I hate to burst your indie rock bubble, but the vast majority of great albums come out on major labels-- including 14 of Pitchfork's top 20 albums of the 1990s. The rest were on 4AD, Sub Pop and Matador, which are just huge independent labels distributed by major labels. Sorry, elitists, sometimes big companies and money are right. Talking Heads, OK Computer, My Bloody Valentine, Paul's Boutique, and Prince couldn't have done it without the company dollar. Of course, the company dollar also pumps out Jimmy Ray and "Shake Your Bon Bon"-- and occasionally a record like the Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I (which was financed by Interscope) slips through the cracks. But for every Ricky Martin pelvis disaster, there's a thousand Mathletes. Beck wonderfully blends Prince, Talking Heads, Paul's Boutique, "Shake Your Bon Bon", and Mathlete on Midnite Vultures, his most consistent and playful album yet.
Successful pastiche is all about restraint. There's a thin line between Brazil and Johnny Mnemonic, the Beastie Boys and LFO's "Summer Girls." On Mellow Gold, Beck spat and spilled too much and too often, and the record suffered from clutter. There was a pinch of Mathlete in those old lo-fi tactics. Anybody who yearns for the old days of Beck should be given a copy of "Fume", an empty Hefty bag, and their inhalant of choice.
Beck has finally perfected his stage presence in the studio-- an unmatchable mix of goofy piety and ambiguous intent. Genius needs money. The Beatles couldn't have made Sgt. Pepper's if they had to tour and work second jobs. Obviously, Midnite Vultures can't compare to the Beatles, but in the late 90s, who else can we turn to for perfectly crafted, inventive pop music?
Midnite Vultures bursts with the rich texture that only multiple tracks and massive mixing boards the length of Oldsmobiles can produce. The 64 layers of "Sexx Laws" unfold in stereo headphones. You can hear the chink of change, the flutter of cash, the digital gloss of wire transactions-- the beautiful sound of money. Your indie label can't afford funk like this.
"Nicotine and Gravy" breaks from Odelay retread into an anthemic bridge that recalls the climax of Sgt. Pepper's. Warzone and satellite bleeps as a falsetto voice cries, "I don't wanna die tonight." "Get Real Paid" envisions Kraftwerk on Cash Money Records with pugilistic Stevie Wonder choruses. Beck makes more obvious poses on "Hollywood Freaks" and "Debra", fashioning himself after Master P and R Kelly respectively, but "Milk and Honey" carries the weight with sheer brilliance. Arena choruses explode from shuffling verses. It sounds like Prince dry-humping Lynyrd Skynyrd in the sky, and later, a Talking Heads-esque interlude and guest guitarist Johnny Marr rub it in on the song's Pink Floydian outro. Just look at all those rich bands Beck managed to fuse!
Lyrically, Beck's trimmed the fat. The remainders are still a bit sinewy, yet built around a cohesive image or theme, which is new turf for Beck. A narrative or two even pops up. But mostly, the theme is money and sex. All the talk of getting paid and laid perhaps influenced my general reflections on the music expressed above. I mean, the world needs a great money-and-sex album every so often. Money and sex can be discussed intelligently. On Midnite Vultures, Beck's tunes are wrapped in fur, silk, lace, gold, sequins, cotton, leather, pearl, and diamond. And sonically, it's one of the busiest albums in recent history.
While the topics may seem base and juvenile to the upturned nose, I can't help think of Kurt Vonnegut drawing his asterisk sphincters and sublimely speaking for his time. Somewhere, Kurt Vonnegut and Beck are sitting on a big pile of cash.
-Brent DiCrescenzo, November 25, 1999