Where I'm At
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
If you were introduced to the artist known as Beck just by reading the reams of words written about him--his bio, his albums, his influences, his style--you'd probably imagine him as some sort of musical Frankenstein. You'd see his music described variously as "hip-hop folk," "punkish folk," "lo-fi rock," "retro-futuristic," and "perverted country"; the man himself characterized as everything from "pop-rock auteur" to "channel surfer" to "slacker spokesman." You'd learn that his roots are in the music of Mississippi John Hurt and Woody Guthrie, and that he's
adept at sample-based, rap-style songwriting and recording. That his father was a bluegrass musician, his mother a teenage Andy Warhol Superstar who now plays in a band called Black Fag. That the artists who have covered his songs include Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, "Weird" Al Yankovic, and the Ska-Core Allstars. That he has collaborated with Puff Daddy, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Mike D of the Beastie Boys.
You could be forgiven for your bewilderment as you tried to imagine what this laboratory monster could possibly sound like.
If, on the other hand, you just heard an album by the artist known as Beck, you would experience something altogether different: the work of a unified and readily identifiable sensibility. Depending on the album, the music might be more
traditional or more fringy, softly melodic or pure rhythm and noise, sincere and reserved or smirky and warped. But always it
would bear the mark of Beck.
Into this tangle of associations comes a new album titled MUTATIONS that is sure to further confuse people's notions about what sort of box Beck belongs in. His first release since 1996's ODELAY, a stylistically voracious album that received just about every critical hosanna available and won several Grammys, MUTATIONS is a primarily acoustic, atmospheric band record that showcases, first and foremost, what a gifted songwriter Beck is.
MUTATIONS is no one-shot unplugged album--the acoustic guitar has been one of Beck's essential tools all along. After a life-changing encounter with a Mississippi John Hurt record, he dropped out of high school in L.A. and spent his days as an avid student of such mentors as Fred McDowell, Leadbelly, and the Carter Family. In 1989, he hopped a bus to New York and hooked into the attitude-heavy anti-folk scene, which helped a number of young, punk-influenced performers, including Michelle Shocked and Cindy Lee Berryhill, carve out an identity for themselves in acoustic music separate from the baby-boomer folk scene. In 1992, Beck threw down his own musical gauntlet by combining a bottleneck lick with irreverent rapping in "Loser," written and recorded off the cuff in his producer's living room,
which became an up-from-the-underground hit a year later and quickly led to his major-label debut, MELLOW GOLD. A flattop guitar has remained in close proximity to Beck ever since, but!he's never used it with such depth and assurance as on MUTATIONS. It's telling to compare it to his 1994 album ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE, a set of acoustic basement tapes he recorded for the punk label K Records. ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE presents a musician who has clearly done his woodshedding
with country blues, gospel, and hard-traveling folk, and who doesn't believe in the polish and politeness of most contemporary folk music. But those influences and desires haven't quite cohered into an original, artistically mature style, and the scruffiness of the playing and singing seems more a statement of values (or anti-values) than a musical statement. On MUTATIONS, Beck has left that way station far behind.
True to its name, MUTATIONS has a kind of convoluted history. Originally intended as an indie release on Bong Load Custom Records (something that Beck's contract with the major label DGC allows him to do), MUTATIONS was thought of as what Bong Load's Tom Rothrock called a "personal songwriter home studio thing." But along the way, the project grew in size and scope, and eventually producer Nigel Godrich (whose recent work includes Radiohead's OK COMPUTER) signed on to coproduce with Beck, and DGC opted to release the results. (Bong Load did release the vinyl version of MUTATIONS, as it has with Beck's other albums.) This indie-to-major transition leaves us with an album with some of the trappings of a
major-label release (advance CDs, photo shoots, a video interview) but no
supporting tour, no song videos, and an almost apologetic introduction as a "parenthetical work" that is being released while Beck is at work on the "true" follow-up to ODELAY, to be released in the
latter part of '99. All of this, of course, is basically record-company code
language intended to distinguish Beck's folkier, more acoustic output
from his commercially hotter hip-hop-oriented music.
Promotional posturing aside, MUTATIONS was clearly an essential project for Beck himself, weary from endless worldwide touring in the wake of ODELAY. "Doing this record was really good for me and the band," he said in a DGC interview. "After working on the road for that long, you just get bottled up and need to go and do something really quick."
And quick it was: a song a day for two weeks, laid down with members of Beck's touring band (Joey Waronker on drums, Smokey Hormel on guitar, Roger Manning on keyboards, Justin Meldal-Johnsen on bass). "It was really energizing because a lot of times making albums can get demoralizing," Beck said. "People can spend two months on one song, and every day you're just picking it apart. People spend days working on a high-hat sound. You can spend weeks mixing a song. It can
drag on and on, and I think creatively it's really frustrating. We were confined to
just two weeks because Nigel had other commitments. We knew the record was done when the car service came to take him to the airport. I was putting vocals on the last song, and the car pulled up and somebody yelled or beeped in on me, 'The car's here; the plane's leaving in an hour and 20 minutes.' Nigel was just hurrying up, and then we all went and put him in the car and waved and it was like, OK, I guess that's it. There
was such a good atmosphere that I think we could've kept going and going, but then we would've had to come out with the triple CD."
