BECK One Foot In The Grave (K)

One of Beck Hansen's numerous 'parenthetical' works, "One Foot In The Grave" was originally issued in the space between "Mellow Gold" and "Odelay", and owes a lot more to the former's rudimentary DIY production than it does to the latter's (comparatively) glossy hip-hop pick'n'mix suss. Not that that's a bad thing, of course: these sixteen songs rattle past in the space of little more than half an hour, alternately evoking Woody Guthrie, Captain Beefheart or any number of grunge garage bands, but never really sounding as if it could be the work of anyone other than the floppy haired feller holding the acoustic guitar on the front cover. Off the beaten track, yes, but a fun detour, to be sure.

BECK! Odelay (Bong Load Custom)

This album’s a treat even before you listen to it: as Geffen (Beck’s label proper) have neglected to release his albums on a high-quality format, their vinyl appearances are the responsibility of the charmingly named Bong Load Custom Records (judging by the ‘specialist’ nature of some of their other signings (e.g. the likes of Lutefisk, My Favorite Martian and Thrush Hermit) the words ‘meal’ and ‘ticket’ may spring, not unreasonably, to mind), and are therefore "guaranteed not to have the word "Geffen" anywhere". But rather than the usual token-effort scrattiness we’ve sadly been forced to expect from major label vinyl releases, "Odelay" comes pressed on (very) heavy 180 gram vinyl, packaged with a hefty poster, Bong Load Custom catalogue and sticker. Like, cheers!

What of the music? Well, Beck Hansen’s stock in trade is a kind of strange slacker-grunge-rap concoction of twisted lyrical observations and kitchen-sink accompaniments, ably abetted here by producers The Dust Brothers (who somehow overhauled The Beastie Boys into a valid musical force with their "Paul’s Boutique" album). Perhaps the album’s defining moment occurs during the fabulous "Where It’s At", a kind of "Love Shack" for the Generation X, when Beck wobbles "That was a great drum break", simultaneously celebrating, deconstructing and mocking the cut-and-paste culture that his own music has sprung from: think Tricky with a sense of humour and a (conscious) eye for the ridiculous and you won’t go far wrong. It’s still too soon to tell whether "Odelay" is a classic, but both it and its maverick mentor put so much genuine effort into trying to please that it seems churlish not to give it the benefit of the doubt.

BECK Mutations (Geffen)

Either Beck’s third or fifth long player, depending how you look at it (a clause in his Geffen contract allows him to release albums for whoever he dang well pleases, hence the availability of "A Western Harvest By Moonlight" on Fingerprint and "One Foot In The Grave" on K alongside his more widely promoted works), "Mutations" was originally slated for release by Bong Load Custom, the company that handles all his vinyl releases, but, as the press release puts it, "Beck later chose to release it on Geffen Records". You may wonder whether Geffen later chose to release it on Geffen Records, given the crirical and commercial success of 1996’s platinum-selling "Odelay", but for all Beck’s talk about "Mutations" being a ‘parenthetical’ work and not the official follow-up to "Odelay" this isn’t the scratchy low-fi festering you might be expecting.

Produced by this year’s flavour of the month Nigel Godrich, "Mutations" eschews the samples and hip-hop beats that have decorated most of Beck’s finest moments so far, playing around with instrumentation and melodic trickery instead. And it has to be said that the feel isn’t that different from "Odelay", suggesting that whatever medium he may be playing through the real common denominator is the force of Beck’s personality and his fantastically skewed songwriting skills. Let’s face it, Pavement have been ploughing a furrow not a million miles away from Beck’s for years now (they even managed to get the country/weird stuff, which is at the root of "Mutations", down pat on the "Wowie Zowie" album in 1995) but somehow Beck manages to push the popular button that has largely eluded that band. Maybe it’s because Beck’s unselfconsciously strange visions get plastered in all sorts of widescreen technicolor trickery that somehow manages to add to the grandeur of, rather than obfuscate, the source material. Best track - although none of the 13 on offer are any worse than good - is "Diamond Bollocks", in which fragments of foreign tunes and ambient noise collide with a sturdy punk rant (the same kind of effect Roxy Music used on "Re-Make/Re-Model").

So although "Mutations" may be a little off-kilter compared to most chart fodder it should hold no terror for the seasoned Beck enthusiast. Think of it as Johnny Cash joining The Bonzo Dog Band and polished with all manner of 90s technological know how and you’d probably be as close as any words could take it.

