Beck – ‘Song Reader’

Beck's book of sheet music, recorded by everyone from Jack White to Jarvis

There’s something about ‘Song Reader’ that feels oddly self-defeating. In their original sheet-music form, these 20 songs had a sense of protean possibility, reflected in the weird and sometimes wonderful interpretations uploaded by fans or performed by Beck and friends at last year’s live shows. In contrast, the 20 recordings presented here are destined, for better or worse, to become the ‘definitive’ versions of songs that were never supposed to have one. It’s the equivalent, I suppose, of imagining your favourite fictional protagonist one way, only to hear that they’re being played by Ben Affleck in the Hollywood adaptation; whatever they were before, they’ll be a butt-cleft chin and a permanently smug expression from now on.

Beck, however, is a man with good taste in collaborators (he’s also friends with Jack Black) and if these versions are indeed definitive, they are thankfully – for the most part – superlative, too. The assembled cast all play to their strengths, which means much of the record’s first half is cut from the same alt-country cloth: Jeff Tweedy’s ‘The Wolf Is On The Hill’ is sublime, ‘I’m Down’ could’ve been written with Jack White in mind and Laura Marling was never going to put a foot wrong with ‘Sorry’. It’s the latter half, however, that boasts the real standout moments, courtesy of a couple of less-than-obvious candidates. You’d have thought Tom Waits would be a shoo-in to try his hand at ‘Rough On Rats’, but David Johansen’s take manages to sound like the wizened old croaker at his bawdy and boisterous best. ‘America, Here’s My Boy’, meanwhile, might borrow its name from the Peerless Quartet’s patriotic WWI toe-tapper, but the stunning vocal from R&B legend Swamp Dogg will steal the air from your lungs as surely as it subverts the jingoism of the title.

Across the rest of the tracks you’ll find the inevitable peaks and troughs, though the former happily outnumber the latter. This version of ‘Song Reader’ may not be entirely in keeping with the spirit of the concept, but when the end result is as good as it is, who’s complaining?

Barry Nicolson


Director: Randall Poster
Record label: Warby Parker/Capitol Records
Release date: 28 Jul, 2014