The first disc I ever spun on my brand new, Nickel-Cadmium powered, rechargeable, refurbished Sony Discman was Pearl Jam’s 1994 album, Vitalogy. That was, by my recollection, the last year my brother Brad lived at home during his final break from college. He had brought home with him his sweet stereo system and speakers that I have yet to eclipse in my personal ownership, and his vast CD collection. I had poured through it, sampling almost every genre of music popular on the college scene, but he moved to the big city and took his CDs with him (sadly, before dirt cheap CD copying technology arrived).
When Odelay came out, I was 13 (going on 14). I bought the album on a trip to Best Buy with my mother and grandmother (before you judge, see the part of the blog where I lived in the sticks and there was no music store in my town). My brothers had somehow pooled their meager earnings to purchase for me a Sony stereo system when I graduated middle school. It had a dual tape deck, a three disc turntable on the top, and a digital AM/FM tuner with 30 presets. I still have it today, and I bring it with me if I’m working (it is now a glorified FM stereo, as the CD player has been broken for years and the tape deck is essentially useless since I no longer have any tapes).
The amount of storeable presets was laughable, since we only got maybe 15 channels on FM, and only about three that I actually cared to listen to: Q101 (these days it plays a strange mix of early alternative and what is loosely called “alternative”), 103.5 (hard rock, now defunct), and 93.1 WXRT (which I equated at the time with old-person rock, but now is my go to).
In retrospect, none of these channels were very good. On occasion, I listened to a song I liked, and bought a really great album, but mostly I just ended up buying a lot of CDs made by bands of marginal quality for about four or five years before I got cable, started watching shows like 120 Minutes, and (ultimately) moved down to college. This was not a very productive period in my music life. I flirted with pointless bands like Alice in Chains, hoping to extract meaning from very thin performances. I got to many of them by the third or fourth albums, after the good stuff was done and over with.
I’m not sure all these years later that Beck was one of those acts, but re-listening to Odelay sure sounds like an album with a high concept, but precious little substance. For what it is, the album delivers on a wide variety of samples, inventive(ly sampled) beats, and definite atmospheres. I’m not sure what the dominant atmosphere is (even now), but “70’s night club with a variety of sleazy characters milling about” seems to capture many of tracks. Let’s just forget about all of those, including “Hotwax,” “Lord Only Knows,” the off-key “Derelict,” and the ubiquitous “Where It’s At” (if we’re ever going to get to some of the good stuff on this album).
“Devils [sic?] Haircut” opens the album and transcends a lot of the rock tropes at the time. The solos, such as they are, are jarring and full of abrasive guitar work. The drum echoes and guitar motif sound borderline industrial, and the track turns somewhat aggressive in a Reznor-esque way with Hansen’s final, distorted, screaming chorus. “The New Pollution” tries to follow in the same suit, but the slick production work and brash saxophone put it back in that 70’s club. It’s really trying to break through, but this track is a major regression in my opinion.
The energy on “Minus” and “Novocane” is still pertinent. On the former, the nonsensical lyrics are not a distraction, but carry the frenetic pace of the song. When it lulls out with a discordant break about 70 seconds in, I get the sense that Hansen is trying to communicate with the listener: “Goddamn dude, I just sent you to fucking space on a rocket ship, give me a sec.” He then returns even crazier, with a backing vocal track that’s going way off the rails, before once again coasting to a halt: “That’s it. You rode it. I’m out.”
That’s what still works for me about this album. The sleazebag vibe, whether this was a “concept” or not, doesn’t come across so hip anymore, especially not after his subsequent two albums where he milked exotica for all it was worth. My love for his forays into hip hop on this album tell me that I had a burgeoning interest in this genre as a kid, but my isolated upbringing in the Illinois countryside without cable television left me precious few outlets for such an exploration. The difference between Beck and hip hop artists that I listen to today: they have more to say than Beck, write lyrics that are clever/socially poignant, and are much more skilled at the delivery.
After all of this, I still have a huge affinity for the album. If nothing else, Odelay is a Herculean fusion effort, where Hansen successfully merges country, folk, rock, and hip hop into an aesthetic. I find the lack of lyrical meaning largely excusable (my favorite band in the universe, Wilco, has plenty of tracks with some crazy nonsense vocals). I can’t see my college age brother listening to this album with his friends and liking it, but much like the access to his CD collection, this album primed me for even weirder musical excursions in the future.
Okay, gotcha, next please
R.E.M – New Adventures in HI-FI (1996)
Many Artists – Tibetan Freedom Concert (1997)
Sublime – Sublime (1996)