Crate-Digging unearths a true weird one. This is the whole point, everybody. Archaeology.
Beck strangely and famously detailed a weird period of my life on Stereopathetic Soulmanure, one of three full-length albums he released in 1994, along with Mellow Gold and One Foot in the Grave. The biographical tune, “Satan Gave Me a Taco,” is a direct retelling of the story I shared with Beck about a taco I once ate, wherein said taco – raw chicken, rancid rice, hard beans, and copious grease – puts me on the brink of life and death. Clearly Satan was behind the whole thing, and I descended into a nightmare world of demons and other abominable creatures as the offending meal made its way through my digestive system. After being condemned by a jury of hellspawn, I found that it was all an elaborate farce, and I was really on set for the latest heavy metal video. Somehow I got in the band. Then they all died. Then I became a solo artist. Then I opened a taco stand of my own. In hell. Apparently.
So let me take this moment to officially thank Beck for that song. It’s certainly one of the highlights on this patchwork collection of odds and ends that bridged the gap, stylistically anyway, between the Golden Feelings cassette and One Foot in the Grave. And really, “stylistically” is a subjective adverb, because, as everyone knows, Beck is a stylistic chameleon, able to incorporate musical genres into his repertoire with ease, and at the very least passably perform within all of them. But we’re talking a different kind of Beck than you may be used to – 1994 was 17 years ago (really? Wow), and the slick production and urban vibe present in his more recent albums would have been unheard of back then. The variation within his takes on popular music actually kind of make sense these days, but on Stereopathetic Soulmanure, Beck stretched the definition of cohesion to its breaking point.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. The record’s lo-fi, experimental nature and scattershot compilation are part of the charm. Beck veers from one thought to the next, and because it’s difficult to follow, it’s also difficult to predict. If you came to this record after hearing some of his oeuvre, let’s say at the very least Mellow Gold or Odelay, then “Pink Noise (Rock Me Amadeus)” is clearly not the song the record should be opening with in order to cultivate a fanbase. At least not those who gravitate more toward the accessible. On it, Beck plays an amped-up stoner blues that takes a header on its BMX and faceplants in the gravel. It’ll be picking rocks out of its forehead for days. It’s not normal to start this way. It’s followed by “Rowboat,” a clear, pedal-steel-led country-folk number that Johnny Cash himself ended up covering on his album Unchained. The two songs couldn’t be any more different, yet they work together to lay out the full spectrum of the palette used here. “Thunder Peel” unhinges itself from conventional songwriting like a brothers Ween tune, guitar strings functioning with the tensile strength of wet spaghetti. And the boombox-recorded (at least that’s how it sounds) “Today Has Been a Fucked Up Day” is a backwoods banjo-fied folk tune, where Beck audibly steps back from the microphone on the bridge, and bumps the recording equipment when he sits back down. It’s got a homespun charm recognizable by anyone who can’t figure out how they got to the other side of a bizarre series of circumstances. And it’s fun.
But of course such a collection is bound to frustrate at points as well, and most of the annoyance comes from the live snippets and other strange detritus that populate the tracks. There are several spoken items, some listed by seemingly arbitrary numbers (“8.6.82”) that could possibly be dates, and others have names like “Dead Wild Cat.” These don’t really affect the flow of the record as most last less than 20 seconds, but they’re weird enough to mention – most are spoken in a pitch-altered voice and detail seemingly random events. Other tracks are just throwaways, curious at first but lacking in any lasting quality. “Crystal Clear (Beer),” “Aphid Manure Heist,” “Rollins Power Sauce,” “Jagermeister Pie,” and “Ozzy” are quick bursts of weirdness that feel long despite their short runtimes. Some of these are live, and when the audience responds in nothing more than polite chuckles, you know the jokes will get old at some point. Even more “traditional” songs like “Puttin’ It Down” and “Cut ½ Blues” don’t really leave much of an impression.
Fortunately, the quality of a good chunk of the material makes this a worthwhile listen, at least once or twice, just to hear where Beck’s come from. Hang in until the end for sludge-noise gem “Tasergun” about an angry neighbor, and the pretty country-folk tune “Modesto.” And is your copy of Stereopathetic Soulmanure one with 20 extra minutes of “Bonus Noise”? Mine isn’t, so I couldn’t tell you about that. Whatever. Just remember, if you’re wandering around with this in your Walkman and you get a hankering for some good grub, I’ve got a taco for you. You just have to sign a contract for it.
RIYL: Ween, Daniel Johnston, Sebadoh