BECK A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight (Fingerpaint)

BECK Mutations (Bong Load Custom)

"A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight" is a 10" mini album issued some time prior to Beck Hansen's breakthrough success with "Loser", and certainly sounds it. Nominally containing ten short tracks, there are numerous other bits between the bits, and the spidery scrawl in which the track titles are written (on the label only, natch) makes it a bit of a trial to discern exactly what you're listening to. Somewhere within its 20 or so minutes duration are expertly picked folk guitar instrumentals, a hilarious and affectionate acapella Beefheart tribute (wonderful lyrical nonsense about stolen car stereos and Black Sabbath), several different versions of something called "Feel Like A Piece Of Shit" and even some proper songs - not too many though. The net effect is exactly the kind of leftfield, and, yes, 'parenthetical' work that "Mutations" turned out not to be, and as such is heartily recommended to anybody who thinks that Beck may have compromised his principles a little over that last named.

Speaking of which, Bong Load Custom have finally done the decent thing and issued "Mutations" on a high quality format, in this case 180 grams' worth of stunning sounding vinylite - really, this is one of the best sounding vinyl pressings I've clapped ears on since...well, since Bong Load Custom's issue of "Odelay", actually. The songs are the same acoustic Latino salsa folk country hoe-downs that made the CD of "Mutations" such a delight, the only caveat being that the last two tracks, including the sublime "Diamond Bollocks", have been excised to a free 7" single that accompanies the album, with correspondingly lower sound quality. Ho hum. A small black mark, then, against what is otherwise yet another landmark Beck release.

BECK Midnite Vultures (Bong Load)

Beck's latest long player belatedly makes it to vinyl courtesy of the good folk at American independent label Bong Load, who are also responsible for bringing the works of Eels and Elliott Smith to the black stuff. It certainly looks the part, dressed up in thick cardboard and heavy vinyl, but it sounds rather dull and compressed compared to the demonstration quality issues of "Odelay" and "Mutations" that originated from the same source.

"Midnite Vultures" is typical Beck, even though of course there's really no such thing. Everything you've come to expect and respect: there's the usual kaleidoscopic kitchen sink collage of hip-hop, soul, funk, psychedelia, gospel and alt-rock, the lyrics still teeter on the verge of prime Dylanesque so-meaningless-it's-meaningful prose but as ever they're dragged back from the brink by Mr Hansen's Mark E Smith-challenging slang talk (my personal favourite few lines dwell in "Hollywood Freaks": "Norman Schwartzkoff/Something tells me you want to go home/Champagne, bibles/Custom clothes you own/Calling out from special area codes", and the immortal "Looking like a hot date/Banging like an 808"). Inveterate credit junkies such as myself will be further pleased to note contributions from Johnny Marr and Beth Orton on a track apiece.

So far so fine. What makes "Midnite Vultures" potentially the best Beck album yet are the two tracks reputedly rescued from the "Odelay" sessions, which wipe the floor with the strong competition presented here. "Hollywood Freaks" is an absurdly catchy fishlens view of LA nightlife, whilst "Debra" just has to be the man's finest five minutes (which makes it even better than "Where It's At", if you can handle the concept of such alien brilliance), Beck turning in a tale of white trash seduction in a voice that evokes Prince's one-time falsetto alter-ego Camille. "Lady, step inside my Hyundai", he coos, which has to rate as the most ridiculous yet sincere chat-up line in rock. And if it sounds like I'm describing some prankster's ironic cut-up collage, consider that, like just about everything he's recorded, Beck drenches the whole kit caboodle in his own inimitable soul power.

It's always dangerous to try and pin a label on talent so maverick and mobile as Beck Hansen's, but it's reasonably safe to say that "Midnite Vultures" currently stands as his most complete monument to date. The devil is dancing in the filigree detailing, but everybody else is still partying like it's forever 1999. Prepare to be astounded.

BECK Stereopathetic Soul Manure (Flipside)

"Stereopathetic Soul Manure" is a compilation of home recordings and live performances made by Beck Hansen between 1988 and 1993. Long available on CD, it has finally been released as a double vinyl album by the Californian indie label Flipside. Like much of the Beck material issued outside the auspices of his Geffen contract, the music here is unrepentantly low-fi - in fact in production terms it makes the rough-hewn patchwork of "Mellow Gold" look like "Midnite Vulture"'s expertly-lit soul collage - and crashes merrily between distorted heavy metal and avant-garde experimentation (not deeply entertaining) to witty folk and blues pastiches, full of sly nods and knowing winks to the likes of Woody Guthrie and Captain Beefheart (very entertaining indeed), culminating in the hilarious devil-based snack misery of "Satan Gave Me A Taco". Crude and uneven though it may be, "Stereopathetic Soul Manure" is still a fascinating listen that, crucially, assists in the understanding of just how Beck got to be what he is today.

