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Stereopathetic Soulmanure

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Beck

1994

This is technically Beck's 1st full-length album being that it was released independently a week before his major-label debut Mellow Gold.  I say technically, because, to say that Stereopathetic Soulmanure is a bit of a strange beast would be quite an understatement.  It's basically a 25 song mix-tape collage of half-baked, delightfully deranged skits, home recordings, and scuzzy jams that all add up to quite a bizarre listening experience.  It's kind of like the most acid-fried moments of Mellow Gold stretched-out over the course of an hour...except even weirder and druggier (and more country-inflected).  So suffice to say if you appreciate the eccentric, warped, lo-fi genius that was Beck circa-1994 then Stereopathetic Soulmanure can be a highly entertaining listening experience.  This captures pre-fame Beck at his dirtiest, his most whacked-out/warped, his most amusing, but also, possibly his most creative. A truly bizarre mixed-bag of deranged experimentation.  Good stuff for what it is.

7.7

 

Mellow Gold

Beck

1994

Indie rock.  Generally speaking, it can be pretty hit or miss at best.  What it lacks in accessiblity it usually makes up for in creativity and artistic merit.  But more often than not, it can come off as contrived, difficult for the sake of being unconventional, spineless for fear of appearing too "macho", and generally pretentious in it's efforts to remain "underground" or "hip".  In other words, there are all these pre-conceived "rules" that indie-rock must abide by to fit into the genre and be considered "cool" ironically making it anything but in the process.

But as alluded to, that is not always the case, as Mellow Gold delivers all the typical indie-rock goods without sounding self-conscious in the process.  That probably has a lot to due with the fact that this album was put out in 1994, pre-Pitchfork, pre-hipster, etc.  On his major label debut, Beck manages to create an incredibly diverse album, melding elements of rock, funk, folk, hip-hop, and of course indie-rock into an eccentric collection of original material.

And it all sounds fresh too.  "Loser" the opening track, is the song that propelled Beck into the mainstream, with it's too-cool-for-school slacker vibe and memorable chorus.  It's a classic song, but is really only the tip of the very quirky iceburg that is Mellow Gold. 

The next track "Pay No Mind" is a great lackadaisical folk-song with incredibly creative, surreal lyrics. Creative and surreal are fitting descriptions for the entire album, as Beck is able to throw together some rather inventive ideas and subjects, creating a uniquely warped, drugged-out landscape for Mellow Gold to bask in.  "Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997" manages to paint a vivid picture of a desolate existence washing dishes in Middle of Nowhere, USA, really sucking the listener into the mundane and hopeless world the character resides in.  Really a gripping song.  "Truckdrivin' Neighbors Downstairs" is in the same vain, painting a picture of a white-trash existence in the middle of nowhere, albeit in a somewhat more twisted light.

The twisted undercurrents that weave through most of the songs add a sense of menace to the album, most notably on the alt-metal flavored "Mutherfucker".  Other songs mix the twisted vibe with a unique blend of rap-rock, like on the trippy "Fuckn' With My Head" and the brilliant "Soul Sucking Jerk", both of which sport an early 90s Beastie-Boy flavored sound. 

Other times Beck just brings the funk, like on the infectious and danceable "Beercan" and others it's more traditional folk, like on the hilarious "Nitemare Hippy Girl".  The album closes out with the melancholy and trippy "Blackhole", a dark acoustic track that is a fitting end to a strange album.

So while this is predominately an indie-rock album, it actually sounds fresh and original without being pretentious in the process.  That may have to do with the dark and druggy undercurrents that dominate the album, adding a sense of authenticity to it's bleak, slacker landscape.  Whatever the case, it's an excellent album.  Beck would go on to make cooler, hipper albums, but he never really was able to top the unique and warped nature of Mellow Gold.

