With Beck’s new album Morning Phase already several months in the stores, the release of a recorded version of his 2012 sheet music experiment Song Reader seems somewhat belated. Vowing not to release recordings of these songs himself (though he relents on one track, the rather gorgeously produced Heaven’s Ladder), he leaves it up to a cast of alt-country, folk, blues and indie heroes to do the officially sanctioned job.
Song Reader was an invitation back to a now long-gone participatory era of music-making where sheet music and sing-a-longs gathered around the piano were the dominant modes of consumption and participation. Beck’s songs themselves, while sometimes including unusual time-signatures and melodic flights of fancy, could generally be corralled under the heading of ‘Americana’. The genres of country, blues, balladeering and vaudeville that compose this musical stew inform much of Beck’s solo work, although they generally have to jostle for attention with beats, electronica and cut-up lyrics.
For those who never laid eyes on the sheet music book itself – and not that many did – Song Reader was a riot of, as well as musical, visual invention. Every piece of music felt individually crafted with beautiful illustrations, period pastiche adverts and, on the back of each sheet, adverts for further songs, some presented in full score as bonuses. This exuberance found itself translated to Web 2.0, where a website (songreader.net) was set up to allow music makers to upload and share their own versions. At this point, it really felt as if Beck had cleverly managed to bridge the gap between past and present modes of music making and consumption, drawing attention to both the similarities and changes. Although we don’t gather around the piano to make music anymore, we can still gather around the internet, and Song Reader highlights the potential richness of both.
Don’t come looking to Song Reader – The Album for stylistic or sonic invention, though. With rare exceptions here, you’ll need to sift through the chaos online if you’re looking for that sort of thing. What we are left with here is an old-timey-with-a-modern-sheen musical landscape somewhat reminiscent of Anaïs Mitchell’s ‘folk opera’ Hadestown, where some eclecticism is present, but kept within bounds. Given the variety and randomness of the online participation, it seems a little depressing that the choice of participants invited is so predictable.
Unsurprisingly, considering overall lean to Americana of the songs, the line up is dominated by obvious choices such as Jack White, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Loudon Wainwright III. But why choose Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Freidberger to stroll through Old Shanghai in a pedestrian indie-rock version when the song might have been reinvented in the style of Amanda Lear disco, as one of the unofficial versions did? It is left to the very English Jarvis Cocker and the very Anglophile Sparks to inject some old world glamour and poise into the songs, while Columbian star Juanes’ Spanish version of Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard hardly pushes the boat out sonically, but at least sails it into new linguistic oceans.
The upside of all this is that we at least have a cohesive listening experience here. The album is tidier and less ephemeral than the legions of indie tribute compilation albums that appear every year. Some listeners may even choose to sit through the entirety a few times rather than just cherry picking on streaming sites. And occasionally, it feels like radical invention is the least welcome outcome, as in Swamp Dogg’s devastatingly direct version of America, Here’s My Boy, which tears the emotional heart out of the song and thrusts it in the ears of the listener.
For those late to the party, the album offers an opportunity to catch up and at least not miss out on a fine batch of Beck songs which might have otherwise evaded the mainstream. For those with more time and the urge to explore, though, just get yourself down to songreader.net where the real spirit of the project still awaits you.