Since I have been been geeking out over Beck for the last few weeks in anticipation of seeing him headline the XPoNential Music Festival on Sunday night, I thought I would share some rare recordings of his that I've added to my music collection over the years.
In the fall of 1995, Beck went into the studio to record four tracks for BBC Radio 1, all of which shared a common theme of disillusionment. Whether it be with the record industry, failed relationships or critics, it was clear that the young artist had grown uneasy with the effects of his sudden fame.
This session came roughly a year after the folk-rap oddity, “Loser” became an unexpected hit and made Beck the poster boy for goofball slackers around the world. And, it would still be another year before he would end all speculation of his potential one-hit wonder status by releasing the groundbreaking album, Odelay in 1996 which he co-produced with The Dust Brothers.
These songs paint a picture of an artist resolved to shake off his reputation as the Gen X court jester and be taken seriously on his own terms.
It is clear that a deliberate effort was made to distance the music here from anything that might recall the gimmicky fun of “Loser”. Three of the four tracks are recorded with sparse acoustic arrangements and there is little humor to be found. It was here that the mainstream got it’s first, fleeting glimpse of the earnest and thoughtful Beck who would not fully reveal himself to world until the release of 1998’s Mutations.
First up is a re-recording of of “Cyanide Breath Mint”, a song that originally appeared (with alternate lyrics) on Beck’s classic lo-fi folk album, One Foot In The Grave. Despite the slicker production and a more upbeat tempo, this performance manages to preserve the song’s sense of cynical melancholy. Personally, I have always preferred this version to the original.
These sessions also introduced an early version of the song “Jack-Ass” which would be released as a single from Odelay the following year. This straight ahead country rock rendition of the song features a slide guitar and harmonica in lieu of the hypnotic keyboard sample from Them’s cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” that would be added during the Odelay sessions with The Dust Brothers. Even without the glossy production, the song still shines as a great lonesome cowboy ballad.
The third track from the session is most commonly known as “Static 1” though it has been listed as “Baby” on various bootlegs that are in circulation. Not to be confused with the completely unrelated song, “Static”, which later appeared on Mutations, this haunting, finger-picked folk tune is probably the best Beck song you've never heard.
On the last track, Beck finally lets his freak flag fly (albeit in a decidedly non commercial manner) with this swaggering, noise rock cover of the Son House classic, “Grinnin’ In Your Face”. It features Beck shouting/singing the lyrics through a haze of distortion accompanied by harmonica, piano and electric guitar all shambling along to a raucous and disjointed blues groove.
The songs from these sessions eventually surfaced (often mislabeled) on bootlegs in the mid '90s, most notably on the unofficial 1996 release, Quodilbet which included a collection of BBC & MTV studio sessions, a handful of live tracks from the 1995 Reading Festival, and some alternate mixes of “Where It’s At” from the U.K. 12” single.
These rare recordings reveal that from the beginning, Beck was much more than just another novelty act. The world just didn't know it yet...