Thursday, March 25, 2010

Beck’s Redos and Mash-Ups

I’m probably little more than a middling fan of Beck Hansen’s music. I really like some of his material; other parts I could take or leave. But I’ve become a big a fan of Beck’s website. It’s one of the more interesting and creative official sites for a modern pop musician. I first got drawn into regular visits late last spring after reading music press references to Beck’s new Record Club project, which garnered considerable attention as soon as it was announced.

The way the Record Club works is Beck and various musician pals (including some fairly noteworthy names) get together at his Southern California studio for a day-long impromptu session in which they tackle a slightly off-the-beaten path classic album and re-record it in its entirety. They also shoot video of the proceedings. The results are then fine-tuned and presented on the site as free streaming audio and video. Following the original sequence of the album, one song is added each week. What’s most interesting, besides the various combinations of musicians, is that there is little regard paid to reproducing the songs as they were done back in the day. Instead, the emphasis is on interpretation. The project is less about historical reverence than the gathered artists having fun with the material and each other. The results are modern-sounding productions with an unmistakable Beckian stamp.

Given the volume of material (usually 10 or 12 songs) and the tightness of the timeframe, the quality is impressive. Beck and his buds clearly know their way around many instruments and the ins and outs of the recording studio. The video accompaniments, while given some effect treatments here and there, are closer to home-video affairs.

So far, the Club has tackled the Warholian heroin chic of The Velvet Underground with Nico (featuring classics such as “Run, Run, Run”; “All Tomorrow’s Parties”; “There She Goes Again”; “Waiting for My Man” and “Femme Fatale”), the poetic romance of The Songs of Leonard Cohen (including greats such as “Suzanne”; “Sisters of Mercy” and “So Long, Marianne”), the crazed, psychedelic folk of OAR by ex-Moby-Graper Skip Spence, and INXS’ 1987 blockbuster Kick. Featured artists joining Beck on these endeavors have included Fiest, Wilco (including Jeff Tweedy’s 15-year-old son), Devandra Banhart, Nigel Godrich, James Gadson and members of Wolfmother, MGMT and the noted Brazilian band Os Mutantes, among others. Beck himself takes the lead on many tracks, but does not necessarily dominate the sessions.

Digging into Beck’s website a little further – beneath the standard musician’s web fare of news, music videos and CD tracks; past the quirky videos from Japanese Television; beyond the artist’s interviews with other noted musicians and actors; and aside from the spotlights on various lesser-known visual artists – I stumbled across the section I’ve come to enjoy the most of all: Planned Obsolescence. There I discovered a half-dozen delightfully entertaining mash-ups. Apparently, this is what Beck does in his spare time.

For each of the 15- to 30-minute-long mixes (true, professionally-produced mash-ups, not simply sequenced playlists), he seamlessly interweaves dozens of songs ranging from 1920s’ delta blues and ’70s’ soul to modern European dance tracks and a few recognizable pop and rock hits. This deep musical mining and sonic foundry is compelling: alternately ironic, humorous and even, legitimately funky. If you’re at all musically adventurous, check it out. Mash-ups Nos. 12 - 17 are currently on the site – presumably, the “plan” is for the older (“obsolete”) ones to disappear as new ones are added.

Whether the guy is creating some of the most musical, white-boy crossover rap/hip-hop since the Beastie Boys, playing introspective acoustic folk music (a la Sea Change), tapping the chicano gestalt of L.A. or doing some amalgamation of all of the above, the one-time wunderkind remains a stand-out in music today. And to think, controversial Scientology associations aside, he started out a decade and half ago as just a “Loser.”

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