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Beck

A maverick mover and groover among the post-grunge generation of hipsters, BECK pretty much rummaged through a raft of styles to come up with an all-encompassing miasma of hip-hop, anti-folk, country-blues, neo-psychedelia, dance and lo-fi lounge – one can’t think of any other alt-rock/pop artist to find their niche via these mediums. From his initial breakthrough in 1994 with “Mellow Gold”, to album after hit album of trippy pop-noir, BECK weaved his warm and weary wit on a plethora of sample-tastic sounds.
Born Bek David Campbell, July 8, 1970, Los Angeles, California, the son of a conductor/arranger father, David Campbell, and a rather bohemian-type mother, Bibbi Hansen (a patron at Andy Warhol’s Factory venue), the youngster re-adjusted to his mother’s maiden name when his parents divorced. Beck Hansen was to drop out of school in the tenth grade, opting instead to evolve into a blues-driven busker and poet on the streets of New York. After absorbing the strains of primitive country blues artists like LEADBELLY and MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT, along with the aural terrorism of hardcore noise, BECK tried his hand on the post-punk East Village anti-folk scene.
Broke, he retired to Los Angeles, setting himself up in the (now) trendy Silverlake district, playing low-key gigs in local coffeehouses. Spotted by Bongload Records bosses, Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, BECK was offered some studio time and from the resulting sessions with producer Karl Stephenson, the `Loser’ single emerged in early ’93. Having already dished out copies of his limited-edition cassette, GOLDEN FEELINGS (1993) {*5}, and a split EP effort with the group Bean (featuring the cheeky `MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack’), BECK at least had a few songs in his arsenal that might appeal to a larger audience.
Caned by L.A.’s alt-rock radio stations, the popularity of `Loser’ led to BECK signing with Geffen, although his unique and flexible contract meant that he could nip over into other indie labels at will. In its re-issued, major-label form, `Loser’ went Top 20 in both America and Britain, its slow burning hip hop blues turning the rosy-cheeked BECK into an overnight slacker anti-hero. The MELLOW GOLD (1994) {*9} parent album went some way towards crystallising BECK’s skewed vision of a modern folk music that encapsulated roots from just about everywhere in the globe. While the record went on to sell half a million copies, BECK was finding it tough to follow his stoner-rap signature tune into the charts by way of `Pay No Mind (Snoozer)’ and `Beercan’. Whether sardonic folk-rock (`Nitemare Hippy Girl’), or schizoid-country (`Truckdrivin’ Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)’), or mock-industrial (`Mutherfuker’), or trippy-psych (`Fuckin’ With My Head (Mountain Rock)’), his witty wordplay and surrealistic sense of song-craft was just the ticket for every disaffected youth.
The appropriately-titled, ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE (1994) {*7}, named so after his insistence to maintain an allegiance to his indie roots, was a mainly acoustic album released on CALVIN JOHNSON’s Olympia, WA-based K Records. While its stark harmonica-driven title track remained a highlight of the BECK live experience, the shambolic and sprawling set produced some folk goodies such as his re-vamp of the traditionally-sourced `He’s A Mighty Good Leader’, and a re-write of REV. GARY DAVIS’s “You Gotta Move” under the title of `Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods’. Possibly spirited by a stripped-back Curt Kobain, who’d died just a few months prior to its release, `Asshole’ was another organic highlight, while a certain SYD BARRETT might’ve been proud of both `I Get Lonesome’ and `Cyanide Breath Mint’ – chord changes n’ all.
Any dubious whispers of “one-hit wonder” were cast aside with the release of 1996’s ODELAY {*9}, a record that topped many end of year polls and turned BECK into the music world’s coolest hep cat. Garnering gushing praise from the dance, rock and hip hop communities alike, the album’s effortless fusion of disparate styles was breath-taking. The cut ’n’ paste surrealism of the lyrics flourished imagery of a lucidness to match BOB DYLAN’s 60s work. Indeed, the gorgeously bittersweet `Jack-Ass’ used the bard’s `It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ as a shimmering harmonic backdrop. The set segued smoothly from distortion and dissonance into down-home steel-guitar hoedown, all the while retaining an irresistibly funky backbeat. For now, this pop auteur/wunderkid could do no wrong, his live experience a day-glo potted history of American music. Produced and co-authored by the Dust Brothers (John King and Michael Simpson), star tracks included the global hit singles, `Where It’s At’, `Devils Haircut’, `The New Pollution’ and `Sissyneck’.
Towards the end of 1998, BECK found himself in the midst of another legal wrangle with label Geffen, when a dispute over who was to release his new 14-day recorded MUTATIONS {*7} resulted in the label taking full control. The latter was subsequently released to critical acclaim due to Nigel Godrich’s production of BECK’s live direction. Eventually cherry-picked from the genre-busting record, the bossa nova-styled `Tropicalia’ was hardly heavyweight, although `Lazy Flies’, `Bottle Of Blues’ and the autumnal `Nobody’s Fault But My Own’, carried this relaxed and laid-back record.
