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“Initially pegged as the voice of a generation when “Loser” turned into a smash crossover success, Beck wound up crystallizing much of the postmodern ruckus inherent in the ’90s alternative explosion, but in unexpected ways. Based in the underground anti-folk and noise rock worlds, Beck encompassed all manner of modern music, drawing in hip-hop, blues, trash rock, pop, soul, lounge music — pretty much any found sound or vinyl dug up from a dusty crate — blurring boundaries and encapsulating how ’90s hipsters looked toward the future by foraging through the past. In another time, Beck might have stayed in the province of the underground, but he surfaced just as alternative rock turned mainstream, with his 1994 debut Mellow Gold launching “Loser,” a hit that crossed over with the velocity of a novelty — a notion Beck quickly punctured with a succession of indie LPs delivered in the wake of Mellow Gold, including the lo-fi folk of One Foot in the Grave, delivered on the K imprint. But the album that truly cemented Beck‘s place in the pantheon was 1996’s Odelay, a co-production with the Dust Brothers that touched upon all of his obsessions, providing a cultural keystone for the decade while telegraphing all his future moves, from the soul prankster of Midnite Vultures to the melancholy troubadour of Sea Change.
Fittingly, Beck came from a distinctly artistic background, the son of string arranger/conductor David Campbell and Bibbe Hansen, the latter a regular at Andy Warhol‘s Factory whose father was a pivotal contributor to the Fluxus art movement. Adopting the Hansen surname after his father left, Beck grew up in Los Angeles, dropping out of school in the tenth grade to play as a street busker and attend poetry slams. Bashing out blues and folk, Beck wound up assembling a home tape called The Banjo Story before departing for New York, where he operated on the margins of the anti-folk scene without ever breaking into it.
He returned to Los Angeles, where he continued to play clubs, eventually gaining the attention of Bong Load Records, an independent operated by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf. All parties agreed to pair Beck‘s fledgling folk with hip-hop beats assembled by producer Karl Stephenson, whose kitchen provided the studio for their first efforts, including “Loser.” These tapes remained unreleased as Beck recorded an album’s worth of material with Calvin Johnson for the latter’s K label, but the first release Beck had was the Flipside single “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” and Sonic Enemy’s cassette release of Golden Feelings. But what really broke the doors open was Bong Load’s 12″ single of “Loser,” which garnered considerable play in L.A., coinciding with increased underground attention. Soon, Beck signed with Geffen, striking a deal that allowed him to release on independent labels. One of these immediately followed — Fingerpaint released a 10″ record A Western Harvest Field by Moonlight in January 1994 — before the Geffen debut Mellow Gold appeared in March of that year.
Naturally, “Loser” was the lead single from Mellow Gold and it turned into an instant smash, boasting a hook that worked as an ironic underground rallying cry and a novelty crossover. Despite many positive reviews, Beck worked overtime to dispel the notion he was a novelty, quickly releasing two indie albums in succession: the noise-skronk Stereopathetic Soul Manure and One Foot in the Grave. Stereopathetic made few waves, but the stripped-back, folky One Foot in the Grave acted as a counterbalance to the gonzo Mellow Gold, illustrating the depths of his talents.
After a furious 1994, Beck laid relatively low in 1995, touring with the fifth Lollapalooza in between working on a new album with the production team the Dust Brothers, who had collaborated with the Beastie Boys on their landmark 1989 Paul’s Boutique. The resulting album, Odelay, appeared in June 1996, preceded by the lanky, funky single “Where It’s At,” which would go on to win the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal. Odelay piled up acclaim and hits — “Devil’s Haircut,” “Jack-Ass,” and “The New Pollution” all charted around the world — and the record went double platinum, becoming a touchstone of ’90s alternative rock. An outtake from the album, “Deadweight,” appeared on the soundtrack to Danny Boyle‘s 1997 film A Life Less Ordinary, and then Beck set to work on his next album with producer Nigel Godrich, who had just worked with Radiohead on OK Computer. Their collaboration, originally slated for an indie release but moved to Geffen, thereby setting a precedent where no future Beck LP would be released on an indie (something worked out in the courts the following year), traded futuristic rock — either the joyous collage of Odelay or the dystopia of OK Computer — for a quiet, pulsating, psychedelic folk-rock album called Mutations. Riding high on Odelay, the album charted well without turning out any major hits, although it did garner a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance.