BECK Sea Change (Geffen)

Apparently wrung from the artist's recent break-up, "Sea Change" couldn't be more estranged from the fantastic white Prince sexfunk of Beck's previous album, "Midnite Vultures". The immediate impression fostered only a few seconds into the first track, "The Golden Age", is of Nick Drake tiptoeing through the quieter moments of Neil Young's "Tonight's The Night" album, or David Ackles gingerly handling The Stones' "Wild Horses".

That opener pretty much completely describes the album's emotional and musical landscape. "Sea Change" is a huge shrug and sigh of a record, full of tiny apocalypses: "These days I barely get by/I don't even try/It's a treacherous road with a desolated view/There's distant lights but here they're far and few/And the sun don't shine even when its day/You gotta drive all night just to feel like you're OK". It'll sink like a stone - if it hasn't already - because nobody expects this kind of maudlin introspection from Beck. Geniuses don't have their off-days, and whenever Beck has previously done downbeat downtempo ("Mutations", for example) he's laced it with enough Mariachi picnic treats to allow the whole to sneak under the gloom radar and evade detection.

"Sea Change" is saturated with the spirit of early-70s American singer songwriters, but it doesn't necessarily follow that it can comfort the bedsitting James Taylor fan in you. There's still enough of a Beck spin on proceedings to nudge the results out of the orbit of their influences, and once Nigel Godrich - who seems to have been eclipsed, slightly unfairly on this evidence, by Dave Fridmann as the hip backroom boy name to drop - sprinkles his production glitter around it becomes something else entirely. Listen to the "A Day In The Life"-aping crescendo of "Lonesome Tears" (the album's string arrangements are provided by Beck's dad, by the way), the way he conjures up a swimming heathaze of ambience on "Round The Bend", or the sense of seasick unease that forever threatens to topple "Little One".

"Sea Change" doesn't sound quite distressed enough to break bread with rock's most desolate albums (let's see…"Tonight's The Night", "Closer", "Berlin", "The Holy Bible", "Pink Moon", "Third/Sister Lovers", "In Utero", you know the drill) - that fantastic production renders it too padded, and at least some of those listed above have acquired some of their chilling anti-glamour posthumously. And maybe one day the idea of listening to minor variations of what is effectively the same tune for 50 minutes will pall. But until that time comes, "Sea Change" is a bold, brave album disguised as a tear-stained love letter.

BECK Guero (Interscope)

Re-enlisting The Dust Brothers for production duties, “Guero” comfortably settles into a wacky, old-school Beck groove. It’s “Odelay Part 2”, at least as far as the soundscaping is concerned, but Mr Hansen hasn’t quite shaken off the exquisite weariness of 2002’s “Sea Change”.

I can’t think of any other artist who has performed such a volte-face away from a new, more ‘mature’ direction. It’s almost as if, following “Hunky Dory”, David Bowie had decided that all he ever really wanted to do was make mockney Anthony Newley-inspired drivel about gnomes. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but not a huge one. Following the maudlin, string-soaked heave and sigh of “Sea Change” with a half-hearted return to the party hardy sound of yore might be perceived as a similarly regressive step by some observers.

It must be said that the Brothers’ Dust’s production work and Interscope’s chunky 45 rpm vinyl pressing are both magnificent. There are moments, such as the ambient street sounds that pepper “Qué Onda Guero”, that are practically holographic, almost conjuring up surround sound from just two speakers. Musically, though, the album appears inexorably sucked towards an admittedly exotic stylistic median. With practically every track exhibiting a kitchen sink soundclash – metal riffage all over “E–Pro”, a primitive synth pop intro to “Missing”, the slide guitar chain gang of “Farewell Ride” - you might find yourself yearning for something a little simpler. Having been more lyrically focussed and weighty on recent releases, it’s difficult to know what to make of the avowedly entertaining babble of images he offers here.

Still, “Earthquake Weather”, which boasts Money Mark and his organ, is loose and lovely, slow and sultry, keeping cool in a heathazed town. Positioned at the album’s halfway point, “Hell Yes” is “Guero”’s most obvious descendent of “Odelay”’s peerless “Where It’s At”. Diluted in comparison, the playfulness sounding somewhat forced, it does contain the unassailable observation “My beat is correct”.

As uncategorisable as it is identifiably Beck “Guero” might be, but it also suggests that might not necessarily be a guarantee of genius. His trademark sonic tomfoolery sounds a little tired and tarnished this time around. It’s alright, but it doesn’t excite.