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BECK – Song Reader

| 12 December 2012 | Reply

Published by Faber & Faber
Released 11 December 2012
rrp AUD$35 hardcover
Reviewed by Shane Pinnegar

Beck - Song Reader 1

Beck Hansen has forged a career in defiance of the inherent limitations of the music industry by transcending genres, niches and stereotypes, amassing a body of work which is as diverse as it is brilliant, with little concern for commercial viability.

Song Reader is the latest step on Hansen’s artistic path:  an album that sidesteps the process of actually making an album itself.

In short, Song Reader is an album in sheet music form.  Beck has not recorded the twenty songs herein, at least not that we are aware.  Fans are encouraged to interpret the music and upload their versions of the songs to – making the “album” the purest distillation of an interactive experience possible.

A quick trawl through videos already uploaded reveal the songs – or at least the fan interpretations thereof – to be mostly rooted in the finest Americana tradition, with some nods towards bluegrass and early Twentieth Century folk music, pre rock n’ roll.

In explaining the musical feel of the project, Hansen has said: “When you write for your own voice, you have certain constraints you become accustomed to; when you’re asking other people to learn songs they’ve never heard, that puts a different kind of pressure on what the songs should be. I thought a lot about whether these songs should be simple singalongs or more esoteric pieces that would make for better reading on the page for non-musicians, whether they should be written in older styles or if that would make them dismissable as a nostalgic whim. Eventually I decided that attempting, in my own limited way, to get to some idea of what songwriting is at heart—attempting to work from that place—would, at least conceptually, help give the songs a direction. Writing for the page puts everything you come up with under a giant microscope. It was a very different sort of discipline than writing for a recorded project.”  Read the full interview HERE

The book itself is gorgeous.  Hard covered, each piece of music is designed as a stand alone, removable piece, as was common in the days before record players were ubiquitous, much less CDs and the digital age.  A guide to sheet music symbols is included – giving the project the feel of a love letter to the bygone age of sheet music – as is a preface by Hansen himself, explaining his motivation and goals for Song Reader.

Beck - Song Reader 2

With most artists being uniquely defined by their sound, rather than their writing abilities, there are few artists whose sheer songwriter-ness would allow a project such as this to get off the ground: Beck’s recorded diversity is key to the project being possible, much less working.

More philosophical writers than this reviewer will doubtless debate the inherent ramifications of Song Reader on the industry at large – pretentious conceit, or punk masterpiece; flippant whimsy, or a future commercial option for all?

What is undeniable is that Song Reader is a wildly original concept and one that has been executed beautifully.  Only time will tell if other artists can make the idea work for them with the same style and panache, though from here it looks unlikely.

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Category: Book Reviews, CD Reviews

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