply some sort of beat-poet novelty act? With “Odelay,” he enlisted the Dust Brothers — most famous at this point for being behind the boards for the Beastie Boys’ 1989 sonic-collage opus “Paul’s Boutique” — to help establish him as the real deal. Together they crafted a classic.
This reissue was originally meant to honor the album’s 10th anniversary, but for some reason or another it took them almost 12 years to put it together. If you are reading this, you are probably a fan and know the main album quite well. However, for those of you just discovering this record, I’ll give you a quick rundown.
“Devil’s Haircut” is a hard-hitting guitar rocker built around a simple but infectious bass line, with occasional washes of feedback and electronic glitches. It sets the tone perfectly for what’s to come: an unpredictable fun and fresh-sounding record that hasn’t aged one bit since its original release.
“Hotwax” is like an improved version of “Loser” down to the acoustic guitar loop and the Spanish-language chorus. It’s funkier, and his lyrical skills are better. You can’t beat madcap lines like “Karaoke weekend at the suicide shack, / Community service and I’m still the mack.”
“Lord Only Knows” is Beck in pseudo country-bluesman mode.
“The New Pollution” is fueled by a ’60s psychedelic go-go beat, with a righteous organ and saxophone, mixed with the Dust Brothers’ trademark audio wizardry.
“Derelict” is some seriously eerie, ghostly beat poetry, with lines like “I fell asleep in the funeral fire. / I gave my clothes to the police man.”
Both “Novacane” and “High 5 (Rock the Catskills)” with their distorted microphones sound like send-ups to the Beastie Boys’ “Ill Communication.”
“Jack-Ass” takes Them’s version of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and uses it as a backbone to create something entirely new and stirring.
“Where It’s At” is an organ-fueled ode to old-school hip-hop. (“I got two turntables and a microphone!”) This was the big single. If you haven’t heard this, where have you been?
“Minus” rocks with garage-driven energy. It’s the closest thing to a straight-forward rocker here.
“Sissyneck” is one of the best tracks in Beck’s entire catalogue. It should’ve been a single. Nowhere has there ever been such an effective fusion of Johnny Cash-esque country road-house music and hip-hop ingenuity. Here he’s at his random, lyrical best with lines like “I’ve got a beard that would disappear if I dressed in leather” and “Matchsticks strike when I’m riding my bike to the depot, / Cos everybody knows my name at the recreation center.”
“Readymade” is a scratchy (literally) cut and paste jokingly mournful blues. It sounds like its title.
Finally “Ramshackle” is a peaceful acoustic song. It has little evidence of any sort of beat magic and features jazz legend Charlie Haden on bass. At the time of the album’s release, Beck was DGC label mates with That Dog, the band featuring two of Haden’s daughters, Petra Haden and Rachel Haden. I have no idea if the label connection led to the collaboration, but it’s a good guess. (Note: Petra Haden has since become more famous for her work with the Rentals, playing violin with the Foo Fighters and Green Day and recording a complete a cappella version of “The Who Sell Out.”)
Now, the real reason for this review. The bonus tracks are set off by Beck’s 1997 single “Deadweight” taken from the soundtrack to “A Life Less Ordinary.” If you ask me, it should’ve been the “Odelay” closer all along. Its martini-sipping, bemused, ’60s movie-theme vibe serves as a nice bridge between the experimentation of “Odelay” and the Donovan-esque, guitar strumming, harpsichord playing, tropicalia-tinged “Mutations,” which came out in 1998.
Next is “Inferno,” a mishmash of sounds, blips and turntable work. At seven minutes, it was probably cut for time. As far as song structure goes, it’s pretty loose, working more in small movements than traditional sections, but at the same time, it exhibits all the qualities that make Beck’s work with the Dust Brothers so exhilarating.
“Gold Chains” would’ve fit all right on the album, with its chorus of “I’m going back home with my gold chains swinging,” but it’s understandable why it didn’t quite make the cut. The best part of the song is when a chorus of mockingly cutesy-sounding girls shouts a few women’s names for no particular reason. Such nonsensical touches have long punctuated Beck’s work.
Disc two is a B-side and remix gold mine. It sets off with U.N.K.L..E.’s expansive remix of “Where It’s At.” Full of laser-beam belches, a low, ominous rumbling bass and a beat that struts along with authority, it is reminiscent of DJ Shadow’s “The Number Song.” At 12:26, it surprisingly isn’t too long.
From a remix that works well, to two that sort of don’t, next are two takes on “Devil’s Haircut.” The first one is a sped-up drum-and-bass remix by Aphex Twin. It makes the whole thing sound very alien, although the instrumental parts tend to be interesting. The second is a garage punk/hardcore workout dubbed “American Wasteland.” It would work — if the “Devil’s Haircut” vocal tracks actually matched the new background.
A few of these B sides would’ve been standout tracks on the main album. “Clock” exhibits the same distortion pattern as “Novacane” and “High 5 (Rock the Catskills),” whereas “Feather in Your Cap” shows off a level of maturity which foreshadows things to come in his career.
“Electric Music and the Summer People ” is a thunderous, acid rocker that would’ve made a pretty funny single. With its sunny chorus, it sounds not unlike his later single “Girl” from 2005′s “Guero.” The bizarre ending will hopefully make you laugh.
“Thunder Peel” is also a quite appealing garage ready jam. It too would have made for a good left-field single. Perhaps it was considered too straight ahead to make the album.
Often these tracks seem like Beck and the Dust Brothers were just shooting things at the wall and seeing what stuck. Sometimes it worked better than others. “Lemonade” has an abrasive bare-beat call and response set-up, whereas “SA-5″ sounds like tweaked jangle-pop. The level of experimentation is so evident in these B sides, thus giving us unique insight into what really happened behind the scenes while this masterpiece was constructed.
There are some moments of profound weirdness, like “Erase the Sun” and the brooding, backward dirge that is “.000.000,” but these songs are not without their charms. They are part of the whole picture. Some of the acoustic workouts recall the most experimental aspects of his early recordings, but if you are a fan of his, you should have no problem with these slightly difficult stretches.
The discs close with a mariachi-band-assisted rendition of “Jack-Ass” retitled “Burro.” For the track, the song is translated into Spanish. With the horn section and the semi-cheery backdrop, it sounds like a much happier, brighter song. It is completely reinvented in a truly remarkable way.
“Odelay” to date is Beck’s biggest seller. Some would say it’s his best work. I’d argue, no. It’s among his best work and thus it merely set off the stream of his best work. Every album he has released since has equaled this album’s brilliance, in its own different way. “Mutations” showed a still goofy, yet more serious singer-songwriter side. “Midnight Vultures” brought forth the smooth-loving R&B, space-funk side of Beck, owing a great deal to Prince.
“Sea Change” dropped the irony completely and gave us a dead-serious Beck getting in touch with his inner Gordon Lightfoot. “Guero” saw him reteamed with the Dust Brothers, thus giving us an older, wiser album in the “Odelay” mold.” Finally “The Information” was an ominous space-age, paranoid workout of epic proportions. He’s a shape-shifting groundbreaker. His whole DGC catalogue deserves to be reissued and expanded this way.
If you are a huge fan, this reissue is highly worth it. If you have never heard a Beck album, this might be a good place to start. This is worth getting for the liner notes alone, in which author Dave Eggers interviews some clueless teenagers about their opinions of the record. Most of them seem highly confused. Sadly, they were too young when it originally came out. Oh well. Presumably, there is still plenty of time to catch up.