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Nobody's Fool

Beck casts aside the label of slacker savant--who needs all that alternative angst, anyway?--and lets out a yelp of sonic joy on 'Odelay.' Losers need not apply.

July 21, 1996|Richard Cromelin | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

'Wow--I've been looking for a guitar like that." Beck Hansen gazes up at the sculpture hanging on the restaurant wall--a Cubist rendition of a Silvertone guitar, its head, neck and body reconfigured at odd angles.

Perfect--a droll quip from Generation X's musical prankster.

But Beck isn't joking. And when you realize that he's talking about wanting a real, intact Silvertone, you've got a clue that all the stereotypes--Beck the slippery put-on artist, Beck the slacker spokesman, etc.--might be a little shaky.

That's fine with Beck, 26, who has chafed under these images since he arrived out of nowhere in 1993 with the hit "Loser," an infectious hybrid of folk and hip-hop that he'd recorded a year earlier in the living room of its producer.

He was instantly the most intriguing mystery figure in pop--a baby-faced, apparently naive kid with a prolific backlog of songs that covered the musical map and a vague past on L.A.'s bohemian rock club and coffeehouse scene.

Major record companies began circling, and after he signed with Geffen's DGC label, the debate was clearly framed: Genius--or joke?

His debut DGC album, 1994's "Mellow Gold," was a collection of unrelated recordings, but it drew acclaim and sold nearly a million copies. But the debate raged, fueled by Beck's elusive image, his inconsistency as a performer and his tendency to pop up all over the place--his contract allows him to release albums on independent labels, accounting for "Stereopathetic Soulmanure" on Flipside and the acoustic "One Foot in the Grave" on K.

But suddenly the questions seem to be answered with Beck's new album. "Odelay" has received across-the-board rave reviews, and album of the year predictions are rolling in. The single "Where It's At," a seductive hip-hop celebration with a wry, Beckian twist, is an inescapable radio and MTV presence, and Beck's recent shows with his new band were a winning blend of daffy charm and sheer aggression (he's expected back for a formal L.A. concert in October).

The album has sold a robust 181,000 copies in its first three weeks of release, but beyond the numbers is the sense that this abrasive, whimsical, tender and ferocious collection is one of those records that matter, springing from shared experience and striking a nerve with the artist's contemporaries.

"I feel like the music that we make is very much a product of growing up in [the era of] TV and media," says John King, 31, one of the album's producers and co-writers. "Very fast, fast-switching edits on TV, attention spans getting shorter and shorter. . . .

"I feel like I've definitely grown up in it, and Beck's even younger, so he's probably grown up with more diversity and quicker switching between different things. Maybe it's just thinking faster. Not a shorter attention span but just thinking faster."

For his part, Beck resists analysis.

"A lot of what I'm trying to do is intuitive," he says, looking up from his menu. "Surrendering to, I don't know, some other kind of logic, so it doesn't become forced. I tend to do better when I just let the album take on a life of its own. It usually has its own plan somehow. Almost as if you're the transmitter, the facilitator of this whole thing. . . .

"When you're in the studio 16 hours for the 20th day in a row, it's so unconscious at some point, you don't know what the hell's going on. I think the real music starts to happen when you get to that point where you're just letting go and you're creating some sort of monster."

Beck has picked this Pasadena Thai spot on a friend's recommendation. Success may have its price, but for this restaurant aficionado, the rewards include a chance to sample a variety of the area's offerings while taking care of interview obligations.

He orders steamed vegetables and rice and asks for a Thai beer.

"This is the first year I haven't been carded," he says as the waiter leaves without asking for an ID. "That's the coming of age, when they don't card you. You know you've made it to the other side."

Beck's youthful appearance has been one of his trademarks, and the mutton-chop sideburns that sprouted a few years ago don't age him much. Associates cite his humor, intelligence and humility as prominent traits. But while he's unassuming and friendly enough, he can also seem guarded--his face inexpressive except for an occasional wry smile, his nasal voice close to a monotone.

His passions, though, run deep, and instead of the ironic eccentric depicted in the media shorthand, he's actually an idealist, going against the flow of his alternative-rock habitat as much as his Sears-rack khaki shirt flouts fashion dictates.

"I'm sick to death of so-called alternative music being so narrow," he says. "The only acceptable things seem to be very basic irony or this faux anger, angst. . . . I look at all the music I love--country music, blues, samba, hip-hop, Moroccan, whatever. There's that element of celebration in the music that is so sorely missing.

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