Let’s get something established right from the get go. I’m a Beck fan. Is he a Scientologist? I don’t care. He can write songs. It’s perhaps no surprise that I have eventually come to his 2012 Song Reader. It perhaps is a surprise that it has taken me until 2017. Or perhaps it isn’t.
The Song Reader is an album….of sheet music. Unrecorded sheet music on release. This was exciting I remember thinking at the time. It immediately caught my imagination but I wasn’t going to send to the USA to get it and living in little old Bundaberg it wasn’t easily available, so it sat “out there” (gestures to far horizon beyond my mind) for some time until just over a year ago I stumbled upon it on the specials table in the QAGOMA store. Bargains!! I snapped it up, brought it home and immediately put it to one side.
Until today. I was vaguely aware the songs had been recorded in the intervening years. I had somehow, studiously avoided them, while purchasing other Beck music in the meantime. Strange?
Maybe you came to Beck as I did when Triple J flogged “Loser” to pieces in the early 1990s.
Slacker, grunge (proto-hipster) Beck was in danger of being a one-trick pony, a one hit wonder. In fact for a while he was.
But then there was One Foot in the Grave with it’s astonishing stripped back, folk-pop-vibe of wonderful songs and the stunning clip (which I can’t find) of Beck with Willie Nelson. Recorded before Mellow Gold but released after it. It’s a favourite. They’re all favourites!
Prolific is Beck. The Grammy award winning Odelay has every song an immediate hit and classic. Dance grooves like you’ve never heard them. Perfect songs. I bought my CD copy in Hervey Bay’s last independent record store the day after it swept up the Grammy awards. I listened to it for what seemed like forever. How about Where It’s At. Go on…. click on the link. You won’t regret it.
Mutations. Midnite Vultures. Guero. Morning Phase. Sea Change. Modern Guilt.
I may have missed some. All different yet all quintessentially Beck in their variation and willingness to delve into different musical styles and genres and, in doing so, create his very own Beck-ness. I’m about to get to the most recent release Colours.
Hiding in there though was the Song Reader. Until today I didn’t know what any of the songs sounded like. That was the point. For me, the “reader”, to discover it in my own way and in my own time. Just like music used to be published and discovered. Sheet music. Around the piano. At home. In the living room. The parlour. The lounge. So I guess you could say that it’s publication in 2012 by McSweeney’s meant it wasn’t the most accessible “album” of Beck’s in that you have to make the sound yourself. That seems like an effort in our age of instant gratification and immediacy. That seems like it might take time. Like there’s a danger that we might not “get it” the first time. Or if we do, it might be different the second time. Or the third. Or the numbers that come after that.
That’s how popular music used to be distributed. Yeah. Sheet music. Single song sheet music. And in doing so, there wasn’t just one version of a song. There was less of the authoritative version. There were many more individual versions. Interpretations. Made by people just like you and me. So what a gift is the Song Reader. We’re actually meant to participate in the music-making and listening process. Beck is asking us to! What a guy.
Indeed he says as much in the Preface that is included in the album.
“not so long ago, a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone. Anyone. Even you.”
Beck is even keen for us to get a little bit creative with our interpretations. He says as much. What’s this change the lyrics and the chords? Will it still be his song? Of course it will. That’s just what happens in the “in-between” with sheet music when the songwriter launches it into the universe and the amateurs take it up and do there best.
And so today I did. I am the “Anyone. Even you” Beck is talking to in his Preface. I can play the piano. I can sing in a thin, reedy, not very attractive manner. This song came to life for me in the very playing. I recorded it lo-fi style (cheers Beck!) using Garage Band on my IPad. You can hear the back ground noise and the crunchiness at the end as I moved the device to stop recording. That’s okay. That’s normal. Music isn’t meant to be all auto-tuned perfection. We’ve come to think that’s normal. There was musical life before that.
The first song in the Song Reader is “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard”. Beautiful cover art and a snippet of a song on the back (also written by Beck) just like old-time sheet music used to have as the publishers advertised their other songs. What I loved about this one was its reference to Tin Pan Alley and it’s sweet easy melody and simple chord progression. If it was a recorded album it’d be a cracker first track to get the people in.
I deliberately didn’t listen to any other version until after I sang and recorded it. Because once you’ve heard a song you’re covering it….you’re not interpreting what you found on the paper. Beck would probably find my version fairly pedestrian. Here’s him singing it. Heck even I find my version pedestrian. He takes a snappier tempo and welcomes in the mouth organ and guitar.
I may get a little more adventurous as I continue through the album.
So for your listening interest: