Release Date: Jul 29, 2014
Record label: Capitol
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Even for an artist well-known for his eclectic, shifting skins, this can be said: Song Reader is the strangest record Beck's put out in 20 years. Forget its unusual birth two years ago as a book of sheet music; this is his most experimental collection of songs since Stereopathetic Soulmanure. Released on the back of Morning Phase—arguably his most accessible record—Song Reader will throw more casual fans for a loop, but Beck's longtime followers will find it fascinating.
Some things in life are certain, such as Beck's 2012 collection of sheet music eventually winding its way to record. It did roughly 19 months after its December 2012 publication, appearing in the summer of 2014 as a charity album presented by hipster eyeglass firm Warby Parker for the benefit of Dave Eggers' 826 National educational charity. This record is culled from star-studded live performances supervised by Beck and Randall Poster, who is best known as the music supervisor on Wes Anderson films, so this record hits many of the tasteful signifiers of new millennial hipsterism and, appropriately, it's immaculately curated, capturing a carefully sculpted neo-retro feel where everything new evokes the past.
What's most amazing about these all-star performances of Beck's 2012 sheet-music book Song Reader – complete with a corporate sponsor, just like King Biscuit Time – isn't how much they sound like Beck songs but how much they sound like the artists who cover them. This is fitting for songs with a purposeful facelessness, written for others to perform. Then again, this is Beck, so there's also subtle, magical weirdness in even the most straightforward tunes.
If you failed to catch the live shows or search for any fan-made performances of Beck’s sheet-music “album” Song Reader on YouTube, here’s your chance to find out what a bunch of name musicians made of it. Broadly speaking, there’s an over-riding Americana bent to these 20 recordings, lending a potentially befuddling collection a cohesion you wouldn’t find on the Song Reader archive over at a fan-run Tumblr called Fax Machine Anthems. While that (and marquee names such as Jack White, Norah Jones and Tweedy) will no doubt help sell records, it comes at the expense of Song Reader’s essence: the encouragement of variety and abandon.
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.
When Beck first released Song Reader exclusively on sheet music, it was such a unique curio that the quality of the music was never called into question. Now that he's recruited an all-star cast of musicians to cover the tunes, however, the project comes with an expectation of quality. In this regard, the album version of Song Reader is a mixed bag of hits and misses, made slightly disjointed by the fact that a different artist performs each song.The breezy, country-rock sound of the album's first half holds together fairly well.
Back in late 2012, Beck released a volume of sheet music, a limited edition album housed between hard covers. His intentions? To fondly recall the era of written scores in the age of viral YouTube covers. To toy with the idea of what a song is, sidelining the idea of a definitive recording and instead inviting wide interpretation. To do something less predictable than just put a record out (although Beck recently did that too, with Morning Phase).
The six years of Beck’s career between Modern Guilt and Morning Phase would make for an amazing “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”-type essay. Besides putting out a few singles and playing the occasional festival, he recovered from a spinal injury, covered entire albums with Record Club, contributed original music for films, and produced releases by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stephen Malkmus. But the most significant project of this era has to be Song Reader, the “album” of sheet music he released in 2012.
At every stage, Beck's music has reflected Los Angeles: The hodgepodge jigsaw of Odelay and Mellow Gold; the temperate melancholy of Sea Change and Morning Phase; the posthuman decadence of Midnite Vultures; and the all-purpose sunshine of The Information and Modern Guilt, which convey joy in the muted way only Southern California can. He is ratty palm trees and rolling hills; he is five-dollar coffee and hand-stitched fedoras; he is a Burbank strip mall jammed with sundry and outdated business catering to everyone and no one at the same time. Warby Parker Presents Beck Song Reader is part of his showbiz phase; a laid-back benefit album that if nothing else reminds you that Beck may have started as an outsider but has long since become part of the establishment.
Various ArtistsBeck Song Reader(Capitol)2 1/2 out of 5 stars Love him or not, it’s difficult not to applaud Beck for thinking outside the box, both musically and conceptually. He pushed the envelope again last year with the release of an intricately illustrated book of sheet music for original songs he never recorded. He then left it up to others to interpret them, resulting in a batch of YouTube covers by anyone with a basic understanding of how to read music.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. Back at the tail end of 2012 Beck revealed Song Reader, an album that sent think pieces spewing from the keys of music critics, and was hailed as the latest in a long line of oddball moves for the American musician. There may have been some hyperbole in the reporting of Song Reader's release, but it's also easy to forget what a surprise it was at the time.
They say music belongs to everyone. But rarely has that maxim had more practical application than with Beck’s ongoing “Song Reader” project. The star started it back in 2012. He released sheet music for songs he had no intention of recording himself. They existed simply as notations and words ….
"Song Reader" was originally released in 2013 without a sound. Rather, until this new selection of cover versions, the music arrived only in notated form, a beautifully packaged stack of 20 individual songbooks. The goal, Beck said at the time, was for musicians to learn and share the songs themselves. It was a cool idea, one that merged antiquated technology with a modern twist: Other than a few Beck-sanctioned concerts, most of the "Song Reader" interpretations live on YouTube, brought to life by eager amateurs.
Shortly after Beck released Odelay way back in 1996, a publisher sent him a book of transcribed sheet music for the album. Fans will recognise that Odelay was hardly a record well-suited to the medium, littered with all sorts of sonic mutations and mid-nineties alternative skronk. Beck himself was intrigued by the premise, but dismayed that it represented an abstraction of his intentions.
Once upon a time — OK, a year and a half ago — Beck released a batch of new songs solely as sheet music, and let the world sort it out. Now, along comes an actual album — and you could turn your brain inside out trying to parse exactly what “Beck Song Reader” is. It’s not a Beck album, though he provides one track.