Album Review

“Midnite Vultures” – Beck

Beck’s brief forray into freak funk and oddball soul

Mixing business with leather
Christmas with Heather
Freaks flock together
And make all the b-boys scream

There’s no law in the world of music that demands quality be linked to intellect; that you must have (and flaunt) the brains of a college professor in order to make ‘true art’. And if there is, who better to defy that law than Beck.

Little needs to be said about Beck and his rise to 90’s Alt Rock royalty. The man set himself apart from the rest of the pack almost immediately with the accidental slacker hit “Loser” and the carefree genre-blurring Odelay. In a decade marked by the dated nihilism of grunge, self-serious angst, misanthropic noise rock and brooding atmospherics, the poppy weirdness and exuberant outsider fun of artists like Beck, Ween, They Might Be Giants, and Primus feel like a very welcome change of pace. Bands who wave their freak flags with massive, cartoony grins, hoisted high by undeniable dexterity and craftsmanship for their respective styles. Although with Beck specifically, he becomes a tougher weirdo to pin down due to how freely he jumps from one sound to another.
On Odelay alone, there’s such a wild stylistic blending of genres and subgenres on nearly every track — west-coast hip-hop, country and blues, 60’s mod rock, sunshine-y psychedelic pop, and Stax-style soul to name a few. Nearly every album in his discography has its own unique style that’s sure to appeal to someone — The Tropicalia-meets-Americana of Mutations, the breakup ballads of Sea Change, lo-fi freak folk on One Foot in the Grave, the techno-indie-garage-rock of The Information, and an amalgamation of all of the above on Guero. Yet, like some of the best genre-hopping and style-shifting artists, Beck still manages to maintain a voice and style that’s all his own.
Among these albums, one particular detour manages to stick out among the rest like a sore thumb — which is saying a lot. Between the somber songwriter tunes of Mutations and Sea Change came a record that Chris DeVille appropriately called “the last effortlessly fun Beck album”.

As Beck’s sound and image has changed over time, there’s an inevitable divide in his fandom over preferred eras and styles. And while I prefer the kookier, wilder side of Beck to his slower, folky material on Sea Change, I give nothing but props to the dude for trying new sounds and taking risks as often as possible. I’ll almost always take an artist who progresses and evolves over one that plays it safe and stays in a corner. But personally, I don’t think Beck has sounded more confident, carefree, and excitingly goofy than on Midnite Vultures.
Though he billed it as “a party record with dumb sounds, dumb songs, and dumb lyrics”, that shouldn’t be an indicator that the album is a mindless one or one that had no effort put into it. I think some better descriptors would be ‘uncomplicated’, ‘unconcerned’, and in some ways, ‘unhinged’.
Midnite Vultures feels like a funky, free-wheeling party hosted by the most charming of vagrants. His bell-bottoms and sequined shirts may have come straight from the dumpster, but goddamn if he doesn’t pull it off with more swagger than most party animals. It’s a BYOB party where everyone’s invited so long as you don’t bring the mood down. And even though there’s a theme to this party and you’re encouraged to show up in costume — 70’s funk and soul — you’re still welcome if you come dressed as a cowboy or a cyborg. The floors are sticky with spilled beer and the air is filled with sex fumes. Powder stains are on everyone’s clothes and the disco ball’s mirrors are a rainbow of neon colors. Beck doesn’t care what anyone else finds sexy or cool and doesn’t want you to either.
Look no further than the bombastic opener, “Sexx Laws”, if you wanna check the house rules:
I wanna defy
The logic of all sex laws
Let the handcuffs slip off your wrists
I’ll let you be my chaperone
At the halfway home
I’m a full-grown man
But I’m not afraid to cry