9.1

One Foot in the Grave

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Beck 

1994

To round-out his incredibly prolific, creative, and mind-blowing output of 1994, Beck released One Foot in the Grave, an almost entirely acoustic/folk-centric album that has a few compelling moments.  It's less playful/eclectic than his prior releases, striking a more somber tone, which gives it a distinct sound/personality. His cover of the traditional folk ballad "He's a Mighty Good Leader" is particularly engaging, as are the following 2 tracks "Sleeping Bag" and "I Get Lonesome".  From there though, aside from the all too brief "Hollow Log" (another highlight), the rest of the album is pretty much standard stripped-down acoustic folk fair. Overall, One Foot in the Grave is definitely worth your time, particularly for fans of Beck's Mellow Gold-era. It's the counter-piece, the subdued piece to the eccentric and warped Stereopathetic Soulmanure. Something particularly pure and immediate about Beck's 1994 material, and One Foot in the Grave is a strong testament to that.  Although nothing amazing, it has it's moments, and is an intriguing listen overall.

7.8

Odelay

Beck

1996

The great thing about Beck is his ability to borrow from multiple genres of music and still produce something that sounds fresh, original, and distinct.  And the man really clicks on all the proverbial cylinders on Odelay, which many consider to be his best album.  There's rock, funk, hip-hop, country, folk, all the usual suspects you would expect from any quality Beck album. Odelay has a somewhat more upbeat and accessible sound to it than his prior effort Mellow Gold.  "Devil's Haircut", "New Pollution" and "Where It's At" where the most popular songs on the album, and rightfully so.  "Where It's At" in particular is simply one of the coolest songs ever put together.  It reeks of the 90s, which is what makes it so awesome.  The incredibly smooth "Hotwax" has always been a favorite of mine, as well as the equally laid-back "Jack-Ass".  "Minus" rocks hard with it's chaotic heaviness, and "Ramshackle" ends the album on a mellow note similar to "Blackhole" on Mellow Gold.  Like all great Beck albums, Odelay is chalk full of variety.  Overall, while this isn't my favorite Beck album, it's an undeniably creative and engaging listening experience.  Still sounds as fresh today as it was when it was originally released back in 96.

9.0

Mutations

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Beck

1998

Revisiting a period in Beck's catalog that has never done much for me personally (late 90s/early 2000s), we have his first disappointing album of his career: Mutations.  That said, while Mutations is not technically a bad album, it's also not exactly a good one either.  It's somewhere in between, mainly because there are no definitive highlights to be found here (the album spawned no hit singles to speak of) but also because the entire thing just has an incredibly underwhelming vibe about it.  It sounds awfully phoned-in and uninspired, and given that his prior two albums were practically bursting at the seams with creativity and originality only makes the pedestrian nature of Mutations that much more noticeable unfortunately. 

So again, nothing here particularly bad, but this is a textbook definition of an mediocre album. 

7.2

Midnite Vultures

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Beck

1999

If there's one good thing that's come out of Beck's (mostly) deplorable new album Colors, it's been the rediscovery of albums like Midnite Vultures for yours truly.

For way too long, I didn't quite "get" this album.  Actually, it's not so much that I didn't "get" it, but more-so that I just didn't think it was particularly good.  I always knew it was a big absurd freak party of an album, but most of the songs never really did anything for me personally.

But upon repeated listens recently, I've come to both appreciate and enjoy this album more and more. Simply put, this is a borderline brilliantly absurd album, a ridiculous orgy of tongue-in-cheek funkiness that is equal parts hilarious and fun to listen to. Essentially, Midnite Vultures is the antithesis of his new album Colors. Where Colors is a downright shameless attempt to fit-in with generic popular trends of the moment with sterile, disgustingly accessible pop songs, Midnite Vultures is a bizarre/warped playfully derisive parody of Hollywood culture in the late 90s. It's a bemusing album in that, upon first listen anyway, seems incredibly stupid, but that's actually part of the joke. The lyrics are typically bizarre and surreal (which was still a strength of Beck's back then) but they are also often blatantly bombastic and hilarious, which suits the absurdly warped nature of the perverse funk that permeates the album.

