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It’s been over 20 years since Beck first appeared on the scene. At first many didn’t know what to make of this slightly eccentric pseudo-slacker from SoCal, and probably even fewer would have predicted his success two decades later — a success predicated on a refusal to stay bound to one style, one direction, or one vision. From his earliest singles like “Loser” to his new album, Morning Phase, Beck has constantly defied categorization. Bouncing from alternative pop into funk, disco, folk Americana, and a few others here and there, Beck has stayed at the forefront of wherever he happened to be at the time and, in doing so, has kept his listeners on their collective toes, always anticipating his next move.
Some of those moves included an album composed entirely of sheet music and his Record Club project, where he and a few handpicked musician friends would get together and cover/record an album in its entirety, including albums by The Velvet Underground, INXS, and even Greek new age artist and spokesperson for elegant, wavy hair, Yanni. In addition to covering full albums, Beck has been known to cover other songs, be it for compilations such as the recent Sweetheart collection, in concert, or even as a car commercial of sorts. In fact, there is an entire portion of the Covers Project dedicated to many of the songs Beck has covered over his career.
As this modern-day legend unloads his latest collection of original material on Morning Phase, we at Consequence of Sound thought it might be fun to poke around Mr. Hansen’s archive of covers. So, sit back, enjoy, and get crazy with the Cheez Whiz.
“The Black Angel’s Death Song”
The Velvet Underground
With “The Black Angel’s Death Song”, The Velvet Underground created something that could very well be an elegy for some demonic force. Lou Reed’s psychedelic lyrics, John Cale’s intermittent hissing, and the insistent skitter of electric viola: It’s an open wound of a song, so ugly and mesmerizing you can’t help but continue to scratch it. Beck’s version, recorded as part of his inaugural Record Club series, is brilliant because it strips away the ominous accoutrements to reveal the tight, rhythmic melodies at its core. Driven mainly by rich acoustic strums and bass, Beck’s “Black Angel’s Death Song” is simple, unadorned, fit for a campfire sing-along. It might be the best kind of cover, the kind that doesn’t attempt to improve the song so much as repurpose it to highlight the original’s artistry. –Randall Colburn
“Sound and Vision”
Where the original is laden with cool synths, a legendary riff that shimmers as it cascades, and a metallic stillness warmed by the sound of David Bowie’s voice, Beck’s interpretation explores the song’s sentiment but refuses to simply be a direct cover. Performing the song with a 160-piece band, including a traditional orchestra, choir, theremin, a yodeler, and members of the Dap-Kings, among others, Beck’s performance, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln division, blends the familiar with the obtuse, honoring the original while creating an entirely unique version, with the opening two and a half minutes bordering on cacophony, and almost another full minute passing before the first recognizable bits of the song come into the mix. In fact, by the time the song’s signature riff is heard in Beck’s version, the original song would have already ended. At nearly 10 minutes, Beck’s “Sound and Vision” is three times longer than the original and evolves from an avant collage through a pop melange, ultimately ending with a joyous, gospel-filled section that perhaps gives new interpretation to the song’s lyric “praying for the gift of sound and vision.” —Len Comaratta
“True Love Will Find You in the End”
Daniel Johnston and Beck, at least the Beck I grew up with — all leaf blowers, Napoleon Dynamite suits, and Mountain Dew rock — are the epitome of acquired taste. So, maybe it’s fitting that Hansen paid tribute via cover to the still very much alive Johnston on 2004’s compilation The Late, Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered. “True Love Will Find You in the End”, easily Johnston’s most accessible tune, finds a huskier-voiced Beck slumping down into the song’s slow-strum melancholia, adding breathing space and harmonica to the simple beauty of Johnston’s message — a message, come to think of it, that seems pretty relevant coming just on the other side of Sea Change. –Matt Melis
Covering a song by a Beatle has so many potential pitfalls, but Beck’s cool confidence and unassailable pop sensibility prove the perfect match for the pure, lilting aesthetics of John Lennon’s “Love”. The original featured Lennon’s acoustic guitar, producer Phil Spector on piano, that immediate, wide-eyed, zen vocal, and nothing else. On his version, Beck punches things up without losing the breezy sentimentality, adding a slow, thumping heart drumbeat, his reedy delivery finding responses from swoops of harmony vocals and George Harrison-esque electric guitar slides. Despite the additions, the cover never comes across as fussy, the simple melody never overpowered, instead aiming for maximum soothe on those round, sweet verses. –Adam Kivel
“I Only Have Eyes for You”
Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler
Originally performed in the 1934 film Dames by Dick Powell & Ruby Keeler, “I Only Have Eyes for You” was recorded several times before The Flamingos delivered the standard take on the song with their hit 1959 version. Included as part of multimedia artist Doug Aitken’s “Song 1” installation art project at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. in 2012, Beck, along with Devendra Banhart, No Age, actress Tilda Swinton, and others, contributed to the audio portions of Aitken’s project, resulting in a 35-minute final version of the song. Where Beck’s take on Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” used the original merely as a foundation from which to build, Hansen’s stab at this classic jazz standard actually stays pretty faithful to its most famous rendition. Beck’s approach is to hardly alter the track at all, including the slight reverb that was utilized in The Flamingos’ version. He only falls slightly flat in that he tries to sing falsetto the way that only The Flamingos’ Johnny Carter could. –Len Comaratta
Since the unexpected success of Mellow Gold in 1994, Beck has evolved from leaf blower to one of the most unconventional, challenging rock stars of our generation. His extensive work includes a rich covers project, available on his website. One of the most arresting covers is Nick Drake’s “Parasite”. Beck’s version is noticeably richer by comparison to Drake’s sparse original, adding a piano to the folds of the song. With slightly different tuning, too, Beck’s guitar resounds almost like a sitar in his cover, adding a classical Indian dimension to Drake’s wrenching original. It loses none of the emotive quality in the process, though. As Beck warbles and echoes through the wrenching “Parasite”, he reminds us of his dual talent for singing the punchy funk songs and the warped, autumnal numbers. –Paula Mejia
“He’s a Mighty Good Leader”
“He’s a Mighty Good Leader” is the folksy opener on Beck’s rustic 1994 album, One Foot in the Grave. A cover of Skip James’ “Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader”, Beck gives the track a lo-fi, sparse rendition, staying true to the vibe of the bluesman’s set. The guitar lines are similar, but Beck gives the track a minor rewrite, taking out the “Let Jesus lead you” refrain from the original. Despite not seeing too many live performances, Beck’s soulful fingerpicking, foot stomping, and put-on southern affectation make the track one of One Foot in the Grave’s most memorable. –Josh Terry
“Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime”
It’s hard to imagine a better song capturing the feeling of lovelorn melancholy than “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime”, from its mournful lyrics to the downtrodden interlude between the second and third verses. Originally an international hit when released in 1980 by British pop group The Korgis, Beck and soundtrack composer Jon Brion recorded a near six-minute version for the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack that stands out as arguably the most important and memorable musical moment in the film. Beck’s voice wavers where it needs to and stirs up a well of emotion for any listener that has ever loved and lost, and the lyrics remind that the feelings that Joel and Clementine feel in Eternal Sunshine are inevitable parts of life. Not to mention the masterful musicianship that spans the entire track. A swelling orchestral piece interrupted by bouts of wistful guitars and a somber piano introduction makes for a constantly evolving, emotional experience. –Pat Levy
Beck began covering Zombies B-side “Beechwood Park” in the run-up to Sea Change, initially with a full band, but then paring down the original’s psychedelic trappings and revealing it as the nostalgic heartbreaker it is. The Zombies’ wavering electric guitar, florid organ, and group harmonies made for a heady mixture, but Beck’s solo piano version emphasizes the distance between the present and the misty afternoons of past love. In the original, the days when he would “kiss your face and make you care” could be a reminder, but when Beck, alone, delivers those lines over a down-turned piano, it’s a melancholy request. Though often done cynically, “Beechwood Park” is a prime example of the way in which Beck can beautifully transform the pop of days gone by. –Adam Kivel
On a good day, Thurston Moore might pass as a geriatric Beck. On a bad day, Beck’s a young Thurston Moore. I’ve always thought this. In fact, when Sea Change hit shelves, a part of me thought, “Hey, Thurston’s lookin’ fucking great.” They both have the same weary boyhood wonder-daze, the one that could summarize an entire generation. So, you could imagine my surprise when the two swapped songs on a rare split 7″ for 2009’s Record Store Day. A year out from Modern Guilt, Beck took a chance with Sonic Youth’s muddy Evol track, “Green Light”. The cover of the 1986 tune loses much of the Martin Hannett-echoing paranoia, though there’s a glob of eerie intimacy that remains. “I’m not blind/ I believe in you,” Beck huffs, sounding like Cobain in a cold shower. The best part of the song’s always been the extended instrumental refrain at the end, and that remains the case here. Methinks Beck would have done wonders for No Wave. –Michael Roffman