Various Artists – Song Reader (Capitol)
Beck’s sheet music-only “album”, Song Reader, proved surprisingly divisive as a concept. Some lapped up the intended, vaguely Luddite reminder of pop music’s origins as a DIY and ephemeral home entertainment; others shuddered at the “vintage” flavour (liquorice and pomade) or found the prerequisites of musical literacy/ability and access to an instrument elitist. I was always in the “for” camp. A guitar and a few lessons come cheaper than any mp3 player (let alone computer) and I firmly believe that every form of literacy is liberatory; alternatively, finding a talented or deluded friend and listening to them is free and makes you both feel wanted. Most importantly, Song Reader put me in a room with a few old friends that rarely got it together to hang out, let alone dust off our guitar, keyboard and tambourine and join voices.
As an actual object, Song Reader (the paper version) is a treat for Beck fans: for the price of a double-CD in the Nineties you get 20 colour-illustrated sheet music booklets, with enough margin minutiae (the tempo indications form a running gag, i.e. ‘Saint Dude’ is marked “ABIDINGLY”) and droll fake ads to rival MAD Magazine. Reassuring stuff from the increasingly humourless (don’t you reckon?) Beck. The music itself also delivers, as if having to write things out caused the notoriously fast-moving singer to dwell a little longer on the detail of the surreally melancholy lyrics and memorable melodies. Stumbling through a one-fingered, wobbly-voiced second pass at a song and suddenly starting to “hear” Beck says something about the strength of his creative voice, and more generally about the magic of writing songs.
So, to Song Reader (the recorded album), which ditches you and your loved ones in the living room and calls a bunch of famous people into studios. Basically, it’s both an all-star compilation and a covers album, and it doesn’t really transcend either of those twin curses. But few do.
In these situations you look for the flashes of real character, and there are some. Moses Sumney does ‘The Title of This Song’ as subtly psychedelic neo-soul and it’s moreish. Freaky elders David Johansen, Sparks and Swamp Dogg are dependably singular and the latter’s stark rendition of my least favourite song in the book, ‘America, Here’s My Boy’, is heartbreaking. Jarvis Cocker is the highlight and makes his song sound like he wrote it, as a dark space-cabaret; Juanes does the same by translating the words into Spanish for his glossy acoustic number. Beck’s own take on ‘Heaven’s Ladder’ has heart floating in its billowy atmosphere and McCartney-esque flourishes (the sort of thing dull music critics tend to call ‘Beatlesque’, giving the impression that the only Beatles songs they’ve heard are the ones that were glued and lacquered by Jeff Lynne).
Most of the other songs blur together. As fine as they are, everything falls within an inoffensive “American” sound giving the feel of a TV awards show/benefit concert or, in the punchier numbers, the house band of a late night variety show. I can’t help but hear quotation marks around the steel guitar in Jack White’s honky tonk turn. Laura Marling has simplicity and Englishness on her side. But songs that would be pretty good on their own – Norah Jones going country, Jeff Tweedy, even Eleanor Friedberger’s disappointingly straight number – get a bit lost. Against this, Fun.’s squeaky clean Broadway-via-Protools version of ‘Please Leave A Light On When You Go’ is at least interesting (and I’ve hated the boys-with-a-period since shivering in the rain right through their offensively crap festival set after a misunderstanding about a meeting place).
They’re good songs, sung alright, but you’d probably like your own versions better.