Midnite Vultures is a freaky, funky, and decadent dance party album that seems to be mocking itself for most of it's incredibly goofy 58 minute running time. It's probably Beck's weirdest album (which is really saying something) but the main difference between this and Mellow Gold or Odelay for example is that Midnite Vultures is primarily a beat-driven album (whereas the former albums were much more guitar-oriented, with a psych-rock feel).  That fact, coupled with the overtly silly nature of Midnite Vultures, prevents it from rising to the level of it's groundbreaking predecessors.  However, that doesn't take anything away from the uniqueness of Midnite Vultures, which turned out to the the last truly eccentric album Beck has released to date, a quality that has been sorely missing from his last few disappointing albums.  

8.3

Guero

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Beck

2005

Ah, to be young again.  That statement is actually fitting for 2 reasons: 1) it applies to Beck harkening back to the sound of his 90s heyday, and 2) reminds me of my favorite summer in San Francisco back in 05.  We'll get to that later. 

On Guero, Beck re-teamed with The Dust Brothers who produced his 1996 classic "Odelay" and it certainly sounds like it.  This album sounds like a slicker, more polished version of "Odelay".  It's basically a more accessible version of that album, as virtually all the songs found on Guero are catchy as hell.  Simply put, this is Beck's most poppy album, and while a lot of the "hipper" crowd saw that as a bad thing, I personally found it to be very refreshing.  This is still Beck we're talking about, so it's not like his trademark style of experimentation suddenly vanished on Guero, but it does admittedly take a backseat to the infectiously catchy grooves that permeate throughout the album.  The vast majority of Guero is pure ear-candy.  It actually sounds cool without coming off as pretentious at the same time, so that was very refreshing to these ears back in the summer of 2005.  And that summer happened to be a very memorable one for yours truly, as it was essentially the last summer of my single years in San Francisco.  It reminds me of glorious sunshine (occasionally), ridiculously fun festivals, beautiful indie chicks, quarter Pabst happy hours, and just the general feeling of having my mojo working and the stars aligning for me.  It was a fun time in my life, and Guero sticks out as the soundtrack for that summer.  A great, infectious album to go along with all those great memories.  As a result, it's my favorite Beck album.  Not as weird/dark as "Mellow Gold", not as "hip/experimental" as "Odelay", but perhaps overall Beck's most well-rounded and infectious offering.

9.1

The Information

Beck

2006

I always got the feeling that Beck was trying for something epic and all encompassing on this album, trying to create his masterpiece, but ultimately it falls short of those aspirations, mainly because the majority of the material found here, while quite good, is not engaging or interesting enough.  I blame that on the pervasive sameness of most of the songs found here, which enhances the album's vaguely detached/monotonous mood.  It's certainly not a dull album, but it definitely lacks the freshness, energy, and catchiness of it's predecessor, as well as the quirky experimentation if his classic 90s albums.  There is experimentation to be found here, but it's not executed with any flair or drama.  It doesn't really grab your attention because the general vibe is somewhat subdued/numb.  An interesting album, but after the stellar first 4 songs are up, it kind of settles too much into a monotonous groove, with not enough variety or highlights to keep it engaging.  It's a good album, and I wouldn't call it flawed, it's good on its own merits/style, but ultimately it falls short of being one of Beck's classics in my book.

8.2

Modern Guilt

Beck

2008

Has a couple of standout tracks that are cool, but sounds even more numb and more monotone than The Information.  Beck seems to be running out of ideas…he's still making cool music, but it does not sound as fresh, and his flair for experimentation seems to slowly be dying out.  Modern Guilt as a certain drab/dreadful energy about it, which is compelling at times, but more often than not it just weighs down the down.  That said this is a fairly solid latter-day Beck offering, underwhelming as it is...

