February 26, 2008

Cali Dreaming

Beck’s Odelay is pure 1990s southern California (or at least what I imagine it to be since I only first stepped foot in the state in 2007). It’s innocuous Hollywood strip or Venice Beach hipsterness with its mélange of self-professed freaks, aimless troubadours, and skateboard thrashers painting the laidback horizon. It’s the thrift store threads with a collage of artistic allusions to choose from for its irreverential dialogue in a retro piano bar.

I can’t help listen to Odelay and be reminded of some of the cultural landscape that pervaded the decade. Movies that immediately come to mind are Get Shorty and A Life Less Ordinary, flicks set in Cali and that borrow heavily from Elmore Leonard’s style of making the slightly sleazy and criminal elements of the world both cool and comical, all in a laidback and quirky setting. In fact, the latter film effectively uses Beck’s song “Deadweight”. The hipster criminal element of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, with its Vegas hipsterness not so removed from that of southern Cali, also seems somewhat connected to the mid-1990s Beck vibe. Although not necessarily influenced by Beck, sunny-music producing 1990s artists like Sheryl Crow, Smashmouth, and Sugar Ray don’t seem that far removed from elements of Odelay’s sonic collage – alt country pop, fuzzy organ sounds, etc. Of course, it’s hard not to be reminded of The Beastie Boys’ move to Cali to join Capitol Records and to record Paul’s Boutique along with The Dust Brothers, key collaborators on Odelay as well.

The mention of these sensory and cultural links is merely to demonstrate how Odelay seems distinctly set in a place and a time. That is not to say, however, that the music is dated and tarnished some 10+ years after its first original release. In fact, the album possesses a unique energy and an ever-changing internal identity that makes the music coquettishly elusive, yet ultimately attractive. Its leftfield antics and mind-bending lyricism, all within a broad socially acceptable domain (i.e. without the dangers of actual drug consumption or delinquent acts), certainly give the music a unique and lingering charm that invites repeated listens.

When Odelay was first released, I was passively aware of the music. “Where It’s At” was played ad naseum on radio and in live TV performances. Other tracks got plenty of airplay and the album was a hit among many friends and acquaintances. For some reason – probably because I was cynical of the hipsterness set on a large audience scale – I intentionally ignored the album. Listening to it now, I can’t help but be rather impressed and disappointed that I didn’t give it a fair chance back in the day.

Sure, it’s hard not to take notice of the massive production trickery that go into several of the songs and that give them an amusingly schizo feel. But, it’s the seemingly more straightforward parts in other songs – the countrified slide guitar on “Lord Only Knows” and the chorus of “Sissyneck”, the repetitive funky beat and Doors-esque organ on “The New Pollution”, the languid gait of the guitar on “Jack-ass”, the folksy “Ramshackle” – that give the album that extra edge and credibility, that is, the conviction that this stream-of-consciousness mumbling singer actually knows what he is doing and has some soul. These more straightforward elements no doubt feed the sterling production on Beck’s just as impressive Mutations album.

Does it matter that I have no idea what the hell the guy is saying? Not at all. Sure, I guess trying to decipher the lyrics could be somewhat annoying for those that value the words. I, on the other hand, usually consider lyrics in a secondary fashion, only considering them once I have determined the value or attractiveness of the music. In the case of Odelay, I am definitely attracted, which should lead to some consideration of the words. But, you know, when it is this fun listening to the sounds and feel of an album, the guy could be talking about apple strudel and bird watching, for all I care.

So, some 10+ years after Odelay’s original favorable impression on the pop and rock landscape, it is still pretty easy to see why this album is considered one of the more important albums of the decade.


venerableseed said...

that's exactly it, euros. I have this 1997 bay area music paper that ranked the top cali albums of all time; Odelay ranked 7.

The descriptor in it that caught me the most was "(Odelay) could only originate in a disjointed monster town like L.A. It's like Hollywood Blvd - bransh and hectic, absurd and full of attitude, and totally scheister-ish will about a million sounds and images coming at you from all corners. You can try to sort it out or you can just take it all in...giving into its guilty pleasures."

The stuff I wrote was more or less based on that quote because that's how the album makes me feel as well. It's pretty amazing that you caught the same vibe!

Eurowags said...

Yeah, that is pretty damn cool and thanks for point that article out! To be honest, for these reviews, I try to read as little background info or other reviews as possible, so as not to bias or influence my own thoughts and impressions. It's difficult, though, because for many of the albums I have read articles (from rock magazines) or some commentaries in the past and, inevitably, I subconsciously have some impressions registered from those readings.

With Odelay, I think I got some of my impressions from an interview or something that I read in the 90s about Beck and his bohemian Cali lifestyle, particularly when he was first starting. But, the rest of my comments come from the music, its textures, and its patchwork quirkiness, which seem like something culled from an area that attracts so many diverse personalities who gravitate to SoCal for its Hollywood glitz, its sun, its own version of the American dream, etc.