The Over/Under: Beck

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Beck came to most people by way of MTV wearing a stormtrooper mask and rapping about “getting crazy with the Cheez Whiz.” The video was “Loser,” and the song was recorded as a joke—on a friend of a friend’s eight-track in a span of six hours. The white-boy slacker-rap song went to number 10 on the Billboard charts. He seemed like a one-hit wonder, but now he’s in the running to be considered one of the most influential pop musicians of the past 20 years. No other artist in recent memory has so thoroughly blown apart any attempts at categorization. In the span of single songs, Beck has been known to fuse hip hop, Latin, funk, punk, classical, R&B, soul and delta blues. (I could have kept going.) The diversity he’s shown in his ability to take on different musical styles makes it obvious he could make any album he wants. He’s even started remaking his favorite records; his online-only Record Club project has him gathering with a group of friends once a month to re-record classic albums in a weekend. The first two installments were The Velvet Underground & Nico and Songs Of Leonard Cohen. For the next round, Beck got together with Wilco to cover Skip Spence’s Oar: not exactly easy lifting. He may be the hardest working slacker in show business. After 11 full-lengths, he’s written a ton of great songs, but there are a few that get undeserved praise and a mountain that get neglected. Here are the five most overrated and the five most underrated Beck songs.

:: The Five Most Overrated Beck Songs
1. “Devil’s Haircut” (1996)

This second single from Odelay followed “Where It’s At,” but maybe it should have just stayed a deep cut. Don’t get me wrong, it’s kinda catchy, and it obviously has some radio potential, but the lyrics are so negative and angst-ridden when compared to some of Beck’s other work, it just sounds like he wrote the song while in a bad mood. The chorus is numbingly hypnotic and repetitive, which is probably the reason it did so well on the radio. I’m not sure what Beck is writing about here, but to me, this would be a good song to soundtrack a serial-killer movie. It sounds like it could be about someone falling apart: turning to the dark side because there’s nowhere else to go. I prefer Beck when he’s writing songs to soundtrack convertible drives or getting ready for a night out.

2. “Nausea” (2006)
This track sounds like Beck had been listening to too much Modest Mouse. It’s like a woozy-yet-frantic sea shanty. To his credit, it is nauseous, though that’s probably not something you should strive for when writing and recording music. Unless you like that kind of nervous, oh-no feeling you get when you know you’re going to throw up and you can’t do anything about it. This was the first single from The Information. Why anyone would choose this song to be repeated over and over on the radio is a mystery to me.

3. “Satan Gave Me A Taco” (1994)
This stupid song from Stereopathetic Soul Manure gets endlessly requested by loud morons at concerts. It’s just the same chord progression and melody repeated over and over, and lyrically, it’s about as pedestrian and teenage as any of Beck’s songs. Sure, it pays homage to the “Alice’s Restaurant” story-song style of Arlo Guthrie, but it’s meandering and pointless. An anthem for Beavis and Butt-head. If Beck spontaneously made up this song during a live performance, it would be charming and funny. As a desperate rarity request, it’s just annoying. The man has farted better songs since.

4. “Debra” (1999)
Sure, Beck is doing his best Prince and R. Kelly, but this song sounds like an Andy Samberg SNL parody. Beck wrote it around the Odelay sessions but ended up shelving it because he was afraid it was too much of a joke. It it. Once audiences got a hold of the song though, it quickly became a fan favorite and a highlight of live sets. “I met you at JC Penney/I think your nametag said Jenny/I cool step to you/With a fresh pack of gum/Somehow I knew you were looking for some.” Maybe Beck should do an entire comedy album. That could be pretty good. Even though it’s about a three-way and name-drops one of my favorite restaurants, Zankou Chicken, this song from Midnight Vultures gets unfair attention.

5. “E-Pro” (2005)
Beck phones it in. It’s almost like he thought he found his hit-single recipe: Take one distorted acoustic groove, put a punchy beat behind it, rap a bunch of lazy non-sequitur lyrics over the top, sprinkle on some synth for flavoring, then stir. The chorus to this Guero track is just “na-na na-na-na-na na-na.” It’s catchy and proves his ability to make adequate music without really thinking about it, but is it really necessary? Beck has already made better versions of this song a few times over. Maybe it would have been decent, if it weren’t so uninspired.

:: The Five Most Underrated Beck Songs
1. “Brother” (1996)

From the scrapped Tom Rothrock/Rob Schnapf sessions for Odelay, this heartfelt, ethereal song was among a small number of sparse acoustic tracks that were shelved because they didn’t fit with the sample-laden, ramshackle hip-hop sound of the rest of the album under new producers, the Dust Brothers. “Brother” first saw light in 1997 as a b-side on the “Jack-Ass” single, and it was later re-released as part of a Japanese-only b-sides collection called Stray Blues. Beck has recycled tunes before (“It’s All In Your Mind” originally appeared on One Foot In The Grave but was re-recorded for Sea Change), and this song should have been given another shot.

2. “Go It Alone” (2006)
Supposedly, “Go It Alone” was written in five minutes. The instrumentation is sparse, with nothing but handclaps and a groovy bass (courtesy of Jack White) making up the foundation for the verse. Some of Beck’s best songs are minimal numbers like this one. It’s not really until the final chorus where the song really gets pumping and you can hear White, with his trademark overdriven vintage-amp sound providing a heavy, broad accent. For some reason, this Guero track is a rarity live, but it’s one of a few that should have been chosen as a lead single over “E-Pro.”

3. “Supergolden Black Sunchild” (1993)
Lo-fi experimental glam from the pre-Mellow Gold era. With grander production, this Golden Feelings track could sound like something by Bowie. The wavering tremolo Beck affects on the vocal line sounds like he’s shivering underwater. Probably never played live before, but this one might be worth revisiting with a full band for a once-in-a-while nugget. It would be a good tune to open the first encore.

4. “Cyanide Breath Mint” (1994)
Beck liked this song enough to name his publishing company Cyanide Breathmint Music but not enough to play it live that often. Probably the catchiest track from One Foot In The Grave, this diatribe against show business proves that Beck can write a solid, linear song (he has loads more) and doesn’t always have to rap nonsense like he’s narrating channel flipping or he’s some schizophrenic bum walking down the sidewalk in Los Angeles.

5. “Lord Only Knows” (1996)
Jangly acoustic, fuzzed-out bass and slide guitar get this song swaying. It’s got a classic folk/Americana feel, reminiscent of Neil Young or the simpler songs of Dylan, but with a warm buzz on the low end and a shredding (MXR Blue Box?) solo. This song destroys “Devil’s Haircut” in almost every way and would have made a much better single. It’s dynamic. The lyrics make sense. The vocal melody isn’t mind numbingly boring. Beck hasn’t been playing this one the past few tours, and it’s a shame. Do the hot-dog dance!

—Edward Fairchild

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