Getting Beck to the future

Special to The Times

There are lots of marvelous extras to listen to in the new, deluxe edition of Beck's 1996 landmark album, "Odelay," including more than an hour's worth of music that wasn't in the original collection.

But there are also some engaging things to read in the accompanying booklet, including a mini-essay by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and, best of all, author Dave Eggers' report on what "Odelay" means to 15 contemporary high schoolers.

We're so conditioned to expect only glowing words in liner notes that it's confusing at first when it turns out most of the students say they aren't even familiar with Beck or the album.

How can that be?

"Odelay" was one of the most acclaimed albums of the last 20 years -- a work that combined all sorts of pop genres, from the Dylanesque singer-songwriter tradition to hip-hop, in a lively series of tunes that in many ways signaled the passing of a torch to a new generation of pop fans.

If Eggers, whose memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, had interviewed teens in 1996, the result would have surely been heartfelt testimonials about how much the album meant to them.

But he interviewed the San Francisco area students in 2006, which makes it easier to see how some may not be familiar with the CD, though it's still a little hard to imagine that no teenager he approached knew about the album. My guess is Eggers included the answers only of students who didn't know the album.

Whatever, the interviews are in Q&A form and they are fun to read. Here's how part of Eggers' exchange with one 15-year-old girl went as they listened to the CD together.

Q: Sally, what has "Odelay" meant to you?

A: What?

Q: This album we're listening to?

A:I've never heard it.

Q: You haven't?

A: Sorry.

Q: Have you heard of Beck?

A: I think so. In a movie maybe?

In another interview, a 17-year-old girl says she is familiar with "Odelay."

Q: So, you listened to the album when it first came out?

A: What? I was like 4 years old. No. I heard it last year.

Q: Where? From your parents?

A: No, my parents wouldn't play Beck. They only listen to Billy Joel and German polka music.

And on it goes, culminating in an interview with another 17-year-old who hadn't heard "Odelay" until Eggers played it for her. She says she likes it a lot, but when asked if she would buy it, she says goodness no: "I would download it." Eggers asked if she meant she'd find a way to download it free, and she responds, "Yeah."

What makes Eggers' contribution so engaging is that it's so unexpected, especially given the nervousness about downloading in the record industry. The daring is in keeping with Beck's musical vision and makes an ideal companion piece to the music.


"Odelay--Deluxe Edition"


The back story: "Odelay" was initially a single disc, but it has been expanded to two discs, the first disc containing the original album plus two invigorating, never-before-released tracks from the "Odelay" sessions ("Inferno" and "Gold Chains"). It also contains a Beck track from the soundtrack of Danny Boyle's film "A Life Less Ordinary." The second disc contains 16 remixes and B-sides.

The music: From his early club days around Los Angeles, Beck was a gifted songwriter, but his breakthrough came when he wrapped his tunes with forward-thinking hip-hop and electronica dynamics. "Where It's At," the standout track on "Odelay," was a celebration of new musical opportunities and horizons; a song that came complete with a boastful battle cry: "I got two turntables and a microphone."

Working in the studio with the Dust Brothers, Beck did such an imaginative job of mixing sonic textures that some pop fans long overlooked his writing skills. To many, the full appreciation of Beck the songwriter didn't really come until 2002, when he released the "Sea Change" album, a straightforward singer-songwriter collection that expressed romantic heartache with the eloquence of Hank Williams.

Hopefully, we'll someday get a deluxe version of "Sea Change," one that, like the "Odelay" set, not only celebrates a defining moment in pop culture but also adds to our appreciation of it.

Backtracking, a biweekly feature, focuses on CD reissues and other pop culture items of historical interest.

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