Fade In: Beck

Beck just won the Grammy for Best Album, upsetting the shoo-in win for “Beyonce.” It’s led to some ‘controversy,’ Bey fans taking to Twitter to ask, “Who in the heck is Beck?” Well, I thought I’d use this opportunity to premiere a new feature of this blog: introductory playlists. It’s an idea I’ve been toying with for a little while, and this seems like the perfect time to start. Every so often, I’ll be publishing 5 or 10 song Spotify playlists with a range of songs from a certain artist. Big hits and deep cuts included, to give the best sense in a short time.

So who is Beck? Well, by this point everyone should know. He’s been releasing music since Beyonce was 12 years old. Though primarily a singer-guitarist, he often plays all the music on his albums, which can be anywhere from one to 15 instruments. His first and biggest hit came in 1994 with “Loser,” and two years later he released the seminal alternative album “Odelay.” His music has taken on a number of different personae. His early music is characterized by a huge blend of alternative, folk, psychedelia and often hip-hop influenced freestyled verses (Beck would record verses on a whim and promise to change them; he never did). A distinct change (no pun intended) came in 2002, when a break-up from a long-time relationship led to the somber, acoustic “Sea Change.” Since then, his music has taken more of an indie approach, regaining much of his early fun but sacrificing less structure. The album he just won a Grammy for, “Morning Phase,” is seen as a more optimistic sequel to “Sea Change,” and is a return to his soft, acoustic side. Want to talk about Beck but don’t know his music? No fear; here’s ten songs to start with.

1) “Loser” – His most well-known song, this song is marked by a depressing chorus, acoustic slide guitar mixed under freestyled, nonsensical lyrics and a vibe that no one else was doing in 1994. Coupled with Radiohead’s “Creep” and the Stone Temple Pilots’ “Creep,” it completes the trifecta of pure 90’s self-loathing.

2) “Nausea” – This 2006 single didn’t have a huge impact, but it’s one of Beck’s most fun songs off of one of his most underappreciated albums. It acts as a throwback to his earlier music – more defined, more practiced, but still acoustic madness that sounds unrehearsed.

3) “Blue Moon” – The lead single off his recent Grammy win, “Morning Phase,” “Blue Moon” is a gorgeous song, surprising by even the most somber of Beck standards. Featuring some beautifully poetic lyrics and a waking acoustic rhythm, it’s one of Beck’s best tracks, and one that showcases a very different side to his music.

4) “The New Pollution” – One of three big hits from his classic “Odelay” album, it’s typical Beck insanity. Catchy, and almost overstuffed with various instruments doing various things (including a nice saxophone bit).

5) “Think I’m in Love” – Another track from 2006’s “The Information,” “Think I’m in Love” is a more straight-forward indie song, an approach he took for the next few years. With an ever-repeating bassline, Beck sings optimistically about a new relationship. But – Beck fans know it’s only a few years removed from “Sea Change,” and it adds an unsettling nature to the song.

6) “E-Pro” – Maybe Beck’s loudest song, it was a roaring comeback in 2005. This is the first track on his “Guero” album, the first album he did after the soft and moody “Sea Change,” and Beck wastes no time announcing his return to his old self. With a beat sampled from the Beastie Boys’ “So What’cha Want,” an 8-bit music video and a heavy guitar line, it’s one of Beck most distinct tracks.

7) “Gamma Ray” – Beck’s 2008 “Modern Guilt” received decidedly mixed reviews, with some people saying he plays it a little too safe and structured. Agree or not, on “Gamma Ray” Beck shows he can pull that off, too. “Gamma Ray” acts as a somewhat direct indie song, and might not sound out of place on a Death Cab For Cutie or Modest Mouse album. It’s an unfortunately forgotten Beck release.

8) “Girl” – The other hit from “Guero” mixes acoustic guitar and game-y chiptune bits into just a simple, fun song. With all of the instruments Beck plays, it’s somehow one of his only songs to feature a solo, on acoustic guitar. Beck has always been one to have great choruses, but “Girl” is one of is most memorable.

9) “Wave” – Almost definitely the most unnerving Beck song, it’s the black sheep of his recent “Morning Phase.” Showing up directly in the middle of the album, it breaks the flow of light, cheery tunes with an utterly brooding lack of rhythm and emotion. It’s just Beck’s ghostly vocals and strings, with no chorus or discernible rhythm. It’s a haunting track and already one of the biggest standouts in his discography.

10) “Where It’s At” – Beck’s other big hit, this one doesn’t get quite the airplay “Loser” always has, but it’s close – and earned Beck his first Grammy. This is the key track from “Odelay,” and it’s crazy Beck at his finest. Every instrument imaginable shows up, it’s catchy but twisting, noisy, rapped, random, and druggy. It’s a little long, sure, but this is what you get when you give Beck two turntables and a microphone.

There you have it, ten Beck songs to introduce you to his music. This specific playlist leans more on hits, future ones will likely incorporate deeper cuts. Now you can properly debate whether or not Beck deserved to win the Best Album Award! (He didn’t, but I still love Beck).

-Andrew McNally

Beck – “Morning Phase”

(Photo Credit: http://www.spin.com)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Say Goodbye” “Wave”

Since revealing that he would finally be releasing a new album, Beck has been promoting “Morning Phase” as a sequel to his 2002 album “Sea Change.” Beck’s music before that album, and most of it since, has been characterized by boundless energy, an almost unnecessary amount of instruments, samples, and verses that were often made up on the spot and never replaced. “Sea Change,” however, is a moody, acoustic work inspired by the break-up with his girlfriend of nearly a decade. “Morning Phase” is definitely a sequel – but the kind of sequel that tells a new story, not one that just rehashes what was done before.

“Morning Phase” is marked by it’s lack of instruments. “Morning,” the album’s first track (save a brief string intro), is a haunting and almost painfully-timed song, and starts with just an acoustic rhythm. It characterizes the album – it’s slower, calmer and more emotional than any of Beck’s most recent albums. But unlike “Sea Change,” which got too moody and self-indulgent (justifiably), this album has a wide range of emotions. Although the whole album sounds dry and down – it’s deceiving. There are tracks like that, certainly, but “Don’t Let It Go” and “Blackbird Chain” have a subtly popping vibe. It’s hopeful, at least. “Morning Phase” is certainly a thematic sequel to “Sea Change,” in the proper way a sequel should be.

One of the things to analyze on any Beck album is how many instruments are present, and how they’re being used. To say “Morning Phase” is a largely acoustic work does not equate to it being less interesting musically. “Say Goodbye” and “Blue Moon” are marked by unpredictable guitar strumming and rhythms, “Unforgiven” trades the guitar for a warped, piano drone, and finale “Waking Light” suddenly erupts into a full band setting, for the first time on the album. But the shining light is the album’s midpoint. “Wave” is far and away the album’s best song, and already stands up to the best songs in Beck’s discography. The song has no percussion, instead driven by a full string section, composed by Beck’s father, David Campbell. Beck’s voice flies loud and long over the strings, accompanied with almost no other music. It’s a dark song, centered around some of the album’s lighter tracks, and it’s one of the most ambitious songs Beck’s ever done.

While “Sea Change” was a relentlessly dark album, brought on by one sharp event, “Morning Phase” is a more diverse work, and seems to be inspired by years of reflection in the first album’s aftermath. It’s a rare sequel that’s better than the first. It might take a few more listens than most Beck albums to really get into, but it’ll be just as memorable as his better works. Beck fans were probably waiting for another crazy album, and we got the opposite, and it’s every bit as pleasing as hoped for. It’s been a long six years, but Beck leaves no need for an apology.

-By Andrew McNally