Beck took another abrupt change in musical direction in 1999 with Midnite Vultures, a garish party record that was part satire and part salute to soul and funk, particularly Prince. Reviews were divided between ecstatic and skeptical, but the album had some real hits with “Sexx Laws” and “Deborah,” and in some ways it was the apex of Beck‘s hipster prankster phase, a persona he shed with his next album, 2002’s Sea Change. Recorded in the wake of a romantic breakup, Sea Change was another Godrich production, but it was gentle and mournful, lacking some of the gritty underpinnings of Mutations yet retaining the psychedelia — and that psychedelic edge was brought out in the supporting tour when Beck hired the Flaming Lips as his supporting band. The tour was well received but there were some tensions, as reported by Lips leader Wayne Coyne later.
After an extended break — the longest he had taken between albums to date — Beck returned in 2005 with Guero, an album that reunited him with the Dust Brothers and consciously evoked Odelay. Guero launched a few hits, including “E-Pro” and “Hell Yes,” and was followed within months by Guerolito, a remixed version of the entire album. Beck continued in this direction the following year with The Information, but its Nigel Godrich production kept the album streamlined and emphasized the darker undercurrents in the songs. Some of that darkness could be heard on his eighth album, Modern Guilt, a 2008 release produced by Danger Mouse, marking his first time in 14 years that he worked with a producer who wasn’t the Dust Brothers or Godrich. Modern Guilt performed respectably — it debuted at eight on the U.S. Billboard charts and received strong reviews — but he spent the next several years relatively quiet.
In 2009, Beck began actively pursuing a career as a producer, collaborating with Charlotte Gainsbourg on her acclaimed IRM album; two years later, he produced Thurston Moore‘s Demolished Thoughts and Mirror Traffic by Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. He also dipped his toe back into solo recording on the soundtrack to the 2010 Edgar Wright film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Still, between 2009 and 2010 much of his studio energy was devoted to his Record Club, where he and a loose collective of friends covered classic albums in their entirety; the albums covered included The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, and INXS‘ Kick.
Beck returned to original material in 2012 via Song Reader, a collection of sheet music featuring 20 new, unrecorded songs; although he didn’t record versions of these songs, he did appear at Song Reader concerts featuring other musicians (and a collection of those live performances was eventually released under his name). In 2014, Beck released Morning Phase, his first new album in nearly six years and first album for Capitol Records. Described by the singer/songwriter as a “companion piece” to 2002’s Sea Change, it appeared in February 2014, preceded by the singles “Blue Moon” and “Waking Light.” Critical reception was largely positive, and the album won three Grammy Awards, including Best Rock Album and Album of the Year. Beck returned the following year with the lively single “Dreams,” and the like-minded “Wow” arrived in 2016. During that year, he continued working with producer Greg Kurstin and also made guest appearances on work by Fun.‘s Nate Ruess, the Chemical Brothers, M83, and Flume. Beck finally released Colors, his collaboration with Kurstin, in October 2017. It peaked at number three on the Billboard 200, and topped the modern rock and alternative albums charts. In 2019, he contributed the song “Tarantula” to the soundtrack album Music Inspired by the Film Roma, which accompanied director Alfonso Cuarón‘s acclaimed work.” – Stephen Thomas Erlewine, AllMusic
Cage the Elephant
“Although chart success in England was an unlikely first step to fame for a band from Bowling Green, Kentucky, mainstream rock band Cage the Elephant achieved just that. Formed by Matt Shultz, Brad Shultz, Jared Champion, Lincoln Parish, and Daniel Tichenor, the group earned a contract with the Relentless label and released the “Free Love” single late in 2007. A support slot for the Pigeon Detectives beckoned in early 2008, and follow-up single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” reached the Top 40 in June. The group’s self-titled debut followed soon after, becoming a respectable commercial and critical success. Two years later they returned with the single “Shake Me Down,” while early 2011 saw the release of their second album, Thank You Happy Birthday. In early 2012, the band released the live CD and DVD Live from the Vic in Chicago, which captured performances from their sold-out two-night run at the famous Chicago venue. Returning to the studio, the band recorded its third album, Melophobia. Released in October 2013, the album saw the group collaborating with Alison Mosshart (the Kills, the Dead Weather) and featured the modern rock radio hit “Come a Little Closer.” During the Melophobia era, Cage the Elephant parted ways with their founding guitarist, Lincoln Parish, who went on to focus on producing for other artists in Nashville. In late 2015, the band released its fourth album, Tell Me I’m Pretty, which was produced by the Black Keys‘ Dan Auerbach. The ensemble embarked on both nationwide and European tours in promotion of the record throughout 2016 to rapturous success. Cage the Elephant continued performing throughout early 2017 with a series of intimate, stripped-down, unplugged shows around the States that spanned their entire back catalog. The performances were captured and chronicled in their second live release, Unpeeled, which arrived in the early summer of 2017. The band returned in 2019 with Social Cues, which was heavily influenced by Matt Shultz‘s divorce. Exploring dark emotions, the album included the single “Ready to Let Go,” and “Night Running” featuring Beck.” – Chris True, AllMusic