With less label fuss but with more media frenzy, the lo-fi loner issued his fourth Geffen set, MIDNITE VULTURES (1999) {*6}, which proved to be in dark contrast to that of his previous trip. More than a tad glitzy and full-on funky with electronic overtones, the once-brooding BECK put on his dancing shoes for the likes of `Sexx Laws’, `Mixed Bizness’ and the noodling `Get Real Paid’. BECK explored avenues once the musical property of PRINCE or SLY STONE (`Debra’, `Peaches & Cream’, et al), but despite it reaching the Top 40, the man lost a few of his faithful fanbase.
After the strange kitsch-adelic sound of his “Midnite” expressions, BECK reverted to folksy troubadour mode, once again complemented by producer Godrich. A wistful seventh album in all from the ever eclectic Mr. Hansen, SEA CHANGE (2002) {*8}, saw him revisiting the halcyon days of “One Foot…”, and the no-fi “Mutations”. With its gentle melodies and sombre, quasi-romantic overtones, BECK, as always, spiced up the mix by adding harpsichord, trombone, violins and pedal steel to give the set a swift breezy sound – like a psychedelic GRAM PARSONS. Recalling a not so sedate NICK DRAKE on `Round The Bend’ (right down to its orchestral setting), and focusing on some lo-fi strum-adelica via `The Golden Age’ and `Lost Cause’, the record deserved to be Top 20 material. The idea to tour with The FLAMING LIPS as support band was consequently ill-conceived, and reports were it caused a bit of commotion between the two parties.
Now – as one’s constantly reminded – a husband and father, with his demons at least partly exorcised, and with enough time lapsed since his mid-90s entree, a seriously 30-something BECK revisited the classic, Dust Brothers-produced sound-clash of yore with GUERO (2005) {*7}. Had it arrived a year later, the track `E-Pro’ would’ve made a great de-facto World Cup theme tune for a hybrid, fictionalised country. As it was, it scraped into the UK Top 40 and lingered in the lower reaches of the US charts, even if the album itself clocked up the best chart showing of BECK’s career at No.2. Among the typically quixotic compendium of constituent parts – everything from PETER FRAMPTON-esque fret-gasm to parlour funk – it was Hansen’s vocals which dug deepest, finally mellow enough to sink some real depth into his magpie laments; check out `Hell Yes’. A remix album, coyly titled GUEROLITO {*4} – as in “Little Guero” – appeared later the same year, featuring re-workings from the likes of AIR, among others. Over the years, incidentally, BECK has covered `I’m So Green’ (CAN) and `Halo Of Gold’ (MOBY GRAPE), to name just a few.
Once again with RADIOHEAD producer Godrich at the helm, THE INFORMATION (2006) {*7}, was another trippy hip hop stab at neo-psychedelia and funk. Strange and visual though it was, the US Top 10 set was denied a UK chart place as its customised DIY artwork (in which fans were advised to design their own cover from sticky-back paper) was deemed too gimmicky to register; one imagines sales were good enough for it to match its American counterpart. `Cellphone’s Dead’, `Strange Apparition’ and `Nausea’ were typical BECK: eclectic, eccentric and a man willing to bring about spontaneity and a certain degree of participation from his ever-willing fanbase.
2008’s MODERN GUILT {*7} was yet another success, but with a running time of only just over 33 minutes (compared to an hour from its predecessor), BECK’s contractual obligation set might’ve irked some fans. Nevertheless, with DANGER MOUSE on hand at the controls, and CAT POWER’s Chan Marshall a guest on two tracks (the opening `Orphans’ and `Walls); former JELLYFISH geezer Jason Falkner played bass on the opener and the single, `Chemtrails’, BECK’s transatlantic Top 10 success gave him renewed status. Working with the equally sample-centric DM, the hypnotic singer-songwriter was in his lap-topic psychedelic element on others: `Youthless’, `Gamma Ray’ and the title track.
As of autumn 2013, after production duties for STEPHEN MALKMUS and THURSTON MOORE respectively, troubadour BECK was working on two independent sets, one in an acoustic “Sea Breeze” folk style, the other a long-awaited follow-up proper to his 2008 album. MORNING PHASE (2014) {*7} – Top 5 on both sides of the Atlantic – had elements of NICK DRAKE through `Heart Is A Drum’, `Morning’ and others, while a classical motif could be pinned on the moribund `Wave’. Strum-friendly and sensitive for the most part, BECK washed away his troubles – and a well-kept secret spinal injury – by way of laid-back tracks `Country Down’, `Say Goodbye’, `Blackbird Chain’ and `Blue Moon’.
© MC Strong 1995-2006/BG/MCS-GRD // rev-up MCS Sep2013-Oct2014

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