For Beck, the freshness of the project wasn't just about speed; it was also about composing and recording in a traditional way, a far cry from his methodology on other albums. "With MELLOW GOLD and ODELAY, most of the songs hadn't been written," he said. "I went into the studio and built those songs piece by piece. I did everything backwards this time. I had the songs, but nobody knew them. Basically, several musicians and I set up in a room with mics. There are a couple of songs where we even did the vocal live. I was trying to get the sound where all the musicians are in each other's microphones. Music's recorded very separately, very
antiseptically nowadays, and there's not that quality of the song being this one piece. You hear strings come in and it'll sound very separate from the rest of the track, and that's something that's really prized as good quality and good sound, good engineering and recording. But we were trying to get something where you couldn't really tell
what instrument was what....That goes back to the days when there was just one mic, so everything was being picked up by the same filter."
For several years, Beck had done all his recording onto a computer, but the process of laying down most of MUTATIONS in real time--as opposed to
piece-by-piece assembly of tracks--suggested the use of that archaic thing called tape. On MELLOW COLD and ODELAY Beck included plenty of contributions from living and breathing musicians alongside mechanized and sampled parts; on ODELAY, for instance, the chaotic, turntable-scratching rap "High 5 (Rock the Catskills)" leads directly into the moody "Ramshackle," with jazz legend Charlie Haden playing upright bass below
Beck's acoustic strumming and a distant drum beat. But MUTATIONS is all about the pleasures of a road-tightened band assisted by some well-chosen guests. The array of instruments used includes the usual
bass, drums, piano, and guitar (acoustic, electric, 12-string, nylon-string, slide) as
well as sitar, tamboura, and esraj (an Indian bowed instrument), harmonica,
harpsichord (an old one that "needed to be tuned about every 12 minutes,"
according to Beck), the Brazilian cuica ("sounds like a dying seal"), and horns (dubbed the Brass Menagerie). There's also a string section on two
tunes--"Nobody's Fault but My Own" and "We Live Again." "I'd never done that--it was fun," said Beck. "Except the way we mixed that, we turned the orchestra into more of an atmosphere instead of an actual orchestra. I wanted it to sound like a sea cave or something."
Indian instruments have made periodic appearances in Beck's music going back to MELLOW GOLD, and his use of them on "Nobody's Fault" is particularly lovely and exhibits none of the starry-eyed superficiality that usually marks the invocation of Indian textures in Western pop. He sings the reflective melody over a droney
guitar part, strummed in an open-C tuning. The sitar and esraj both anticipate and echo the melody, as in an Indian classical vocal performance, and the blend of
buzzing, bowing, and strumming casts a spell. Gently evolving over the course of
five-plus minutes, "Nobody's Fault" is about the last thing that anyone who buys the channel-surfing description of Beck would expect to hear from him.
You could say the same for many of the other tunes here, although they all pick up threads that can be heard in Beck's earlier songs. The festive bossa nova
"Tropicalia" might seem to come out of nowhere, but Beck had early exposure to this style, and ODELAY's "Readymade" included a guitar sample from late Brazilian guitar master Laurindo Almeida. The rough country of "Canceled Check" picks up
where ODELAY's "Sissynecks" left off (both also use Greg Leisz' crying pedal steel).
Many of the tunes, like the delicately fingerpicked "Dead Melodies," have the
distinct sound of '60s British folk-rock, with those purposeful chord progressions that will forever evoke the Beatles. In this respect, Beck joins the company of two rising songsmiths, Elliott Smith and Mary Lou Lord (both of whom have worked with
Bong Load's Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf on recent albums; Smith has also
opened for Beck, and Lord has covered Beck's songs). It's hard to pinpoint how or why these things
happen, but all three musicians share connections of one sort or other with the Northwest alt-rock scene, British Invasion bands, and primal
acoustic folk-rock of the Neil Young and Bob Dylan variety. A pattern? A
coincidence? A conspiracy? No matter: it's a pleasure to hear this kind of
melody-driven, passionate music from a new generation of singer-songwriters.
The songs on MUTATIONS, Beck said in DGC's video, "were written over the last four years. There are songs that had been lying around, some forgotten, some kind of written in between the cracks. They're not really stories; they're
impressions. They remind me of a time and place." He added, "These songs are written on a guitar or piano--very traditional. They're not dressed up; [they're] not really hiding behind anything."
