Does exactly what it says on the thingy

Does exactly what it says on the thingy

Review: Portland Cello Project Play Beck Hansen’s Song Reader

Published on January 9th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams

Efficiently titled Portland Cello Project present efficiently titled interpretation of Beck’s Song Reader, which the loveable scamp released only as sheet music, for others to bring to life. Rocksucker checked out some of the plethora of other versions at songreader.net and that they’re largely reconcilable with each other is proof that the system works; well yes, it’s worked for centuries, but shut up. And that symmetry may not even be how you would quantify success in this instance, but double shut up.

Anyway, no surprise to see a certain Dave Depper involved with this one; we spoke to him the other year about his cover of Paul McCartney’s classic 1971 album Ram in its entirety. As for the music itself, it’s hard at times to know whether to focus on Beck’s original songwriting or the musicians’ performances, and as a long-term Beck fan this writer naturally found himself gravitating towards the former.

Yes, speaking in the first person remains frowned upon. Goodness knows why.

Opener “Don’t Act Like Your Heart isn’t Hard” is as lush and gentle as the title might imply, but it’s hard to reconcile with Beck; the arrangements are very simple and Chanticleer’s vocals ’emote’ more than Beck’s would, funnily enough making them less affecting in the process. There are points on this record where you can imagine Beck handling the vocals and rather pine for it, but that’s unavoidable.

You can absolutely imagine a Mutations-era Beck singing the line “a get well card from a holy ghost” from the ensuing “I’m Down” – it could slot straight into, say, “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” or “Bottle of Blues” – and the combination of light bounce with meandering chord progressions have his fingerprints all over it, even if the fiddle does make it sound more like latter-day Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci (a good thing, by the way).

Adam Shearer’s languid singing style on the Sea Change-y, beautifully arranged and recorded “Saint Dude” is more in tune with Beck’s, and from thereon in the songs are handled mostly by female vocalists. Patti King turns in a beautifully measured performance on the gleefully campy “Do We We Do.”, takes a remarkable operatic approach to the “Nobody’s Fault…”-scored-by-Michael-Nyman of “Heaven’s Ladder” and breaks our hearts on the playful fragility of “Please Leave a Light On When You Go”, but perhaps best of all are her beguiling harmonies on the lightly Hawaiian “Last Night You Were a Dream”.

Lizzy Ellison does okay with the tempestuous folk-pop of “Eyes That Say I Love You”, imbued with the langurous minor-key-dom of Sea Change, but this is one where the overall result feels a little too conventional when not graced with Beck’s own singing style. Her laid-back delivery on works a treat though on “Old Shanghai”, a stately and romantic trot that you could almost imagine someone like Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra gracing at points. Beautiful, basically.

King and Ellison combine to great effect on country number “Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings”, Beck’s ethereal face hovering in the background of lines such as “Watching all your coins roll down the gutter / And all your champagne going down the sink”, while Ellison arguably steals the show on the stop-you-in-your-tracks-stunning, lightly dissonant Burt Bacharach luxuriousness of “Just Noise”.

Indeed, the songs seem to get stronger as the album goes on. Jolie Holland shows her versatility on the vaudeville “Why Did You Make Me Care”, the Arthur-era Kinks-ish-ness of “America, Here’s My Boy” and the entrancing siren song of “The Wolf is on The Hill”, a certain Some Guy Singing registers somewhere between Stephen Malkmus and Isaac Brock on the Waitsian drinking song of “We All Wear Cloaks”, and Chanticleer bats it sufficiently straight to complement the unravelling, sun-kissed classic soul of “I’m Sorry” (although his warbling is not becoming of the splendidly vampish “Rough on Rats”, which demands a more forceful approach to accentuate the underlying eccentricity inherent in Beck’s songwriting.

Great title aside, the instrumental “Mutilation Rag” is a bewildering but brilliant dance between flute and cellos, while “The Last Polka” (featuring Collin Olham) lets off some steam with a flurry of strings. We said before that Ellison arguably steals the show on “Just Noise”, and we say ‘arguably’ because she also arguably steals it on the stupendous “Title of This Song”, which begins quite Sea Change-ily before becoming a Beatles-y sort of epic, complete with that staccato cello that always brings to mind “I Am the Walrus”, so that might be why I mentioned the Beatles, oh look, I’m using the first person, they’ll have my guts for garters over this.

You can stream Portland Cello Project Plays Beck Hansen’s Song Reader in its entirety here, while there’s a whole heap of other versions of the songs available for your perusal at songreader.net; here are a few notable ones we came across…

“Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings” done in a Neutral Milk Hotel/Apples in Stereo fuzz stomp style, with woozy boy/girl harmonies…

This one provides a decent insight into what Beck’s version of “Title of This Song” might’ve sounded like…

Whereas this one has a crazy video depicting the doomed romance of two seriously ugly plasticine rabbits…

Back to the Portland Cello Project, fair play and respect due for doing the whole bloody lot. It’s a valuable service, and for that they deserve all the quails we can throw at them.

Rocksucker says: Five Quails out of Five!

a quaila quaila quaila quaila quail

Portland Cello Project Play Beck Hansen’s Song Reader is out now. You can stream the entire album here. For more information, please visit portlandcelloproject.com

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About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.