Tag Archives: 1996

Odelay, by Beck – Album #134


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.


~ ~ ~

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 office[ref]In 1996 the city of San Francisco granted marital rights to domestic partners. The City was so far ahead of the rest of America on Human Rights.[/ref]. 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 1990s[ref]I generally think of this as a positive development, although it’s clear over the past thirty years that this decline has acted as a kind of zealotry distillation apparatus, in which the kinder, more thoughtful believers have evaporated from a given faith, and the hardcore assholes are left behind, which leads to a Supreme Court with five high priests whose dumbass invisible myth restricts women’s rights.[/ref]. 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 privilege[ref]Wink, wink.[/ref] 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 ever[ref]Love machines on the sympathy crutches/ Discount orgies on the dropout buses?[/ref] 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.

This is a terrific headphones song – so much is happening in the background. For one thing, the bass is doing interesting, simple swirls in the background. And the organs create a spiraling, dreamlike atmosphere. And Beck’s thin voice is actually full of emotion – even if I don’t know what he’s singing about it sounds like he surely does. It’s a nice song, one of my favorites on the record.

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, Moroccan[ref]I guess? I don’t know Moroccan music, but it’s what I imagine it sounds like?[/ref], 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.

Devil’s Haircut
Lord Only Knows
The New Pollution
Where It’s At
High Five (Rock the Catskills)


Sublime, by Sublime – Album #130


Sublime, by Sublime (Spotify Link)
1996, MCA. Producer: Paul Leary and David Kahne
In My Collection: CD 1996.

(5 minute read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Sublime, the 1996 album from Sublime, isn’t as good as I thought it was 25 years ago. It’s got some fun sounds, and the rhythm section of Eric Wilson on bass and Bud Gaugh on drums is tight and consistent. Bradley Nowell sings bro-ey songs and plays the git-tar like a MFing riot, at times, but at 17 songs the album is just way too long and starts to sound pretty much the same. But there are a few great songs, and they still sound great. I don’t know if I’d classify it as a favorite album now, but it was back in the 90s!


~ ~ ~

When I see the cover to Sublime, I’m immediately taken back to the first time that – as a music fan – I felt old. By 1996 I was comfortable in my knowledge of the new sounds of the 90s. For a while, I had even been a very small part of those sounds. I still viewed myself as fairly hip – even though I had found plenty of folks hipper than me in my city of San Francisco. But I should have realized when I heard the news that Sublime’s singer OD’d on heroin before I ever heard one of their songs that my facade was crumbling. Life Lesson: if a musician’s death makes the news and you’ve never heard of his band, you are clearly lagging, pop-culturally speaking.

But I was 29 and acting in plays while working in a lab in Palo Alto, and I guess I just lost touch. I purchased the Sublime album after hearing a few songs on the radio. My new wife and I played it a lot and we loved it. The second clue I missed was radio airplay. I knew from years of music fandom that by the time something is played on the radio, its time as “cool” has surely passed. But none of these indicators blipped for me when I heard two young, recently-graduated Research Assistants in the lab mention the band. Like an elderly jackass I butted into their conversation with, “That record is so good!”

“It’s great!” they enthused. “But the new one sucks,” one of them continued.

“Oh, really?” I countered, recognizing my gaffe. “The new record’s bad?”

“Totally sucks. 40 oz. was so great, and this new one is just shit.” They were fans of the band’s previous effort, 40 oz. to Freedom. They thought the record I loved was trash, and I became very aware of my new place in life as “older guy.” I’ve grown comfortable with this place over the years, but that first realization was quite a shock. I chose not to share further musical opinions with them that day.

I don’t recall what those guys'[ref]I think they were named Alan and Colin? Maybe Alan and Chris?[/ref] beef with Sublime was all about. I think – like most fans – they just preferred “the old stuff.” But there are a lot of things that might turn people off from Sublime.

The band co-opted a lot of different sounds – ska, hip-hop, punk, latin pop – and I know that can rub folks the wrong way. They also had a bit of dumbass-douchebag-misogyny in them. Plus, leader Bradley Nowell was a California beach kid who sailed and went to college, yet liked to sing about “the ‘hood” and project a kind of gangster affectation, and this is most definitely annoying.

But none of that mattered to me. I just liked the melodies and sounds on the record. And at 17 songs, there’s a whole lot of them on Sublime. They could’ve omitted a few songs and made a better record, but as someone who doesn’t have an editor, and has published some extremely lengthy posts, I shouldn’t be too harsh about that.

I haven’t listened to this album in a long time. My memories of bopping around to it in the kitchen with my new wife, singing along while we cooked dinner, are the reason I selected it, and began writing about it. I have a nostalgia for a very specific time (1996) and place (Coleridge St.) when thinking about Sublime, so it seemed like a good one to pick for this project. But listening to it again after 25 years, I have to say … I kind of agree with those two dudes now. I mean, I wouldn’t say the record sucks. It’s got some catchy tunes, and a few excellent songs. But on the whole, my feeling is “Why was I so into this record again?”

But I’m not going to crap all over it. It seems really burdensome, though not altogether unfunny, to assemble a bunch of insults about a 25 year old record. What’s the point? So I’ll just hit the highlights and try to remember the lesson Thumper taught us all as children[ref]I don’t really agree with that sentiment, generally, but in the case of little-read music blogs, I think it’s quite apt.[/ref].

Sublime opens with a catchy groove of a tune called “Garden Grove.”

