Odelay (Spotify Link)
1996, DGC Records. Producers: Beck Hanson; The Dust Brothers; Mario Cataldo, Jr.; Brian Paulson; Tom Rothrock; Rob Schnapf.
In My Collection: CD, 1996.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Odelay, by Beck, is a record entirely of its era, an amalgam of genres, ideas, styles and choices from the mid-Clinton-era United States. Beck’s creativity never wanes, and even when he’s channeling his earlier, “Loser” self, he keeps the songs interesting and catchy. Beck demonstrated he was so much more than a one-hit-wonder, and his success into the next three decades confirms what many suspected the first time they heard Odelay: Beck is here to stay.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 40
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I’m old enough to remember when Beck was the hippest, hottest, most groundbreaking sound around. If you’ve read a bunch of these 100 Fave posts, you’ll know that I can remember farther back than that. A lot farther. And even farther than that. But for now, we’ll just settle into the soft glow of the mid-90s, when the nation ignored the creepiness, crimes, and ugly policies of the President because his opponents were even worse. When Silicon Valley was flexing its muscles and trying to disrupt things, but still mostly whiffing. When my girlfriend and I were buying our first computer together, by far the most valuable object we co-owned, and actually getting married. Oh yeah, that’s right. We got married in 1996.
We’d been sharing an apartment for a year an a half, and getting married seemed like the natural next step. By natural I mean in a practical, step-wise sense. Just like a growing lizard must shed its skin, or CO₂ must enter the Calvin Cycle, after deciding to mingle finances on a home, a couple must both have access to good, cost-effective healthcare. You see, while I was pursuing acting and comedy gigs in San Francisco, I held a job in the biotech/pharma industry that had pretty decent healthcare benefits. My girlfriend was finishing up a Master’s degree and working as an intern for the US government, so she had no healthcare. What better reason to enter into the contractual obligation of marriage (in America, anyway, with its fucked-up healthcare delivery system) than obtaining good healthcare?
So we woke up one morning, called in sick, called her old roommate, a professional photographer, and asked him to be our witness, went to San Francisco City Hall, and found the Marriage and Domestic Partner Commissioner’s office1. It was a lovely ceremony, lasted 15 minutes, and cost $110. A friend who was out of work came along, and left an hour later having been made a San Francisco Marriage and Domestic Partner Commissioner! (She pointed out that her brother in Rabbinical School had to wait 4 years to be able to marry people, and she earned the privilege in a few minutes.)
This little story, to me, is a microcosm of the 90s. You might not realize it today, in 2023, but the idea of getting married without a big plan was pretty strange in 1996. (Later that day we bought plastic rings at a variety store because we didn’t think our friends would believe us if we didn’t have rings.) But ideas of marriage were changing. In 2023, folks are used to seeing all different kinds of people with different arrangements and approaches to creating a family. And in the mid-90s, particularly in places like SF, the seeds of this cultural shift were being planted.
There have always been folks on the edges of cultural propriety, doing things that cause the rest of society to gasp in dismay. But the 90s felt like the time when doing things differently from the norm began to take hold and become the norm. Just as the nerds in high tech were causing Americans to reconsider what was “cool,” Gen Xers were questioning all the unwritten rules of culture, and culture was responding with “You know, you have a good point there.” The Hippies did this in the 60s and 70s, too, but culture continued painting them as weirdos. Gen-Xers were the kids and younger siblings of the Hippie generations, so it was just how we were.
LGBTQ awareness and tolerance was growing, as stars like Greg Louganis (1994) and Ellen Degeneres (1997) came out. It wasn’t perfect, but by 1998 America reacted in horror to Matthew Shepard’s murder, a stark contrast to the indifference shown less than 20 years earlier during the initial AIDS epidemic. The first medical marijuana law was passed in California in 1996, and by ’99 four states had legalized it outright. The spiraling decline in religion over the past two decades began in the 1990s2. And in music, the genre wars of the past were beginning to end, and musicians were combining all sorts of new ingredients in their melody stews.
I’ll never write about “nü-metal” or “rap-rock” because I never connected with it. (Except for Rage Against the Machine. I guess they’re in that category? Who knows; the whole music categorization thing is so weak.) But even before 90s acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit were metal-izing hip-hop motifs, there had been rap/rock hybrids surfacing every now and then. Metal fan Ice-T featured hard rock guitar in songs in the 80s, and famously led the hardcore band Body Count. Rap/rock collaborations, like 1991’s Anthrax version of the Public Enemy song “Bring the Noise,” crested with the 1993 Soundtrack to the film Judgment Night. But blending hip-hop and rock didn’t simply result in rappers rhyming over metal guitars or metal bands rapping. Many of hip-hop’s production techniques started to be heard everywhere, particularly in popular alternative rock songs.
Cake’s “Going the Distance” featured a tootling synth line, just like the one lifted from Parliament and featured in Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” Foundational elements of hip-hop, like sampling and DJ scratching, were heard on songs from acts like The Verve, and Sugar Ray. Hell, The Beastie Boys even had the privilege3 to become alternative rock stars. By the end of the decade, hip-hop motifs were a necessary ingredient for alternative rock one-hit-wonder stardom – just ask Len and Wheatus and Crazy Town.
