On The Record: The Jigsaw Jazz. The Get-Fresh Flow. The Macho Nachos.
It’s the weekend, and I’m eating in a Williamsburg, New York, taquería, the kind of place with luchador-themed artwork on the walls and Macho Nachos on the menu. There is a white guy behind the counter, with plugs in his earlobes and brightly colored hi-tops on his feet, who takes your order. There is an Asian guy in the kitchen, wearing diamond earrings and a hairnet, who makes your Macho Nachos. There is an older Hispanic guy, wearing an apron and a tired look, who brings the food to your table. There is a community bulletin board by the front door with fliers advertising “Williamsburg Kung Fu” and apartments for lease (“Pet-friendly. No musicians”). Bikes are parked outside. People with miniature dogs walk by. This scene is not uncommon in any way.
There is a girl standing behind the bar (did I mention they had a bar there?) who is playing songs on her silver MacBook Pro. She is rather inexplicably making her way through the entirety of Beck’s Guero album, which makes me think three things as I shovel Macho Nachos into my mouth: 1) “This album is better than I remembered (but still not as good as I wished it had been)”; 2) “Apparently it’s cool to like Beck again”; and 3) “Oh, wow, I am currently eating Macho Nachos in a completely perfect metaphor for Beck’s entire career.”
This is probably not what Beck wants to hear, but it’s sort of the truth. For nearly 15 years now, he’s made a living out of being the hipster taquería of the music industry, building MSG-laden, cheez-heavy songs from garbage bins and dusty record crates, grabbing freely and liberally from seemingly disparate eras, genres and cultures. He’s been lo-fi, hi-fi, WiFi, DIY and so fly, seemingly switching identities (the next Dylan, devil-dodging Delta bluesman, junk-heap messiah, Nick Drake, etc.) with each album, but he always stays on message, serving up completely delicious — but completely disposable — slabs of musical Macho Nachos.
This is all well and good, and certainly has afforded Beck the kind of career that’s relatively unheard of in this day and age: He is practically untouchable, he does basically whatever he pleases and it doesn’t really matter if he sells records. (One might argue that he probably doesn’t even need to be on a label at this point. He’s just as equipped to go it alone as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails were, if not more so.) But here’s the thing: You get the feeling that for all his antics, Beck is the kind of guy who cares about his legacy. (I have no real evidence to support this claim, aside from the fact that he still seems stung by the one misstep in his career — 1999’s over-the-top Midnite Vultures — inasmuch as every album he’s released since has been a conscious attempt to distance himself from it.) He, perhaps more than anyone, is aware that even the Macho-est of Nachos will go soggy eventually.
So, really, what is Beck’s musical legacy? It’s a question that seems somewhat silly, given the fact that he’s still making music (dude didn’t even put out a proper album last year and he still got a Grammy nod ) but one that’s also important to ask, because it raises the bigger question of whether legacies can even exist in this era — when music is treated as a commodity and people no longer listen to songs, they “consume” them. You can debate back and forth about just which artists working today will be remembered fondly in, say, 10 years, but not counting acts like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth (they’re already in), I can only come up with a list of Radiohead, R. Kelly, Jay-Z, the White Stripes, Pearl Jam and — gulp — maybe Linkin Park. And, of course, Beck … who just might end up with the greatest musical legacy of them all.
This is due mainly to Odelay, his 1996 sample-heavy, mishmash of a magnum opus that not only cast him as the face of the “anything’s possible!” ideals of mid-’90s alt-rock (though these are also the same ideals that gave birth to nü-metal, as my old friend Andrew Beaujon points out in The Washington City Paper), but is probably one of the most forward-thinking records of the past dozen years, if not the most.
Working with sample-meisters the Dust Brothers on Odelay, Beck created an album that cycled through genres and cultures with the kind of unapologetic aplomb that would make M.I.A. famous nearly a decade later. There’s ’80s nostalgia that predates LCD Soundsystem or Calvin Harris. Somber, abstract acoustic stuff that sounds like Bright Eyes. Electro-samba-who-gives-a-f— like CSS. Mashed-up stuff like Danger Mouse’s Grey Album or Girl Talk’s Night Ripper. It is truly the first album that I can think of to treat popular culture (and all the detritus that comes along with it) as nothing more than a series of building blocks, meant to be scattered about, broken down and then reassembled as something completely new.
In short, Odelay sounds like the Internet, and it managed to do so before the Internet was, you know, The Internet.
And, lo and behold, it has just been reissued — legacy-building is a full-time job, after all — as a two-disc deluxe edition, complete with a pair of unreleased songs (“Inferno,” which has been a Holy Grail of sorts for fans, and “Gold Chains”), an entire album full of ephemera (most of which the avid Beck-head will already own); a nonsensical essay written by Thurston Moore; and a series of interviews with high school students conducted by author Dave Eggers (sample exchange: “So, what has Odelay meant to you?” “Is that what’s playing now?” “Yeah, that’s the music, by Beck.” “Is he Irish?”).
Listening to it now, I’m filled with the bizarre sensation that only comes when you’ve liked a band long enough to have them release deluxe editions of albums: I feel unspeakably old, sort of sad, but also really excited. Odelay is the prime example of an artist operating at the peak of his powers — working at the rare intersection of critical acclaim and commercial success that only happens once in most careers. And, yes, while its reissue also raises some rather strange questions (chiefly, was this album more the handiwork of Beck or the Dust Brothers?), those are more like flies swarming around the feast. You need to swat ’em away and enjoy.
And it’s delicious on so many levels. Odelay is like the soundtrack to an era that’s forever gone, one that seems sort of embarrassing nowadays. But, somewhat amazingly, it’s also the soundtrack to the era we’re living in right now, which is about as fine a musical legacy as an artist can have. So have the Macho Nachos, seriously. They’re f—ing awesome.
B-Sides: Other Stories I’m Following This Week.
I don’t know if I buy this … after all, I doubt Britney can even point out Stockholm on a map.
It would be awesome if Gnarls Barkley were working on a concept album about Jack Klugman.
Maybe the Mars Volta should spend less time concentrating on all the Ouija-board voodoo and more time writing another album like Frances the Mute.
Questions? Concerns? More dead than alive? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.