Gameboy Variations (Hell Yes) EP

(Interscope; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 23 February 2005

Seeing Beck at Coachella 2004 was fantastic for three reasons. First, the bands that led up to him, if memory serves me right, were Juana Molina, The Evens, and Q and not U (got to love Goldenvoice sometimes). Second, despite being a longtime fan, I’d somehow never seen Beck play live. Sure, Sea Change had been awful, but he was newly married, word was his next album was gonna be funky-fresh, and chances were he was just going to play some fan favorites. Third, he was playing in one of those tented areas, so it wasn’t so fucking hot.

The performance itself, on the other hand, was disappointing. Going solo, Hansen seemed barely there, talking with the audience a bit but not really playing all that much. Most annoying of all: despite the row of pristine guitars at his side, he kept insisting to play with his gameboy. He had some trouble with the audio connection and ultimately gave up with it, but it was a sad moment when the artist, lost in his decade-old technology, bemoaned that he couldn’t lay down the right beat and instead had to, you know, play guitar. That last statement shouldn’t be read as terribly rockist; Beck has always been at his best with his guitar and not too many tricks (see: One Foot in the Grave, Mutations).

So now we have the real deal. That funky-fresh album is indeed pretty goddamn funky and to tide us over till then (or to make an extra buck off kids too slow to know better, depending on how you look at it), Beck has released an EP with four songs from Guero remixed on his gameboy.

He makes the smart move of going with four of the album’s best tracks, and since he maintains the basic melodies and vocals from the album mix, he still has something of a sturdy backbone. Even with the solid foundation, what follows is an absolute disaster.

“E-Pro” loses all of its Odelay-style guitars and drums glory as “Bad Cartridge.” All I can imagine is Mario frantically break dancing his way across the screen in some demented secret level of Super Mario III. The sole redeeming factor is the campy synth line on the chorus and the inclusion of the backing vocals to match it. One of my favorites on Guero, “Girl,” is neutered here as "Bit Rate Variations in B-Flat," removing the propulsively happy beat of the original with an equally propulsive yet truly terrible alternative.

“Gameboy/Homeboy” makes one of the record's most accessible cuts, “Que Onda Guero,” entirely unlistenable. The only real winner here is the remix of “Hell Yes” as “Ghettochip Malfunction;” yeah, it sounds as weird and wrong as the rest of the EP, but there’s something about the shitty, 8-bit electronic noises that fits in perfectly with the sampled Asian women stuffed into the track. Also, the most work clearly went into this one, and the gameboy beat matches up better here than on any of the other songs.

I guess the best thing that can be said about this is that he got it out of his system and this hopefully won’t become an even greater fascination. Maybe he’ll convince one or two of the kids that downloaded Guero (err, um) to pick this one up on a whim on iTunes. Still, there’s a reason people don’t make music with their gameboys: it tends to sound awful. Gameboy Variations is no exception.