Welcome to #ThrowbackThursday, a weekly column where I take a close look at a classic album. Maybe it's an album you haven't heard of, maybe it's an album you're aware of but haven't ever bothered giving a proper spin, maybe it's an album you love and wouldn't mind being reminded of. Regardless, the goal is to spark conversation about the albums that made today's music what it is.
Ed. note: this column is coming off a two-week hiatus; Ethan has had too much going on to write. This was supposed to get published last week, but Ethan was without power. There will be another #TBT this week in its regularly-scheduled Thursday slot as well.
I'm not a smart man. It's always good to strike when the iron's hot, and I don't always do that. I should have posted this edition of #ThrowbackThursday right after Kanye's infamous protests of Beck winning album of the year, but I didn't. I could have posted it right when Kanye apologized, but I didn't. I'm not a smart man. I'm also posting this on a Tuesday.
In any case, Kanye had a point: Beck's Grammy-winning Morning Phase, while a solid late-career record, wasn't the most cutting edge album released last year. It was good, but it wasn't an example of a work that really did anything to push the musical envelope, whatever that means. The thing is, Beck is absolutely that calib of a musician. To find an example of that, let's take a trip back to 1996 and give Odelay a spin.
Odelay was produced by the Dust Brothers, who--aside from Odelay--are best remembered for the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, one of the most influential and legendary rap albums of all time. That record was when hip hop separated from its origins in relatively straightforward funk and disco samples and took on its own sonic life: simultaneously obscure yet musical, eclectic yet singular, willing to take influences (and yes, actual, physical samples) from completely off-the-wall sources for the sake of fresh--but more importantly, great--music.
This record is when alternative rock--if for one fleetingly glorious moment--did the same.
"Devils Haircut," the album opener, starts things on a groovy note: chicken-scratch guitar synergizes with sampled breakbeats, harmonica riffs, and an ever-present bassline as Beck delivers his trademark impressionistic non sequitur lyrics--what is a devil's haircut and what is it doing in Beck's mind? The track is a great example of the Dust Brothers' ability to completely change the direction of a song by incorporating some left-field breakdown. If this sounds like anything like, say, the Beastie Boys' "Shake Your Rump," you know why. The track ends as noise, as Beck's megaphone-filtered shouts devolve into feedback.
"Hotwax" starts with a Delta blues slide guitar, which gives way to a organ riff over a restrained drum loop that sounds like something plucked straight from Willie Nelson's funkier material--think Shotgun Willie. Beck's megaphone makes a return, filing in the gaps between his half-rapped lyrics. A drum fill takes the song to a proto-trip hop coda, with hand drums and a repeated keyboard note that sounds like a heartbeat monitor. This could probably be the intro music for a medical drama, were it not for obscure vocal samples: "I AM THE WIZARD OF RHYTHM" will be burned in your head after this one.
"Lord Only Knows" cranks up to 11 the warped Americana already shown on the album: pedal steel guitar and a honky-tonk chord progression provide the framework for a song that--if not for more breakbeats and psychedelic fuzzed-out guitar--would be a fairly straightforward country number. Among Beck's more obscures turns of phrase, legitimately wistful country-sounding nuggets pop up: "You'll do what you please, and I'll do what I can." The song turns into pure tropicalia as Beck repeats the album title: "Odelay, odelay, odelay," which--it's worth noting at some point--is a nonsense albeit Spanish-sounding word. The track fades out just slowly enough so all you hear is Beck's lyrical magnum opus: "Going back to Houston/ Do the hot dog dance/ Going back to Houston/ To get me some pants." No joke, I missed this probably the first ten times I heard this song.
"The New Pollution" starts with a muzak-y vocal pattern before going full lounge. This song sounds like the soundtrack to every half-formed conception you'd have of a intellectual dinner party thrown in a 60s New York bachelor pad. The saxophone on this is so smooth you could spread it with the temple of a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. This is probably my favorite song on the record: all the samples on this sound perfect, and the clarinet solo is too cool.
(It should be mentioned that a lot of this album comes from samples, but unlike most earlier sample-based music, the samples were recorded live in the studio. Music Radar covers this better than I can.)