“With a heady blend of precision punk and serpentine classic rock (the band has drawn comparisons to everyone from the Pixies and Sonic Youth to Elvis Costello and Tom Petty), Texas-based indie outfit Spoon went from underground press darlings to one of the genre’s most critically acclaimed acts. Formed in Austin by singer/guitarist Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, Spoon released its debut EP, Nefarious, on the small Texas imprint Fluffer Records in 1994, eventually re-recording three of the songs for its 1996 full-length debut, Telephono, for Matador. The album was noisy, hook-filled, and generally well-received, but it wasn’t until 1997’s Soft Effects EP that the group began to hone in on the tight, minimalist pop that would become its forte. A brief and tumultuous affair with Elektra Records began in 1998 with the release of A Series of Sneaks, and quickly ended after the band was dropped in the midst of an internal company shake-up (the record was reissued in 2002 on Merge with two bonus tracks that chronicled the group’s disappointment with major-label politics).
It was with prominent indie label Merge that the band would go on to carve out its niche in the increasingly widening modern rock mainstream, specifically with Girls Can Tell (2001) and Kill the Moonlight (2002) (the latter spawned the single “The Way We Get By,” which appeared on the popular teen drama The O.C.), both of which found the group taking a more adventurous approach with its sound. Released in 2005, Gimme Fiction soared even higher, debuting at number 44 on the Billboard charts and selling over 160,000 copies, while 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga made it to number ten and sold over 300,000 copies in the U.S., topping nearly every major critic’s year-end list. Spoon, who by this time had become a fixture on soundtracks, television programs, and late-night talk shows, released its seventh full-length album, Transference, on January 18, 2010. It debuted at number four on the Billboard 200. After touring in support of the album, the band took a few years off. Daniel formed Divine Fits with Handsome Furs‘ Dan Boeckner, and the band released its debut album, A Thing Called Divine Fits, in 2012. Meanwhile, Eno concentrated on production work, collaborating with artists including the Strange Boys, Alejandro Escovedo, and the Heartless Bastards. Spoon resurfaced in 2014 with They Want My Soul. The band’s eighth album also marked their first time working with an outside producer in the shape of Dave Fridmann. Hailed by the band as its “loudest and gnarliest” work to date, it was released in August 2014 through Loma Vista Recordings in the U.S. and Anti in Europe. Late in 2016, the song “I Ain’t the One” was featured on the Showtime dramedy Shameless, offering the first taste of Spoon‘s ninth album. Hot Thoughts, which reunited the band with Fridmann and ranged from dance-rock to stripped-down ballads, was released by Matador in March 2017.” – James Christopher Monger, AllMusic
NYC-based band Sunflower Bean have a lot to brag about. For one, theyre all either going to high school at this moment or they just graduated high school, were deemed the hardest-working band of 2014 by OhMyRockness.com, their bass player, Julia Cumming, is a model for Saint Laurent, and their EP release party back at the beginning of February was absolutely packed. This is only after having four or so songs in digital existence. Id say thats building a good reputation.
Now, we have a full EP from the band. The good news: its fantastic. The bad news: theres only two new songs on it: Somebody Call A Doctor and OK Mr. Man. The other four songs have been put out on 7s that the band has put on their bandcamp page. So in a way, this is the setup to be a letdown. On the contrary, its actually a conveniently packaged collection of the previous songs, put together with two new, absolutely stellar songs.
Sunflower Beans style is that of a thick psychedelia mixed with touches of jangly post punk/new wave, complete with warping, billowing guitar textures that make pedal nerds drool a little bit and all the reverbed vocals that you could ask for. Cumming and guitar player Nick Kivlen trade off on vocals, which makes for a nice dynamic that adds well to the foggy trip thats laid down through the instrumentals. They hold an air of retro psychedelic and jangle rock, because thats unavoidable, but its clear that this is rooted in modern psych rock tropes…