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At the Beck and Call of Good Weirdness

Why Beck is one of the only ones to make it work.

By Thom Wong 22 May 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Thom Wong is a drone in Her Majesty's Service. He writes regularly about music for The Tyee, and can be found ruminating about the state of menswear at The Sunday Best.

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New album out this June.

Before there were hipsters and corporate-indie dance-rock, before Pitchfork and Urban Outfitters, and before the second coming of skinny jeans, there was an album by Beck called Odelay.

It was the mid-90s and people were really into "irony," which was until then a concept unknown outside the world of English and theatre majors. Alanis Morissette, for better or for worse, butchered its definition in her song named, ironically, "Ironic." (Is it possible that Morissette's intention was to craft the epitome of irony by creating a song called "Ironic" that lacks a single ironic situation? Naaaaaah.)

In this maelstrom of cultural awakening, where high culture met low culture and danced a merry jig, Beck was treated like a god. His was the "weird" music it was okay to like (a trick more recently perfected by Outkast). Years earlier, only those living on the fringes of musical society would discover bands like Mr. Bungle (an experimental rock/avant-garde metal group), but in the new, ironic age, a skinny, moppet-headed white guy who rapped/sang (Beck) could sit easily on the Top 40 with Mariah Carey.

As the years wore on, Beck seemed less weird, as the listening public became conditioned to the odd out-of-place sound sneaking into their ballads. But while he stopped rapping about shaving his face with some mace in the dark, Beck never lost his outsider charm.

His next, and most thoughtful album, Sea Change, also happened to be his least commercially viable. Afterwards, it seemed Beck wanted to assume his "weird" mantle again, so he gave us Guero, a kind of Odelay-lite that some praised as the "return" of Beck. (Where he had gone in their minds was not clear.) Sensing it was perhaps not weird enough, he quickly released the remix album Guerolito. To that point, Beck seemed to be evolving along a clear, musical path, becoming more mature -- i.e. playing more slowly and thoughtfully, and writing lyrics that made sense.

But 2006's album The Information was discussed mostly for its "create-your-own-album-cover" set of stickers rather than its music -- never a good sign. Once again, Beck seemed to be reaching for the past, with the track "1000BPM" in particular sounding like something he had assembled from Odelay's cutting room floor.

His latest album, Modern Guilt, is set for release June 24th, which means that it has been leaked and is currently available in all the usual places. He has posted one track, "Chemtrails," to his MySpace page and website.

Produced by current "weird" media darling DJ Danger Mouse (who is one half of "weird" duo Gnarls Barkley), the song, as mentioned on various websites, does indeed sound like 60s-era British rock, with bottom-of-the-pool vocals and rubbery bass-lines. However, it also sounds like Beck is really, really bored. Coincidentally, this is his last album required under contract.

It is easy to forget now, over a decade later, how truly fresh Odelay once sounded, and you owe yourself the favour of returning to it. Songs such as "New Pollution" and "Devil's Haircut" have held up remarkably well, and offer the perfect soundtrack for summer hijinks. Listening all these years later, it is not the glitchy sounds, or the odd lyrics, or the frenetic clashes I notice the most, but the songs in their entirety. And in this day of single downloads, Odelay is an album worth listening to in its entirety.

Beck will be playing at Vancouver's Orpheum theatre on Thursday, August 28th with Band of Horses, then in Seattle, at Bumbershoot, on Aug. 30.

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