But to my mind the coolest, perhaps purest, blend of hip-hop and rock (and several more styles than that) was Beck’s 1996 album Odelay. In 1993 I’d pegged Beck for one-hit novelty song status, expecting his 1993 top ten smash “Loser” to land somewhere between “Pac-Man Fever” and “Rock Me Amadeus” in terms of artistic legacy. But repeated listening to “Loser” reveals that there’s much more happening there than simply a fun, sing-along chorus and a few DJ scratches. Beck amalgamated sounds in a way that Buckner & Garcia or Falco hadn’t even attempted. I didn’t buy Mellow Gold, the album featuring “Loser,” but when I heard the first few singles from Odelay, I rushed out and bought the CD.
“Where It’s At,” the first single, is a ramshackle, folked-up-hip-hop singalong that takes all the elements of “Loser,” substitutes an electric piano for the acoustic guitar, and “two turntables and a microphone” for “I’m a loser, baby,” then ratchets up all of the sampling and studio shenanigans.
I always put links to the lyrics of songs. For Beck songs, however, I don’t know how helpful it is to read them. Much like Yes or early R.E.M., Beck’s lyrics tend to live in some space where cool words and catchy phrases carry their own meaning apart from whatever it is that, grammatically and linguistically, the combination of words would typically denote. (In other words, if you know what “Shine your shoes with your microphone blues/ Hirsutes with your parachute fruits” means, well god bless ya.) But the phrases are memorable. (“The jig-saw jazz and the get-fresh flow.” “Bottles and cans, just clap your hands.” “Members only hypnotizers.”) And the sounds and samples (the robot vocal; “That was a good drum-break;” “I rock the most;” “what about those who swing both ways? AC-DCs?;” “Let’s make it out, baby”) jell perfectly with the mellow groove of the song. Even the little drum break before “Where it’s at!” sticks in my head. It’s a super memorable song. And it has a way-cool organ solo outro (3:14.)
The next single was the lead track on the CD, “Devil’s Haircut.” When I’d heard “Where It’s At,” I thought it sounded like “Loser – Part 2,” but I liked it. “Devil’s Haircut” made me think there was probably more to the album that I’d really like.
For one thing, there’s a melody that’s sung by Beck! The lyrics are as bizarre as ever4 but there’s a catchy, if repetitive, tune to them. And the song is quite repetitive. I’m pretty sure the bass the same four notes for the entire song – but somehow all the noises and samples keep it from driving me insane. Plus the drums, like at 1:06, keep propelling it forward. There’s also a cool harmonica solo after the first chorus. The next single after “Devil’s Haircut” follows a similar script: catchy repetitive hook pumped up with found sounds, and strange lyrics. It seems to be about a woman this time. But somehow “The New Pollution” doesn’t really hold my attention.
Despite those similar tunes, Odelay is actually a stylistically diverse record. Take, for example, “Jack-Ass,” where he really goes into singer-songwriter mode. I think it works brilliantly.
But it’s hard to ever know what Beck’s singing about. Is “Hotwax” really about a karaoke weekend in a suicide shack? I doubt it, but it sounds really cool, nonetheless. With it’s old-timey guitar, distorted harmonica, and gross-fart-synth noise, it’s a funky soundscape that repeats the “Loser” vibe with style. (Plus it introduces the “enchanting wizard of rhythm.” (3:17.)) Then again, the slow groove “Readymade” actually seems to have a point, about moving on and freedom. He uses cool self-harmony and what sounds like an actual band, as opposed to a bunch of samples. It’s a mellow singer-songwriter turn, but keeps enough trashiness to be unmistakably Beck.
He turns even more singer-songwriter on the subdued “Ramshackle.”
His voice is flimsy but expressive on this little ode to couples and togetherness. Lyrically, it’s a sort of abstract modernist update of The Beatles‘ “Two of Us.” The song shows off just how wide Beck’s range of influences is. It’s a song you wouldn’t expect to sit next to “High 5 (Rock the Catskills),” a straight-up, heavily-sampled hip-hop track. (Which totally rocks, by the way, in a Beastie Boys style.) Then there’s a track like “Minus,” which is kind of heavy rock? It definitely demonstrates Beck’s versatility, but also shows that not everything necessarily works well.
Another genre featured on Odelay is, believe it or not, honky-tonk. Well, Beck-style honky-tonk.
“Lord Only Knows” would sound at home on a 1960s Waylon Jennings record. Except for the freakout opening, studio noise and weird guitar solo (1:31). Also, the lyrics are a bit too indirect – but it’s a great song! Variety is what makes an album re-listenable to me, and Odelay has it throughout. “Derelict” would NOT fit on a Waylon album. It’s creepy slow funk slop, and it just works. It’s hypnotic, Moroccan5, and has the standard Beck word-salad lyrics.
“Novacane” also rides a funky beat, with a shaggy rap on top. It’s another spin in the “Loser”-mobile, not particularly distinctive. I would pick “Sissyneck” as the most perfect distillation of what Odelay has to offer. It’s got cool samples, a bit of a country flair, a nifty riff, and a great melody. The drumbeat is fun, and the harmony vocals stand out. The lyrics are once again opaque, but Beck delivers them with style. It’s one of my favorites on the record.
Odelay is a kitchen-sink record. It’s got everything. It accepts the world around it, immerses itself in diverse sounds and thoughts, and doesn’t stand on bullshit like tradition and institutional conventions. It’s what the 90s were like. It’s what America is like. Sure, in this era there are scared, whiney-baby trolls trying to fuck it up. But even myth-worshiping judges and hateful bigoted governors can’t stop what we started. Go listen to Odelay and you’ll understand.
“Lord Only Knows“
“The New Pollution“
“Where It’s At“
“High Five (Rock the Catskills)“