Song Reader

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Some things in life are certain, such as Beck's 2012 collection of sheet music eventually winding its way to record. It did roughly 19 months after its December 2012 publication, appearing in the summer of 2014 as a charity album presented by hipster eyeglass firm Warby Parker for the benefit of Dave Eggers' 826 National educational charity. This record is culled from star-studded live performances supervised by Beck and Randall Poster, who is best known as the music supervisor on Wes Anderson films, so this record hits many of the tasteful signifiers of new millennial hipsterism and, appropriately, it's immaculately curated, capturing a carefully sculpted neo-retro feel where everything new evokes the past. Several of the featured musicians do make it their specialty to construct an invisible bridge to the past, and these are the artists whose interpretations are the most striking on Song Reader: Jack White shambles through the blues on "I'm Down," Jarvis Cocker milks all the drama out of "Eyes That Say 'I Love You'," Jeff Tweedy gets dreamy on "The Wolf Is on the Hill," Jason Isbell tears through "Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings" like he was playing a roadhouse, Eleanor Friedberger slyly sells the carnivalesque elements of "Old Shanghai," and Norah Jones brings "Just Noise" into her own uptown cabaret wheelhouse. These are all peers of Beck, all alt-rockers raised on pop and punk sharing an affection for both, so they fit neatly where the newer acts -- ranging from relatively unknown Moses Sumney and Gabriel Kahane to new sensations fun. -- are entirely polite, succumbing to the suggestions of Poster and Beck and winding up sounding a bit too precious. The old guard provides a needed tonic to this deference, sounding vulgar and vital as they take Song Reader's inspirations seriously: David Johansen brings "Rough on Rats" to a speakeasy, Sparks' electro arrangement of "Why Did You Make Me Care?" recalls the theatricality of vaudeville, Swamp Dogg appears unaffected by all the shenanigans, Loudon Wainwright III kicks up an old-fashioned singalong with "Do We? We Do," while Marc Ribot strolls through back pages on "The Last Polka," creating perhaps the most authentic moment on this highly stylized endeavor. If the recorded Song Reader is a hodgepodge, perhaps that was inevitable: Beck wrote these songs to capture many different styles and they weren't necessarily meant to be played back to back in front of an audience -- they were meant to be learned at home and brought out into the world. Having the songs preserved on record undercuts that intention slightly but this is still an odd, delightful collection of tunes and it's nice that non-musicians -- and listeners with an aversion to homemade YouTube renditions -- get to hear these now too.

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