"Derelict" is, by comparison, almost mostly percussive: aside from distorted-to-hell-and-back synth, the backing here is an exotic drum riff joined by shakers and some obscure-sounding membranophone. Halfway through the song, a heavily modulated vocal sample takes over: I'm too rusty to tell you if it's Phyrgian dominant or merely half-diminished, but this combined with some tablas and legitimate sitar sounds like a middle eastern bazaar filtered through piles of steel wool.
"Novacane," starting with subdued guitar and cymbal washes, gives way to the grungiest guitar riff on Odelay. A 70s AM radio horn break leads in to Beck's rapped lyrics. The song is a legitimate smorgasbord of breakdowns.
"Jackass," another album highlight, is one of the more gentle and lyrically direct cuts on the record--which isn't saying much. "I've been drifting along/ In the same stale shoes/ Loose ends tying a noose/ In the back of my mind." Tambourine and melodic bass provide the rhythm over which layers of flanger and auto-wah guitar dance together. The song ends with an extended, freewheeling guitar solo, with harmonica providing a counterpoint, and ends with a sample of a donkey braying, because Beck.
"Where It's At," one of Beck's best-known songs and also the best example of his absolute mastery of incorporating megaphones into music, is better heard than described--the song is guided by a constant organ riff, but devolves into absurdism more times than I'm willing to count. Obscure, proto Avalanches-style vocal samples--some from Beck himself--frequently cut through Beck's crazed insistence that you know he's using two turntables and a microphone. "That was a good drum break," indeed.
"Minus" is essentially punk rock as seen through rose-tinted 90s coffeeshop hipster shades. Energetic drums and a fuzzed-out guitar riff guide the song back and forth to lurching breakdown before returning in full-force, ending in pure noise.
"Sissyneck" is more of the same: more funky organ and driving, snare-fueled drums during the verses alternate with more country-tinged choruses: "I got a stolen wife/ And a rhinestone life/ And some good ol' boys." This song, although not a standout, might be the best example of Odelay's singular, unique vision: smashing together wildly disparate genres into something completely fresh. It's only fitting that it ends in a hand drum breakdown.
"Readymade" is a downbeat, bass-driven song--the highlights here are dub-influenced horns that work in perfect tandem with the bass. "High 5 (Rock The Catskills)" is the cut on the album that shares the most sonic characters with the Dust Brothers' all-over-the-place work on Paul's Boutique. Starting with bossa nova guitar, the track quickly becomes 80s rap fare, replete with a synth riff you would swear was played by Herbie Hancock himself. This song goes in more directions than I can fully describe, so all I'll say is: you're going to do the robot during some point listening to it. This is a 100% statistical guarantee.
Album closer "Ramshackle"'s title could belong to almost any song on the album other than itself: folky Nick Drake-style guitar is underscored by subdued bass and stomping percussion. This is the slowest, most mellow, understated song on the record, a fitting conclusion, a respite from the unrelenting genre-smashing and light-hearted, tongue-pressed-firmly-in-cheek experimentalism of the rest of the record.
There really aren't many records in the history of rock that sound a thing like Odelay. This album is almost completely iconoclastic--and certainly unrivaled--in its willingness to step outside the bounds of genre, stick a whole bunch of shit in a grab bag, and come marching back in victoriously with its own spoils of victory.
Odelay is a musical McGangBang, combining things that shouldn't make sense together, that don't make sense together, and jamming them within each other. Beck and the Dust Brothers did the aural equivalent of taking the sheet music of conventionality, putting it through a pawn-store paper shredder, and throwing the shreds back in your face as amazingly tuneful confetti.
That's to say, this record is incredible. I cited country, tropicalia, muzak, funk, hip-hop, folk, noise, and punk as specific influences, but merely listing influences doesn't compare to hearing them play out together.
You'll see a lot of the same poly-genre eclecticism and gleeful sampling in other forms of music--I mentioned The Avalanches as one example, and DJ Shadow is another--but this record is unmatched in the sphere of rock music. The closest experience you can have to Odelay is putting your car windows down and somehow finding a way to drive through ten different neighborhoods at the same exact time.
I think my point is that there aren't enough analogies to fully describe Odelay, but I can't stop coming up with them--I think that says enough. Just listen to this album. I don't care that it was released in 1996; Odelay deserves every Record of the Year Grammy since.