Posted on August 6th, 2014 (1:00 pm) by Travis Boyer

When Beck set out to put together the ambitious collaborative effort, Song Reader, he had one idea in mind, a clean slate. Providing nothing more than selections of sheet music from his 2012 book by the same title, Beck let loose the reins to his famous friends to interpret their chosen pages as they wished. The result was twenty songs, twenty original renditions.

As quoted in Rolling Stone, Beck chose artists he believed understand the interpretation of a song. He noted the current era of groupthink songwriting where interpreters are now called songwriters in the creative process. What’s lost is the genuine article, the songwriter’s mark after it goes through the channels of arrangers and producers.

Song Reader is the picture of originality. No guidance or interference at hand, each artist was free to author their own version they saw fit from their chosen composition. With the likes of Jack White, Norah Jones, Jarvis Cocker, and even the delightfully odd inclusion of Jack Black, Song Reader is an eclectic grouping of artists flexing their creative muscles.

Any discussion of originality in current music needs to start and end with Jack White. White is always looking for new ways to regenerate into a fresh iteration of himself. Now, he is in the middle of a classic country rock revivalist period. White’s entry, “I’m Down,” continues with his noble pursuits as an artist. This crunchy steel guitar and old-time piano rag is a glistening, rhinestone covered dream. White’s patented guitar reverb drag that buzzes and crackles is raggedly authentic. White is, as he has always been, the genuine article.

Not to be lost in the shuffle, the man himself, Beck, ascends “Heaven’s Ladder.” This song fell to him by virtue of it being the last one left after all the artists had their pick. A spaced-out guitar and tiptoeing piano to the stars, give way to a trap slide of a melody in time for the chorus. Equal parts bathed in a renewing, amber glow and isolated in a chilly shadow, Beck makes these switches sound like old hat.

The sly and suave Jarvis Cocker panders on the smooth “Eyes That Say I Love You." Cocker originally performed “Why Did You Make Me Care?" during one of Beck’s three all-star concerts in 2013. On Song Reader, Sparks have that responsibility. Sparks’ take is a black, morbid opera. It takes a sharp turn from a haunted classical cut to a techno nightmare interlude. Vocally, Sparks do this song a far better service with a bemoaning bellow that Cocker would not have been able to give.

To conclude Song Reader’s morose section, Swamp Dogg’s “America, Here’s My Boy,” weeps in what could be interpreted as the solemn inverse of “Fortunate Son.” It is a dagger to the heart that keeps twisting. It rips through your soul as if it were tissue paper, which you may need after this song is through.

For an especially lighter side, check out the lily white “Old Shanghai" by Eleanor Friedberger and the honeysuckle sweet “Just Noise” by Norah Jones. Friedberger has an undeniable wilt to her voice that is at home with the billowing organ. Jones is naturally sweet without need for refinement. Her siren ways beckon along with the twinkling keys of her piano. For a laugh, “We All Wear Cloaks” is a prime Jack Black cut. Black has all the bravado you would expect from him on this nod to Skull and Bones-esque society. You need not take him seriously. Just admire his gusto.

Gabriel Kahane’s “Mutilation Rag” closes this venture on a flighty flue instrumental wrapped in high tension wires. Tiptoeing and sprinting at a moment’s notice, it harkens back to the era of classical scores of movie credit sequences past. Picture a comical caper and “Mutilation Rag” and its playful anxiety would fit right in.

Song Reader’s mission, by all accounts, has been accomplished. The material that Beck gave away resulted in twenty unique interpretations. There were no set guidelines for these songs by interloping interpreters. There were only a few pages of notes for reference and the idea of free creative reign. That’s the heart of creativity and Song Reader captures it wholeheartedly.

Track List:

  1. Moses Sumney - Title of This Song
  2. Fun. - Please Leave a Light on When You Go
  3. Tweedy - The Wolf Is on the Hill
  4. Norah Jones - Just Noise
  5. Lord Huron - Last Night You Were a Dream
  6. Bob Forrest - Saint Dude
  7. Jack White - I'm Down
  8. Beck - Heaven's Ladder
  9. Juanes - Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard
  10. Laura Marling - Sorry
  11. Jarvis Cocker - Eyes That Say I Love You
  12. David Johansen - Rough on Rats
  13. Jason Isbell - Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings
  14. Marc Ribot - The Last Polka
  15. Eleanor Friedberger - Old Shanghai
  16. Sparks - Why Did You Make Me Care?
  17. Swamp Dogg - America, Here's My Boy
  18. Jack Black - We All Wear Cloaks
  19. Loudon Wainwright III - Do We, We Do!
  20. Gabriel Kahane & Ymusic - Mutilation Rag
Various Artists: Beck Song Reader
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

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75 / 100
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