Various Artists - Beck Song Reader

by paul_guyet Rating:7.5 Release Date:2014-07-28

Who's your favorite musician? Think for a moment. 

Now, what if they said, "I'm writing a brand new album, then releasing it, as sheet music." About two years after they do this, they announce, "That sheet music album I put out? I got a bunch of people to record it."

That is the experiment at the heart of Beck's Song Reader, and I still can't tell what I think of it. Not of the music, that was pretty easily quantifiable, but of this project as a whole. I love Beck as an artist and I love his music, but what happens when one of my favorite artists releases music that I can't enjoy?

I was pretty messed up over this. I wondered when he was going to admit that he was just fooling around and release Song Reader as a Beck album. On a disc. With him performing the songs. And he never did. Beck has written music that's been performed by other artists before, Charlotte Gainsbourg's stellar IRM and Pink's 'Feel Good Time'*, but this was different: a whole, brand new Beck album, with Beck's involvement ending at the writing phase.

You know what? This is going to get pretty introspective pretty quick, so let's focus on the actual music on the album first, shall we? More than half the record is good, with about a quarter of it really shining. Once I got past Moses Sumney's coivy woids** (an affliction that's plagued pop music for a while now), I came to regard the album opener, 'Title of This Song', as one of the best offerings here.

This track, Jack White's rebel waltz-ballad-thumper-piano-jamboree 'I'm Down', Swamp Dogg's gloriously soulful and heartrending 'America, Here's My Boy', and the twangy, bluegrass stomp of Loudon Wainwright III's 'Do We? We Do' make up that platinum quarter. And 'Heaven's Ladder', Beck's contribution, of course, but that should go without saying.

 

Other solid standouts include Norah Jones' spot-on Dolly Parton impersonation on 'Just Noise'; Jarvis Cocker's spot on Gavin Friday impersonation on 'Eyes That Say 'I Love You''; David Johansen's spot on John DiMaggio impersonation*** on the humid swamp romp of 'Rough on Rats', and the two instrumental pieces, 'Mutilation Rag', with its sense of whimsy and madness, and 'The Last Polka', which, although great, I wish had been an actual polka. I should also bring up Jack Black's epic and ridiculously theatrical take on 'We All Wear Cloaks', which you will love or hate, depending on your feelings towards and tolerance of Tenacious D****.

Back to the concept: is this really as divisive as I'm making it seem or am I just overreacting?
Can it be both? I dropped in on the unofficial official Beck fan forums and asked what the community thought of it and, while only a few people responded, their answers pretty much lined up with what I thought they would say: it was interesting, and a success, more for those who can read and play music than those who cannot, but, overall, it was a very Beck thing for Beck to do. 

One aspect that people did differ on was whether or not Beck should release a Beck version. Some thought that would defeat the purpose of the experiment while others, understandably, would like to hear Beck performing the album that he wrote. 

In the end, what I used as a guide while listening to the album was to ask myself if there were any songs which would not have benefitted or been improved, in any way, by Beck performing them. If we're going by that strict criteria, then I have to say, aside from Swamp Dogg's 'America, Here's My Boy' and maybe 'Do We? We Do', there are not. 

Beck's genius manages to shine through on a lot of these but, more often than not, the guest artist tends to get in the way, a cloud momentarily darkening the day, but water vapor is no match for the atom-crushing power of the sun. It's Beck. Wearing a disguise at times, but it is Beck. 

While this has been a hell of an interesting experiment and exploration of what it means to be a musician versus an artist, and an active Beck fan versus a passive Beck fan, I'm hoping that the next release by Beck will be an album of music, written, recorded and performed by Beck. I was expecting to only like Beck's version of 'Heaven's Ladder', maybe Jack White's and possibly Jack Black's songs, and then to just be mad and pouty about the rest.

Happily, that was not the case, although I would gladly give a toe for the Beck version of Song Reader. Just saying.

* I'd be willing to bet you did not know that. 

. It's a hell of a lot funkier.

** You know what I mean; warping words like 'call' and turning it into 'coyawl', and 'nerves' into 'noyves' etc. Ugh.

*** Voice actor who plays Bender on Futurama and Jake on Adventure Time

**** Although, after hearing and seeing Mighty Boosh do 

, I feel as if Black's should be stricken from the record and replaced by theirs.

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