Beck's Song Reader
Here's a quick way to figure out if you would have enjoyed the star-studded performance last night of Beck's Song Reader, a lovingly illustrated book of sheet music published by McSweeny's which serves as Beck's most recent album:
Imagine Jenny Lewis and Anne Hathaway (in an impossibly short skirt and impossibly high heels, wearing a dress whose sleeves were somehow also a scarf) singing high and tight harmonies, backed by the entire Los Angeles Philharmonic. As soon as they're done, Jack Black runs on stage wearing only an oversized t-shirt and a crushed velvet cape. He does spin kicks, and shouts things like, “You think I don't know I'm a clown? You can't clown a clown! I clown myself!”
How would that make you feel?
The show's lineup read like a dream cocktail party. There were performances from Jarvis Cocker, John S. Reilly, Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond), Jon Brion, Childish Gambino, Juanes, former L.A. Weekly intern Moses Sumney, and Beck himself, as well as stories about music and L.A from Van Dyke Parks, Tig Notaro, Josh Kun, Jonathan Gold, and more. After the show, I had a dream that someone told me that the bill was so packed that all the performers couldn't be backstage at the same time.
But while it sounds fantastic in the abstract, in practice it felt a little like watching the Oscars. Notable person jumps on stage, does something for three or so minutes, gives a curt wave, and runs off again. Then, another person, who maybe you don't recognize, or maybe isn't a professional performer comes on and sucks the air out of the room a bit. Then maybe one performance goes on a bit long. Then you're like, Anne Hathaway, why did you get so dressed up? Everyone else is pretty casual. And you shift in your seat, and wonder if there was a new episode of Bob's Burgers on tonight.
The 20 songs collected on Song Reader are almost universally dour in their lyrics, dealing with heartbreak, loss, disillusionment, and disappointment. They occasionally veer into melodrama: Cocker performed “Why Did You Make Me Care,” which has lines like “Where should I keep these tears?/ In 1,000 years/ Will they disappear/ Or become an ocean?” This is in keeping with the tone of late 19th and early 20th century pieces of popular sheet music, which could be extremely overwrought.
What's most interesting about the performance, and indeed the whole project, is how much these works are up to interpretation. Scrolling through the project's website, you can find fan-submitted versions of the songs done in the style of white-funk, Irish folk ballad, somber Woody Guthrie-style Americanca, torch songs, chamber pop and much more.
Last night, listening to Childish Gambino's surprisingly tender and affective singing voice, or the John C. Reilly's folk trio (rounded out by Tom Brosseau), or Moses Sumney's brilliant use of vocal looping, or Jarvis Cocker's way of pulling the humor out of the lyrics without making them seem ridiculous, you might think to yourself, could these songs ever sound any other way? Of course, they could always sound very different. By never publishing a recording of himself performing them, Beck keeps there from being a single 'correct' interpretation.
He did, however, perform three songs from the record, including a stirring and stripped-down version of “America, Here's My Boy,” a dirge about a father losing a son in war. It worked, but it could have be performed another way. Anything you do with these pieces is right. That's an amazing gift from a songwriter. It's just up to each individual performer to do something compelling with the material.