The track is bustling and busy as hell, a backing of early James Brown horns and skittering, jogging drums, clavinets and honky-tonk pianos filling in on the verses… giving room to a country breakdown with pedal-steel guitar and banjo, as though Willie Nelson just decided to show up square-dancing at a Wilson Pickett show. No laws, no rules, just be you and jump in on the dancefloor whenever you like — provided you’re courteous enough to leave room for the other guests.
Every song is busy and brimming with a collage of genres in this funk-rock stew, each part often acting as some bizarrely appropriate counterpoint to the other. It can sometimes be a dizzying, overwhelming listen that’d fall apart were it not for the tight rhythm section and the production of Beck, The Dust Brothers, Tony Hoffer, and Mickey Petralia. Beck seems to be playing a cartoon parody of Prince and Bowie — the blithe hedonist with laid-back confidence, stoned and sexy, all the while throwing a wink and a nod your way just to make sure you’re not taking him too seriously. And he plays this role not only in his vocal delivery and lyrics, but with the composition as well. There’s so much shit going on, so many pieces simultaenously playing, I could just list all of the kooky things that show up on this album.
Hip-hop’s influence is still as strong as it was on Odelay, infecting “Nicotine and Gravy” and showing up in full-force on the Dust Brothers-produced “Hollywood Freaks”, where Beck seems to rap in the voices of three or four different characters, swapping randomly between a goofy lisp, an effeminate croon, a bombastic hype-man, and groaning backup vocals.
Synthpop and techno take center stage on “Pressure Zone” and “Get Real Paid” — the former coming close to a proto-LCD Soundsystem style of dance-punk, the latter even equipped with a Kraftwerk sample! The vocals moan out monotone and flat over sterile discotheque drum machines, like apathetic trust-fund kids wearing sunglasses on private jets as they fly first-class, drinking champagne from hot-tubs. That’s not meant as an insult either — it feels like that’s very much the intention on this track.
We like the boys with the bullet proof vests
We like the girls with the cellophane chests
We like to ride on executive planes
We like to sit around and get real paid

And yet, for as bored and hazy as the tone is, this song still qualifies as an absolute techno banger.
“Mixed Bizness” has a particularly quacky, percussive, wah-heavy clavinet that it almost sounds like a banjo being fed through an envelope filter. Sunshine psychedelics show up on nearly every breakdown, glittering keyboard runs fluttering in and out. The performances throughout are tight, catchy, and above all, groove-focused.
There’s not much of a lyrical focus or theme running throughout, though it hardly matters. “Dumb lyrics and dumb songs” does set up the rule for most of the album, but that doesn’t mean Beck lets his creative streak fall short. It’s all pure, delicious surrealism that colors a sex-obsessed mindset. I especially love the imagery on “Nicotine and Gravy”:
I’ll feed you fruit that don’t exist
I’ll leave graffiti where you’ve never been kissed
I’ll do your laundry, massage your soul
I’ll turn you over to the highway patrol

There are maybe a few themes or ideas that show up: food is a prominent one for titles like “Milk and Honey”, “Peaches and Cream”, and “Nicotine and Gravy”. Party-life and death imagery are often paired together – midnight snacks in the mausoleum, Neptune’s lips tasting like fermented wine, getting your suit dry-cleaned before snipers come out, billionaires smiling like weapons, and even the title seem to lean towards this idea. Then again, given the seemingly random nature of everything else on the album, I’m willing to bet this is more coincidence than intent.
“Broken Train” is an especially stand out track. Its clunky, iron-and-tin bell percussion feels especially dirty and grimy compared to the relatively clean — if a little dusty — production on the rest of the album. The addition of sci-fi theremin and tenor sax make this song a dead-ringer for something off of Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, were it not for Beck’s reedy stoner croon.
The psychedelia is turned up high on “Milk and Honey” — with guitar work from Johnny Marr and a sample lifted from Buzz Clifford’s See Your Way Clear — and “Beautiful Way” — A Velvets-influenced singer-songwriter number that loses none of its psychedelic-soul, even for as breezy and low-key as it is; if anything, it feels like a breather from the non-stop partying the album has delievered so far.
Sadly, I feel the album ends on the weakest song of the bunch, “Debra”. There’s virtually nothing about the track that sticks out among the rest of the album, bringing an exciting, colorful party to a slow-bur stop like an engine that seized up before you reached your destination. It’s riff an uninspired pull from David Bowie’s “Win”, the falsetto vocals as Princey as Beck can muster, this doesn’t feel like it gives the aforementioned party the send-off it deserves. While not a bad soul song, it loses almost all personality and playful abandon that has made every other song so attention-grabbing. Perhaps it just comes down to taste. Still, the ride was nice while it lasted.

Even amidst the multitude of different styles Beck has taken on, Midnite Vultures still stands out as a unique experience. It can be argued Beck has made better albums. Odelay could win that title by virtue of it being Beck’s first well-defined artistic statement. Guero is certainly a more focused and cohesive project that loses none of the colorful instrumentation from previous works. But for a project that’s just pure surreal entertainment, Midnite Vultures remains my favorite for this reason. It’s not so much dumb as it is utterly carefree and proud to flaunt it — utterly unconcerned with whether or not you think it has artistic merit.

By fictionalkid

A dorky chatterbox from Indianapolis just looking to share his love for music, movies, and other stupid, useless beautiful things.

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