By: Ben Rayner Pop Music Critic, Published on Mon Jul 28 2014
Beck Hansen was hardly idle during the six-year lapse between 2008’s Modern Guiltand the recent, excellent Morning Phase, using some of that time away from the studio to concentrate on finishing a longtime labour of love: a sheet-music “album” entitled Song Reader.
Beck tackles just a single track on the Song Reader album, the sumptuously psychedelic and somewhat Beatlesque “Heaven’s Ladder.” It’s a bit of a tease since, predictably, it’s the best of the 20 wildly eclectic cuts here, proving that nobody really knows how to sell a Beck song better than Beck. But that’s not the point of this exercise, is it? Beck wrote these songs to be interpreted by others and, as he put it in 2012 to McSweeny’s: “There are no rules in interpretation.”
In deference to his non-vision, most of the Song Reader compilation’s participating performers do their best to make Beck’s songs their own. Moses Sumney’s hazily enchanting take on “Title of this Song” could easily be mistaken for a Beck tune were it not for the singer’s rough-hewn tenor, while Laura Marling’s sweet acoustic reading of “Sorry” is unadorned enough that one can hear the author’s voice coming through. But these are exceptions to the rule. For the most part, Beck’s presence evaporates from all but the incessantly clever lyrics here.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy serves up a very Tweedy-like version of “The Wolf Is on the Hill,” much as White is highly White-like doing “I’m Down.” David Johansen and Fun. vamp through “Rough on Rats” and “Please Leave a Light On When You Go,” respectively, in much the fashion you’d expect David Johansen and Fun. to do. Jarvis Cocker is typically theatrical tackling “Eyes that Say ‘I Love You.’” Both Norah Jones (“Just Noise”) and Lord Huron (“Last Night You Were a Dream”) find an Everley Brothers-like retro sweetness lurking in the songbook, while Eleanor Friedberger (“Old Shanghai”) and Black (“We All Wear Cloaks”) opt to take things in a more “cabaret” direction — with Black’s performance, naturally, verging on the comic. Gabriel Kahane & Ymusic’s version of “Mutilation Rag,” meanwhile, sounds like it could have once soundtracked a Warner Brothers cartoon.
With the music spinning so madly off in all directions, almost everyone will find a song or three to cherish in Song Reader. I’m particularly fond, for instance, of Sparks’ melodramatic, synth-symphonic “Why Did You Make Me Care?” and less so of, say, the folksy affectations Loudon Wainwright III brings to “Do We? We Do.”
A project like this can’t possibly satisfy everybody all of the time, though, so some editing for the iPod is to be expected. And the best thing about Song Reader is you could release a different version of this collection with fresh artists every year in perpetuity and wind up with a completely different program every time. Really, this thing only hints at the potential Beck intended his songbook to have in the first place.
DOWNLOAD: Beck, “Heaven’s Ladder.” It’s a safe place to start, yes, but it’s a nice companion piece to the dewy Morning Phase.
ONTD, favorite Beck Lyrics?