We Critique Five Interpretations of Beck's Sheet Music Song "Old Shanghai"

Beck Hopes You Have Been Practicing Your Scales
Beck Hopes You Have Been Practicing Your Scales
SJ O'Connell

Not too long ago, most folks could read music in this county. Most middle class kids, at least, could bang out some chords on the piano at their parents' cocktail parties.

Nowadays, of course, pianos most often serve as furniture. But that hasn't stopped Beck from releasing an "album" that requires one to dust off an instrument to hear the songs. Via a project that's as retro as one can go, he's released sheet music for 20 tunes -- which he calls his Song Reader. Released by McSweeney's, the book is full of ridiculous jokes and painstaking design.

In any case, Beck says he won't record these songs, so it's up to his fans to decipher the music. "Old Shanghai" was one of the first songs to be leaked, and it's got a "slow swing" tempo, four separate horn parts, and a lower-register piano chart, vocals and ukulele tabs. YouTube is already littered with interpretations of the glacial ballad; here are five wildly different interpretations of it.

Unplugged70

Many folks' first instinct is to make the tune sound as much like a Beck song as possible, particularly of the Mutations-era variety. Unplugged70, then, does a decent Beck interpretation for awhile until starts to develop a strange vibe reminiscent of Beck's early releases.

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New Yorker Nonet

Oh jeez. Nine New Yorker employees made this thing about as twee as you might expect. Despite the plethora of instruments, the makeshift band doesn't flush out the score more than the previous version, but the addition of violinist Rachel Lee makes for a nice mid-song solo. Although, Lee seems like a bit of a ringer for this band; her website notes that she has a master's degree at the New England Conservatory through its joint five-year program with Harvard!

Contramano

Twee again. Contramano's heavily-edited video implies that much of the work here was done in post-production; frankly we'd have appreciated the song more if we hadn't seen it. Major points to the cellist for his faithful adherence to the written trombone part. Unfortunately, these points are taken away because he appears crouching naked in the video.

 

Donovan Max

Donovan Max's "Alternative Son" version melds a traditional Cuban bass-line with an electric guitar. Maybe it's because all of these versions are in the same key, but all of the vocals sound pretty similar. Perhaps if Max had sung in Spanish he could have truly set it apart, but kudos for switching the rhythm on the bridge.

Portland Cello Project, featuring Lizzie Ellison

Of the videos floating around, the Portland Cello Project gets the closest to what's written in the sheet music. The languid trumpet line gets a gentle pull while the drummer digs into a shuffle with his brushes. The choir of cellos covers the rest of the chart while vocalist Lizzie Ellison sings a weary ode to coastal China.

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