J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Return Trip: Beck - One Foot in the Grave

One Foot in the Grave
(K ; 1994)

I have a weird admission to make and I feel ready to do so, especially now that the big re-issue of this album is out and it's been enshrined into the rock-and-roll album pantheon of greatness: I really didn't care for Odelay when it was released in 1996. Whether it was my limited scope of musical awareness at the time or some other set of blinders, I wasn't feeling it. (Now, thankfully, I've realized that "Hotwax" is one amazingly boss song, among others on that album.) But I had put a lot of stock in Beck following his debut, Mellow Gold, and one of the pair of clearing-house albums he released in 1994 on the way to Odelay: One Foot in the Grave.

As proof that Beck was capable of something beyond the potential one-hit-wonder-dom of "Loser," One Foot in the Grave is a lo-fi fetish dream. With instruments that shamble along, barely keeping up with each other, and released on K Records and featuring the label's founder, and former Beat Happening member, Calvin Johnson, among its musicians, there's an obvious patina of indie-charm smeared all over the album. It focuses on the obvious blues and folk influences that bubbled all up and under the surface of Mellow Gold, harnessing something that sounds like a slacker, surrealist Robert Johnson.

Since this record was recorded before Mellow Gold, it's easy to see the connections. Been itchin' to hear stripped down songs that share an obvious style with Mellow Gold's "Pay No Mind," "Nitmare Hippy Girl" or "Truckdrivin' Neighbors Downstairs?" That's pretty much what you get, although without nearly the level of clarity. Beck's lyrics at this point are surrealist collage after dadaist mosaic after mad-lib - nowhere near the focused chaos they would begin to channel with Mellow Gold. And the moments that emerge from the murk are substantial enough to make you sit up and take notice in the midsts of an otherwise fun, but aimless, album.

"Asshole" is probably the album's high-water mark - if only for the fact that Tom Petty would end up covering it a few years later on his She's the One soundtrack album. It's one of the album's most 'produced' moments, and by this I mean that obviously someone there had the sense to ixnay any distortion or loopy effects, add some tasteful harmony in the chorus and under the verses and generally keep the whole shebang as close to the general idea of the short, melancholic moper that the song was obviously intended to be. It has one of Beck's most memorable choruses, if only for its forthright brevity ("She'll do anything / to make you feel like an asshole") and is a pretty remarkable song all in all.

There are other standouts. "See Water" and "Forcefield" both hold atmospheric, mystic moments within their rounds of singing (in the latter) and simplistic, note-by-note movements (in the former). "Painted Eyelids" is the album's most straightforward country paean and it works remarkably well, especially amongst the album's sops to trad-folk with a cover of traditional "He's a Mighty Good Leader" and the amazingly traditional sounding (but originally composed) "I've Seen the Land Beyond."

The rest of the album treads in familiar territory for Beck fans, some songs standing out more than others, but ultimately just filling time and keeping the pace of the album constant. While holding none of the amazing production tricks that his subsequent albums would, including the ones that would be advertised as 'retreats' or 'genre exercises' the way One Foot in the Grave is often similarly identified, it's a pretty solid collection of foundational material that has echoed well into Beck's ongoing catalogue. Had it been released later in his career, it might have received more attention as the formative piece that it is, but coming so soon on the heels of his debut and released on a small indie-label where it is now out-of-print, it has slipped through the cracks, left for those either really paying attention at the time or as a reward for Beck's new fans who take the time to search his back catalogue.

Rating: I(nteresting)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and somtimes Y)

Judge For Yourself:

Beck - "Cyanide Breath Mint"

Beck - "Forcefield"

Beck - "Asshole"

Bonus: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - "Asshole"

Purchase a used copy of One Foot in the Grave at Amazon.

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