Friday, January 22, 2010

440. Sea Change- Over produced in a good way.

Album: Sea Change.

Artist: Beck.

Year: 2002.

Genre: Rock.

  1. "The Golden Age" – 4:35
  2. "Paper Tiger" – 4:36
  3. "Guess I'm Doing Fine" – 4:49
  4. "Lonesome Tears" – 5:38
  5. "Lost Cause" – 3:47
  6. "End of the Day" – 5:03
  7. "It's All in Your Mind" – 3:06
  8. "Round the Bend" – 5:15
  9. "Already Dead" – 2:59
  10. "Sunday Sun" – 4:45
  11. "Little One" – 4:27
  12. "Side of the Road" – 3:23

If you’ve read all the posts I’ve put up on this blog so far you might have gathered how much I hate over-production. I’m a fan of keeping music as simple as possible. If you’ve written a nice song on your acoustic guitar then I’d prefer to hear you play it with that one instrument than have it augmented by strings, backing vocals and other embellishments. It’s one of the reasons I like live music where performers have nowhere to hide and are forced to get by on the quality of their music and their own talent. I’ve often blamed producers for this. A performer comes to the studio with a bunch of demos they wrote on a guitar, if all the producer needs to do is set up a few mikes and remember to hit record then they’re not really justifying the massive paychecks studios give them. But if they decide the song can’t survive without orchestration (which of course they have to arrange and produce) then suddenly they’re earning their millions. My hatred of over-production is a fundamental part of my music appreciation but was challenged in every way by Beck’s Sea Change.

There’s a huge amount going on behind every song on this album but it works, it really works. Paper Tiger starts with vocals, drums, bass and guitar but eventually becomes almost overtaken by a string section that sounds like a room full of violins, backing vocals eventually kick in which means all that’s missing are strange sound effects to make the overproduction trifecta complete (the strange noises do crop up on other tracks: Sunday Sun features percussion that sounds like one of the presets on a cheap electronic organ). It should be awful but it isn’t, it’s flat out fantastic. It’s one of the best thing’s I’ve heard in ages and made me wonder where Beck has been all my life. Paper Tiger is the best track on what I’m happy to declare is a really strong album that gets better with every listen.

The reason this song survives being so heavily interfered with in the studio is mainly because those strings don’t do anything that you expect them to. Violins normally fulfill a definite role in pop music. They make big statements in the background, the say: “This is a big important song that took a room full of musicians to make and should be treated with respect” or they say: “This is a sad song and this is an especially sad bit so you need minor key violins to make you sad” or even worse: “the singer doesn’t have anything to do in this bit so we need an important backing for her to look melancholy and whistful in the videoclip.” Strings are usually predictable and straight out of a publication called The Pop Producers handbook, which I’m sure sits on the console in all major recording studios. But the violins on Paper Tiger aren’t fitting into anyone’s long term plan. For a start they sound unlike strings I’ve ever heard before. While they’re recognizably cellos and violins (and probably violas, no I don’t know what they are either but they’re probably there) they sound more like they were recorded in Area 51 than Abbey Road. There’s a weirdly alien tone to them which his highlighted by their ability to turn up when you don’t expect them and behave in ways you didn’t see coming. These strings aren’t just an aural backdrop they’re a dark presence trying to usurp the mood and throw the track to places it was never expecting to go.

But don’t go thinking that the only thing Sea Change has to recommend it are a bunch of unexpected violins. There’s a lot more to this release than just session musicians you didn’t see coming. Beck is clearly a talented guy. He can write songs and he can play but what sets him apart is his voice which is a truly sensational instrument in his own right. His range isn’t magnificent, at times he sings in a deep register and at other times he sings slightly deeper, but it has a fantastic tone. I’ve heard voices described as rich before but never felt the need to use the term myself until now. If Beck’s albums didn’t sell then he could probably live on money borrowed from his voice which is one of the wealthiest I’ve ever heard.

Beck uses his voice to the fullest effect. He never belts out notes but sings each song as gently as he can. His voice is always full and centre and the final effect sounds a bit like what God would sound like if he decided to record an album. Except you can’t really imagine the creator of the universe being involved in a messy breakup, which Beck clearly was. The songs on Sea Change deal with the disappointment of a relationship that went to pieces and so it’s not cheery but any stretch of the imagination. Beautiful: yes, but cheery: no.

This album made me want to go out and hear more Beck but I’ve deliberately held off because I know he’s got another album in the countdown and I want to listen to that release with as fresh an ear as possible. But he’s definitely gone from my “vaguely on my musical radar" list to “someone to hear more of” list.

Highlight: Paper Tiger. Great track.

Lowlight: Hmmm, struggling with this. There are no obvious weak moments.

Influenced by: Nick Drake.

Influenced: This is a pretty unique concept, I don’t think you could hear this and say- that’s just what I want to do. You just have to enjoy it.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: “There are few albums as great as 'Sea Change,' because in no other albums does Beck royally suck my derriere. With mayonnaise.”

-That’s the complete review right there. I haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

So are you at his Beck and Call or do you wish he’d Sea Change completely? Let me know below.


  1. Hi David,
    Paper Tiger must sound slightly familiar if you've heard 'Histoire de Melody Nelson' by Serge Gainsbourg. Try listening to 'Melody' and tell me what you think.
    I'm a fan of good production and I think Nigel Godrich is one of the best producers in this regard. His work with Macca on Chaos and Creation... gave Paul his best album in years. A really good song will work without production, but done well it can add so much more.
    I like your blog idea. Steve told me about it on the weekend.
    Brad from Chaos.

  2. Hi Brad,

    Thanks for dropping by the blog. I'll give Histoire a listen and return to this page to tell you what I think. Glad you enjoy the blog.