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Mutations

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Album Review

According to party line, Beck never intended Mutations to be considered as the official follow-up to Odelay, his Grammy-winning breakthrough. It was more like One Foot in the Grave, designed to be an off-kilter, subdued collection of acoustic-based songs pitched halfway between psychedelic country blues and lo-fi folk. Once Beck became an international celebrity — shortly after Geffen's hitmaking machine began to dry up — it was impossible for him to release an independent record, so Geffen snapped up his Bong Load contract, releasing Mutations in the fall of 1998 while stressing that it was not the official follow-up to Odelay. The presence of producer Nigel Godrich, the man who helmed Radiohead's acclaimed OK Computer, makes such claims dubious. Godrich is not a slick producer, but he's no Calvin Johnson, either, and Mutations has an appropriately clean, trippy feel. There's little question that the blues, country, psych, bossa nova, and folk that comprise Mutations was never meant to be a commercial endeavor — there's no floor-shaker like "Where It's At," nor does it trade in the junk culture that brought Odelay to life. It's a small, spacy, low-key album that is a world away from the dense kaleidoscope of sound that has distinguished his previous Geffen work, yet it unmistakably bears his signature stamp. Mutations has shambling folk as its foundation, as most of his albums do, but it's more elastic, trippy, and self-contained. Recording with his touring band — marking the first time he has entered the studio with a live band — does result in a different sound, but it's not so much a departure as it is a side-road that is going in the same direction. None of the songs explore new territory — Beck test-drove the bossa nova of "Tropicalia" on "Deadweight," his unjustly overlooked contribution to the Life Less Ordinary soundtrack — but they're rich, lyrically and musically. There's an off-the-cuff wit to the songwriting, especially on "Cancelled Check" and "Bottle of Blues," and the performances are natural, relaxed, and laid-back, without ever sounding complacent. In fact, one of the nifty tricks of Mutations is how it sounds simple upon the first listen, then reveals more psychedelic layers upon each play. Beck is not only a startling songwriter — his best songs are simultaneously modern and timeless — he is a sharp record maker, crafting albums that sound distinct and original, no matter how much they may borrow. In its own quiet, organic way, Mutations confirms this as much as either Mellow Gold or Odelay. [Mutations is also available in an import release with bonus tracks.]

Biography

Born: 08 July 1970 in Los Angeles, CA

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

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...
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