7.9

Morning Phase

Beck

2014


At this stage in Beck's career, I suppose he can't be faulted for making somewhat drab, soul-searching, and highly subdued albums such as this one.  In spite of the generally depressing and draining feeling Morning Phase evokes, you can't say it's not honest.  Beck, as artists tend to do, has created an album that reflects his state of mind has he journeys through middle-age.  And apparently his state of mind is a weary, numbing, meloncholly, and subdued one, which unfortunately does not make for a very enjoyable record.  If you share his state of mind, this music will certainly sound compelling and affecting, but for the rest of us, it just sounds a bit too dreary and draining.  A great album for a cold and rainy winter's day, I suppose it does have it's soothing qualities, but ultimately Morning Phase leaves you in a decidedly bleak, detached, and resigned state of mind.  Beck kind of hinted in this this direction 6 years earlier, with Modern Guilt's somewhat numb/withdrawn overtones, but Morning Phase fully emerses you in that vibe.  Suffice to say it leaves a lot to be desired, as Beck continues to explore more moody and subdued territory as he ages.  That said, it is an openly honest and somewhat naked record, so kudos for that, but again, just a little bit too drab for my tastes.  Makes one miss the eccentric qualities of his classic albums.  Oh well.

7.5

Colors

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Beck

2017

Ever feel like 2017 is some cruel dystopian nightmare that you can't wake up from? Aside from actual real-world problems (like the fact that Donald Trump is the president of the United States), there has been a disturbing trend among reputable artist/bands this year to take on a more pop-oriented approach to their music.  QOTSA pulled this off most respectably on their latest album Villains which was produced by mega-pop producer Mark Ronson, while Marilyn Manson's latest album Heaven Upside Down is probably his most accessible (and tacky) album he has released to date.

And then we have Beck's latest album Colors, which, aside for a few tracks, basically sounds like a fucking Bruno Mars album. To say that Colors is an unabashedly pop-flavored album would be a tremendous understatement. The majority of songs found here have an incredibly polished, soft, sparkly, generic dance-pop sheen to them.  There is a striking lack of experimentation or depth to be found on this album, which suggests Beck is completely out of ideas at this moment in his career. 

That said, it should be noted that Beck is no stranger to pop music. Many of his singles over the years have certainly flirted with that style, but they've also managed to retain some dignity and featured that trademarked Beck eccentricity or detached coolness that has always made his music unique and intriguing. But therein lies the problem with most of the songs on Colors: they're not remotely original or quirky, but rather soulless, plastic, and generic for the most part.

There are a few exceptions, most notably "Dear Life" which actually has a genuine vibe about it with it's Beatle-esq piano and accompanying head-bobbing beat. It's a full-bodied and affecting song that actually has some soul to it (in spite of a somewhat cliche chorus). Colors also features two singles you've probably already heard a hundred times the past couple of years ("Dreams" and "Wow").  The former is a great song, but again, it was released 2 years ago, and it's actually featured on the album twice (and the remixed version is essentially completely identical to the original).  The latter "Wow" was released as a single well over a year ago, but was never particularly great in the first place (although I'll admit it grew on me after hearing it endlessly on the radio last year).

So those two songs (3 if you count the remixed version of "Dreams") constitute over a quarter of the album in and of themselves, and the remaining 75% of the album is pretty tough to stomach.  A few songs do the dance-pop thing somewhat respectably (like the title track), but pretty much everything else here sounds like underwhelming and generic pop at best, or an American Idol parody at worst.  It's like someone kidnapped Beck, gave him a lobotomy, and he emerged as some lifeless dance-pop robot cranking out bland and cliche music tailor-made for Justin Timberlake fans. 

Beck used to revel in being an eccentric outsider, a "Loser" who mocked "Hollywood Freaks".  Now, sadly, he seems to have become one of them, and Colors just seems like part of the joke. 

6.6

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