Album Review: Beck
The question is: How big of an influence does a producer have?
When you’re talking about Nigel Godrich, one of the world’s most renowned producers – whose impressive list of clients includes Radiohead, Pavement, and, uh, Sir Paul McCartney – there must be some difference. These legendary bands didn’t hire him for nothing. But this leads us to another, more important question: Are the differences made by such a highly regarded producer necessarily a good thing?
“The Information,” produced by Nigel Godrich, has solidified my preference of the Dust Brothers’ production of Beck to Godrich’s. Making their home in LA, The Dust Brothers (“Odelay”, “Guero”), seem to connect more to Beck’s geographic musical roots, creating hip-hop beats with raunchier production and a laid-back, left coast attitude. Godrich, on the other hand, focuses on walls of digital sound, tons of effects, and sampled schizophrenia. It always seems like a good time with the Dust Brothers, but a bit of a drag with Godrich. It works for Radiohead, but is often too depressing for Beck.
This is a strong album, but a mixed bag of emotions for me. “The Information” is exactly what I was expecting, which is disappointing. There is little exploration. With Beck’s usual tendency to go wildly different directions and break new ground for himself, I had to be disappointed. It’s not that it’s a failure – I was just expecting better from one of my all-time favorite Scientologists. This album borrows too freely from his previous records and lacks any strong melodies. Near-constant production tricks are futile attempts by Godrich to make up for this fact. Nowhere is the production more superfluous and distracting than on the would-be pretty, organic ballad “New Round.” Keep the strings, the vocals, and the guitar; scrap the thousand digital bleeps and speech samples. It’s not that I don’t appreciate this type of production; I mean, I love Olivia Tremor Control. But it’s too overdone for Beck.
One of the first songs, “I Think I’m In Love,” could have been a weak knockoff of Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” if it weren’t for a short, incredible string break that may be the high point of the album. Backwards pianos crescendo to open the soundscape with hard strumming acoustic guitar and a George Martin string break – a short, monumental aural orgasm. There’s something memorable about such fleeting ecstasy. While he may use some distracting production techniques, Godrich has proven his ear for producing strings ¬– they were similarly impressive on 2002’s “Sea Change.”
Strings are the strongest aspect of “The Information.” Clearly written by the same people (and produced by the same Nigel) who did strings for “Sea Change,” they manage to bring some freshness to Beck. Whereas “Sea Change” was rarely without a full string section, “The Information” gives more space and uses the section less often, which, in turn, is more effective.
“Strange Apparition” is a throwback to Beck’s folksy roots. Not that it doesn’t rock (with badass piano and some of the album’s most energetic moments), but considering Beck’s increasingly liberal use of electronic sounds and samples over the past several years, this could be considered a friggin’ hillbilly hoedown. It almost brings the mid-90’s to mind, with elements of Pearl Jam and, dare I say it, Counting Crows. Surprising, to say the least.
The final track, “The Horrible,” is Beck’s answer to the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” Like the Liverpudlians’ nine-minute sonic freakout, the brilliantly named “The Horrible” clocks in at over ten minutes and sounds like an acid trip that could have inspired “I Am The Walrus.” A few minutes of wildly panned samples and synth effects lead into the bass falling into a groove, and Beck finally emerges with his characteristic verse phrasing. You may think the weirdness is over, but it’s actually just low in the mix. The bass line from “Cellphone’s Dead” reappears sporadically, which is clearly ripped off from Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” (OK, call it “homage.”) The soundscape is soon overcome by warm, ethereal synths and uber-present speech samples. It’s among the strangest experiments Beck has ever allowed on an album. And I fucking dig it, especially to wrap up an average album that lacks much exploration.
As should be expected, Nigel Godrich brings “The Information” together with a certain instrumental aesthetic, namely the consistent use of tribal drums; large, clear, spacious vocals; middle-eastern sounding synth and/or guitar lines; and heavy production effects, especially reverb, throughout the album.
Overall, while it can be deemed a success, I probably won’t be able to retain “The Information” and will resort to my preferred “Odelay” and “Guero.” This album just doesn’t seem like it will stick. Unlike “Odelay,” it won’t be nostalgic ten years from now. It won’t bring me back to my crazy college days. Still, I look forward to seeing him on Saturday, and I hope Nigel Godrich is there, too, so I can have a little talk with him.
Beck - I Think I'm In Love
Beck - Strange Apparition
Beck - The Horrible
- Austin Bauer -
Tags: Beck, The Information, Nigel Godrick, mp3