Beck unearthes early material for One Foot in the Grave re-issue
One Foot in the Grave (Iliad)
Amidst the avalanche of cooler-than-you hipster electro-pop records these days comes the very welcome re-issue of Beck’s One Foot in the Grave. Originally surfacing in 1994, One Foot was Beck’s third release of that year, following the similarly stripped-down Stereopathic Soulmanure and his major label debut breakthrough Mellow Gold. This extended edition, featuring 16 bonus tracks (12 of which have never been released), is an unadorned, country-tinged record featuring the bizarre lyricism and simplistic chord progressions that would eventually cement Beck’s place as the king of alt-folk.
The question lingering after listening to One Foot in the Grave is one of timing: was Beck 20 years behind the musical times—or 15 years ahead? Some tracks border on British-invasion territory, with three-chord melodies and adorable pop hooks. But the rest of the material is made up of the raw roots-rock licks that Jack White only wishes he was writing these days.
The bulk of the original offerings on One Foot are pure Americana, full of dusty imagery, slide guitars, and wailing harmonica. On most of the bonus tracks, Beck’s mid-20s yearning is stripped down to just him, his guitar, and a stomping foot, with the end product being lo-fi loveliness.
The bonus material start off with the two-chord “It’s All in Your Mind”. While it was eventually rerecorded with a string section and drums for 2002’s Sea Change, this version consists of simplistic strumming that makes it touching and accessible.
“Sweet Satan” is one of several a cappella tracks and clearly illustrates Beck’s innately strange storytelling talent (“Laughed and they hollered/And they painted the horses orange/Put the kids together/And tied them to the porch”), while the title track features the aforementioned foot stomping, choppy harmonica interludes, and more talk of the devil. (Gotta ask: what’s up with all the Satan talk? This album is replete with it.)
Some numbers, like “Teenage Wastebasket” (which makes two appearances here—an acoustic version with vocals and guitar and another featuring drums and electric guitars), are almost trying too hard to reference an earlier musical generation. The electric take is nearly too sweet and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Be Good Tanyas album but makes a great contrast to the acoustic version, which smacks of unrealized potential.
A few tracks are fairly unlistenable if you aren’t a devotee of all things unusually indie. “Piss on the Door”, featuring a silly synth intro and guitars that sound like they’ve been filtered through a 10-foot tube in the middle of an empty auditorium, breaks into unexpected distortion halfway through, turning this potentially cute song into something my mother would charitably describe as “noise”.
But when Mr. Hansen gets it right, it’s practically perfect. “Black Lake Morning” is a mellow instrumental gem, with simple bass lines and almost-confident acoustic picking. And Calvin Johnson’s occasional vocals—notably on “Atmospheric Conditions”—make an excellent grumbling counterpoint to Beck’s higher register.
Only two of the previously unreleased songs break the three-minute mark, meaning they give a bit of an insight into the song-production process. You get the guts of the song without the wankery of reverb, Auto-Tune, and other post-production magic.
While it’s pretty obvious why the bonus tracks were originally left on the cutting room floor (none of them particularly have single potential), the material is charming and sincere, and the whole album is underwritten with an oddly quiet but intense passion. If nothing else, One Foot is inspiration for any musician with a notebook full of angst-heavy songs about self-loathing. And Satan.
Download This: "Sweet Satan"