On the album, Beck mostly plays his Martin HD-28, plus some electric slide and keyboard and a good dose of harmonica (a pitch-perfect Neil Young-style part on "Cold Brains," chugging blues harp elsewhere). The rest of the guitar work is handled by Smokey Hormel, a longtime Beck associate who's played with the Blasters and John Doe and who toured this winter with Sean Lennon. Hormel supplies a wide range of acoustic textures, from country rhythm ("Canceled Check" to folky fingerpicking ("Dead Melodies" to nylon-string bossa nova
("Tropicalia" and Willie Nelson-style lead ("Sing It Again").
In keeping with the traditional song-writerly focus of MUTATIONS, Beck said that he "wanted to make a conscious effort to put some really dainty-ass music on the record. I think it's time, you know? It's something we tried to convey live. The more delicate side of music is highly ignored and underrated."
Beck's attention to delicacy and nuance is especially audible in his vocal parts, which are satisfyingly full and lush. "I think on the other records, the singing's the last thing I did," he said. "You've been recording for 18 hours--OK, throw up a mic, put down a vocal. Not much is put into it; you don't even bother to use a nice mic. I think on ODELAY I was singing through a guitar amp mic. This time, because I had a lot of musicians from my touring band, we tried to make it more dynamic, more like a show."
Lest anyone think Beck has turned into a veritable smoothie, MUTATIONS still has plenty of off-kilter energy and loose ends. "I always try to leave in the
mistakes--that's the interesting stuff," he said. "If somebody walked into the room while you were doing a little falsetto lead and said, 'The burritos are here,' that's the best part. That's the part people will remember."
And even when the music falls into familiar patterns, the lyrics emphatically do not. The opening cut, "Cold Brains," establishes right off the bat that its genial folk-rock groove won't be accompanied by garden-variety confessionalism or imagery.
Cold brains, unmoved
Alone at last
No thoughts, no mind
To rot behind
A trail of disasters
In combination with the hooky melodies that are all over MUTATIONS, Beck's
stream-of-consciousness lyrics--funny and scary, not quite sensical but not quite nonsensical--remind me of British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. You almost need to shut down your logic filters to fully "get" them. From "Sing It Again":
A town of disrespect
The trains are wrecked
The night is younger than us
Nowhere is anywhere else
You keep to yourself
Stirring the dregs where I have laid
The exit signs are flashing
Dead ends, they won't come to life anymore
In other songs, Beck begins with words that link in expected ways to the style of the music, then careen off from there. "Bottle of Blues," transcribed on page 54,* is a prime example. It kicks off with the typical blues lament "Ain't it hard/To want somebody who doesn't want you" and progresses to this sing-along chorus:
Holding hands with an impotent dream
In a brothel of fake energy
Put a nickel in a graveyard machine
I get higher and lower...
Beck explained that he thinks of his lyrics on two levels: "On the one hand, they're incredibly important; on the other hand, they shouldn't be important at all. It's like drawing a picture that has some balance to it. You don't want to give it too much detail or you'll just get caught up in the details. But at the same time, you don't want it to just be a blur."
Beck's drawing analogy provides a key not just to his word craft but to his music as a whole. Avant-garde visual and performance art has had a heavy influence on him, going back to his grandfather Al Hansen's role in the Fluxus movement (which also included Yoko Ono) and his mother's Andy Warhol connections. Beck's
brother, Channing Hansen, carries on the Fluxus tradition, and in '98 an exhibit and book called BECK AND AL HANSEN: PLAYING WITH MATCHES (Smart Art Press) gave a glimpse into Beck's own art interests in the context of his grandfather's work. Collage and comical juxtaposition are techniques that Beck has clearly carried over into his music--even in the more traditional mode of MUTATIONS.
It's pretty hard to believe that the protagonist behind all this wide-ranging artistic activity, who's grown so much before our eyes and ears, is now all of 28 years old. And while we ponder Beck's latest musical MUTATIONS, he's hard at work on an opus that he said is going to be "about as opposite from MUTATIONS as you can get"--more bombastic, perhaps, and more hip-hop. From there, who knows? From an acoustic guitar perspective, the exciting thing about Beck--and another
turbo-charged young artist, Ani DiFranco--is the way they've wrested the
singer-songwriter form away from its '60s and '70s associations. They honor their roots and are strongly influenced by that fertile period in music, but they're very much voices of their own time, responding in a new way to a new swirl of sounds and ideas. In the video interview about MUTATIONS, a roboticized voice asks Beck, sitting in a chair in a mostly dark space, how he can go in seemingly any musical direction and succeed. "I
don't know if you call it success," Beck answers, deadpan. "There's definitely some cliffs I've fallen over. You know, sometimes it's a successful car crash."
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MUTATIONS, DGC 25309 (1998). DGC, www.geffen.com/beck. (See also Beck's
informative, fast-changing official site at www.beck-web.com.)
ODELAY, DGC 24823 (1996).
MELLOW GOLD, DGC 24634 (1994).
ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE, K 28 (1994). K, Box 7154, Olympia, WA 98507.
STEREOPATHIC SOULMANURE, Flipside 60 (1994).
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