Drummer Bud Gaugh sets a shuffle pace, establishing a cool, mellow groove. The minimalist, reggae-style bass line from Eric Wilson has a nice sound. Guitarist/Singer Bradley Nowell, who sadly died of a heroin overdose before the record was released, has a fun-loving-but-poor-decision-making persona that comes across in his lyrics. He veers from the awe over the love that he found (reggae) and his devotion to his Dalmatian, Lou-dog, to stealing anything and putting needles in his arm. Then, after impressively using the word “shit” three times in six lines, he joyfully rattles off a list of horrible living conditions (picking up trash on the freeway, living in a tweaker pad, etc) before finally inviting you, the listener, to join him. It’s a testament to his friendly style that my reaction is to say “Thank you, no,” instead of immediately fleeing.

The song also keenly uses the P-Funk hooting-organ sound from “Mothership Connection” that made millions for Dr. Dre. Sublime’s penchant for adopting hip-hop sounds is best exemplified on the next song, their big hit “What I Got,” which features scratching and samples behind a folk-rock ditty.

This song remains one of my favorites from the 90s. Wilson plays a bubbly bass, and Nowell plays a guitar like a motherfucking riot (according to the lyrics). The cut-and-paste sounds, like the “tip-de-tip from me” and “to charity-ty-ty” lines, sound fun and fresh, even though it’s all kind of a rip-off of Beck. The song even has a nice message of love, even when faced with a mom who “hits the rock.” The official video of the song is nice, too, with the surviving band members watching video of Nowell and some of his favorite things.

Wrong Way” is next, and it was also a bit of a radio hit. There’s a catchy melody. It’s got a bouncy, fun, ska sound, too, and even includes a cool trombone solo. This would make my mom happy, but she wouldn’t like the story of a child prostitute. I’m not too thrilled by the narrator’s annoyance that her tears ruin her makeup, or by his complaints that she continues to want to live the “wrong way.” “Same In the End” is a bit of a rave-up that I remember liking but that nowadays sounds kind of tiresome. Nowell does impressively spout lots of words in a short time, however.

“April 29, 1992 (Miami)” is one of my favorite songs on the record, and not just because of the sound.

The song describes the rioting that occurred after the acquittal of the fuckhead cops who beat Rodney King in LA in 1992. It uses recordings of actual police calls from Long Beach, CA, the band’s hometown, to supplement the song’s lyrics. The lyrics basically celebrate looting, which I don’t agree with, but give an insight into the mindset of some rioters. (The band purportedly participated in the Long Beach unrest. I’m not sure what “Miami” refers to.) The song’s got a groove and a menacing feel that climaxes as Nowell sings, “let it burn, wanna let it burn” at 2:48, and follows it up with a list of cities. That entire event – the trial, the acquittal, the riots – was very formative to who I am as a person, so I’m interested in any media dealing with it. And the song, though simple, rocks pretty hard.

So, the band is doing pretty well on this record so far. Lots of good stuff. And they seem headed for excellence when the next song, “Santeria,” mixes up the style and the pace of the album and provides a catchy singalong ear-worm (in a good way.)

I don’t want to get too over the top, but this song is the kind of changeup that brings to mind London Calling-level diversity of sound. It’s a bouncy number, and Nowell sings it with feeling. It’s a lost-love number that verges into toxic-masculinity-bullshit, but that hangs together on the strength of the melody. The bass is really cool, and Nowell plays a nifty little guitar solo at 1:33. Drummer Gaugh really provides just the right swing to give a Latin/Reggae feel.

To my ears, this is the point at which the band should have made some better decisions. I don’t need annoying songs like “Seed,” “Paddle Out,” and “Under My Voodoo,” or lesser retreads like “Pawn Shop” and “Get Ready.” Or a not-as-interesting remix of a good song, like “What I Got (Reprise).” (Although as recently as 2013 I did, apparently, as I rated the record pretty highly during my Big Listen.) But the band, particularly Nowell, were fans of overindulgence, so it makes sense that they didn’t know when to say “enough.” (Which, again, is something I can relate to!)

But when Nowell is really firing, even a simple song with a single groove and nonsense words really sounds great, as with the song “Jailhouse.”

Nowell’s guitar, in particular, stands out on this track. There are two guitars, at least, in the mix, and each one is doing something a bit different. Then he plays a couple different solos. At 1:50 he sounds very Classic Rock, then at 3:49 he squawks like a funkster. And Wilson’s bass again percolates to constantly move the song forward. It’s Sublime at its best. But then “The Ballad of Johnny Butt” sounds like the same song, only less inspired.

Nowell shows off some real guitar prowess on the raucous “Burritos,” a paean to doing nothing. (Or depression.) But the guitar is really great. “Caress Me Down” is a fun, catchy song that I wish I didn’t like as much as I do. It’s a horny-guy song, with some funny descriptions and some rather impressive bi-lingual rapping by Nowell. It’s a good example of the musical conundrum that is Sublime: an impressive blend of sounds and styles presented with an attitude that makes me roll my eyes.

But when it works, it really hits.

“Doin’ Time” builds around a sample of the Gershwin Porgy and Bess classic “Summertime.” Much like the opener, “Garden Grove,” a groove is established and sounds are layered on top to create a catchy, interesting piece that feels like time spent hanging out with the band. The lyrics bounce between repping their hometown Long Beach and lamenting a girlfriend who won’t be true. It’s a great album closer, a nice bookend.

Sublime is a record that – to my ears – hasn’t held up over the years, at least not as a whole. It’s got some excellent, all-time tracks. But there’s lots of filler, many skips. But you know what? Maybe I’m just getting old.

Garden Grove
What I Got
Wrong Way
Same In the End
April 29, 1992 (Miami)
Pawn Shop
Paddle Out
The Ballad of Johnny Butt
Under My Voodoo
Get Ready
Caress Me Down
What I Got (reprise)
Doin’ Time