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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Beck, "Mutations"

Geffen (1998)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

It's somewhat ironic that Tom Moon chooses "Mutations" as the best representative of alternative artist Beck Hansen (or, more simply, Beck). The album preceding this one, "Odelay," served as both a critical and popular smash, taking a more "hip-hop" approach and relying heavily on samples. "Mutations" returns the focus to "natural" instrumentation, and keeps it there about as long as any Beck album does. Although it's impossible to say that any record from an artist as diverse as Beck stands especially apart from the rest, this one's pretty close.

The most common misconception about "Mutations" is that it serves as a tribute to the Brazilian Tropicalia movement we looked at with Caetano Veloso. Sure enough, there is the samba-rock single named after the genre, and the title of the album may or may not be a reference to the group "Os Mutantes" (compatriots of Veloso), but there are quite a few genres that make appearances, as is the case with every Beck album. If anything, Beck's career stands as a tribute to the spirit of Tropicalia. After all, a major theme behind the movement was artistic "cannibalism," or enveloping the Brazilian art forms that came before and turning it into a collective mass of the culture's musical experience.

Take the first two tracks of the album for example, "Cold Brains" and "Nobody's Fault But My Own." At their cores, both are just Beck strumming an acoustic guitar. "Brains" features an onslaught of electronic chirps and synths (plus a harmonica bridge) while "Fault" is backed by the ethereal drone of an Indian tamboura. Beck uses his "anti-folk" background like Legos, starting with basic blocks and building vastly different monuments from them. The approach isn't much different from that of those behind the Tropicalia movement.

If there is any common ground between the songs however, it's that many sound like they belong in small bars, not major venues as most of "Odelay's" tracks did. "Cancelled Check" is still a raucous affair, but the slide guitar and upright piano sound more at home in an country-western saloon (until its cacophonous ending), and the final four tracks on the album, beginning with "Bottle of Blues" and ending with "Static," combine the slide guitar, upright piano and harmonica to some degree to accomplish the mood. For someone who jumps styles as often as Beck, "Mutations" serves as a stepping down of sorts from the relative jauntiness of "Odelay."

Moon seems to think this is the best jumping off point when listening to Beck, and I'm not sure that I agree. "Mutations" is probably my favorite album from him, but those who are less inclined to rock music might get a bigger kick from "Odelay" or even "Mellow Gold." I'm not sure there is a proper "starting point" for Beck, so might as well give this one a shot.

INTERESTING FACT: Among the many musicians credited on "Mutations" is David Campbell for arranging, conducting and viola. Campbell, who has done similar work for many artists, including Metallica and KISS, is Beck's father.

Cancelled Check by Beck on Grooveshark

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