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coverpic flag Mare Smythii - Full Moon 220 - 08/10/14

Various Artists
Beck - Song Reader
Capitol Records

Song Reader was a book of sheet music released by Beck a year and a half ago (December 2012), giving his fans and followers a chance to interpret, or to bring out his songs. Give birth to them, so to speak. Now, during the summer of 2014 the album has come to life. All 20 sheets of music, performed and rendered by 19 artists/bands - plus Beck himself doing one of the songs himself ("Heaven's Ladder" - he did not reserve it for himself, but ended up with it when it was the final unclaimed song). When Beck was asked by Rolling Stone mag if all these contributing musicians actually read sheet music, Beck admits with a laugh: "I think most don't. In many cases the artists learned the songs from the fan versions on YouTube."

Among the 19 contributing bands and artists we find both big names and lesser-known names. Well, with 'lesser known' I mean names not up among there with the BIG, or biggest stars. That said, this is a nice collection, a fine bunch of artists put together for this occasion. We are introduced to artists such as long time Beck comrade Jack White, folk-singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, jazz-pop singer/musician Norah Jones, guitarist extraordinaire Marc Ribot, eccentric popsters Sparks, father and son combo Tweedy (Wilco's Jeff, with his son Spencer behind the drum-kit), along with British artists like former Pulp-headman Jarvis Cocker and folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling. Then there's LA, CA soul-folkster Moses Sumney, Bob Forrest (former lead vocalist/lyricist for LA bands Thelonious Monster and The Bicycle Thief drug counselor), David Johansen (ex-The New York Dolls), Eleanor Friedberger (who's half of the indie rock duo The Fiery Furnaces, along with her older brother Matthew), singer-songwriter and guitarist Jason Isbell (formerly of the Drive-By Truckers), cult figure Swamp Dogg (A.K.A. Jerry Williams, Jr.). Here are NYC based indie pop band Fun. (or fun., as it's stylized), Los Angeles indie folk band Lord Huron, Colombian musician Juanes, and American composer and singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane along with yMusic (which is an ensemble of players adding Bon Iver, Antony and the Johnsons, Sufjan Stevens, American Composers Orchestra etc. to their resumes). And, yes, then there is actor and funnyman-rocker Jack Black. I guess, when they already had a White Jack, they had to throw in a Black Jack as well...

As a musical journey Song Reader as its ups and downs. However, that said, here is a lot of ups. I must admit. Cosy. But cosy with a big positive plus sign in front of it. The album opens with Moses Sumney's soul-filled yet sober rendition of "Title of This Song". Nice. Nice is also fun.'s quiet, ballad "Please Leave A Light On When You Go". Father & son Tweedy is maybe a tad too safe sounding with their "The Wolf Is On The Hill". Well, it is like: With Tweedy, you get what you expect. Nothing else. Same goes for Ravi Shankar's daughter, Norah Jones has become a 'veteran', sort of, with five albums on her back since her 2002 debut, and even though "Just Noise" is a bit rougher than the regular Jones song, it is rather straightforward. Jack White is on a bluesy, time travel path with "I'm Down", taking his friend Beck way back in time, dressing the song quite cooly. Juanes's (AKA Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez) "Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard" is a sweet and friendly interpretation, sung in Spanish (Juanes is of Basque descent), but it's maybe a bit too nice. Laura Marling's "Sorry" is, well, fine, but, uhh, somewhat grey, I'm sorry to say. Yet, she is performing with a certain coolness. So does Jarvis Cocker, even though Eyes That Say 'I Love You'" doesn't sound like a Beck song at all. Of course. It sounds like a Jarvis Cocker song. Period. And, that's way cool. Because the same goes for the next singer up: Mr. David Johansen, doing "Rough On Rats", sounds like himself, or maybe his alter ego, Buster Poindexter. Which is fine by me. And by Beck, I guess. Jason Isbell also does an indeed bluesy, funky escapade with "Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings". I am not sure if I like it too much, is kind of groovy anyway. Marc Ribot's contribution ("The Last Polka") is of course as hypnotic and cinematic as he always is.

Eleanor Friedberger sails up as one of the favourites on this album with her version of "Old Shanghai". The former fiery furnace has gone solo, and is visiting Oslo's Øyafestival (almost at the time when I type this). Then comes the REAL jewel of the album: Sparks performing "Why Did You Make Me Care?". The veteran pop eccentrics still know how to do a perfectly good and smart pop song. Style, precision, grace. Excellent! Swamp Dogg is also doing well, with "America, Here's My Boy", which is a Tom Waits-ish song, sort of. Swamp Dogg is said to be one of the great cult figures of 20th century American music (Jerry Williams, Jr. was an R&B producer and songwriter of the 1960s). Aforementioned Jack Black performs "We All Wear Cloaks". He is also somewhere in Tom Waits-land, but there's too much drama, of course, like always with him. I've always had a problem with Black. He's simply....too much. Period. And this track is forgettable. Loudon Wainwright III, doing "Do We? We Do", is solid, like he always is. Safe, yes, and solid. And, Beck himself? He does "Heaven's Ladder", and he's - of course - the one he knows how to do Beck best, and therefore, he climbs the ladder to the top 3 of the album. Even though it's far from being a brilliant or outstanding Beck song. But, it's a good one.

Song Reader ends with Gabriel Kahane with yMusic performing "Mutilation Rag", which is a fitting closing track. Experimental, playful, whimsical. The album should maybe have had a few more experimentalists on-board. It is a laidback and cool album, but I doubt that I will play it a lot. It is decent, stylish, and elegant, with a few flaws and mistakes. It proves Beck's song-writing skills. It also proves (along with this year's Beck album, Morning Phase) that Beck is an grown-up, making 'adult music'.

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