"Song Reader" was originally released in 2013 without a sound. Rather, until this new selection of cover versions, the music arrived only in notated form, a beautifully packaged stack of 20 individual songbooks. The goal, Beck said at the time, was for musicians to learn and share the songs themselves.
It was a cool idea, one that merged antiquated technology with a modern twist: Other than a few Beck-sanctioned concerts, most of the "Song Reader" interpretations live on YouTube, brought to life by eager amateurs.
Now comes Phase 2: renditions of "Song Reader" by prominent artists combined with an expertly produced collection of under-appreciated voices, including Moses Sumney, Eleanor Friedberger, Laura Marling, Sparks and Jason Isbell. (Financed by eyewear purveyor Warby Parker, the project's profits will be donated to 826 National, a nonprofit creative writing program for kids.)
As with any such collection of disparate voices, some of these renditions disappoint, others are inspired. Opening with a highlight — the mesmerizing young upstart Sumney and his version of "Title of This Song" — "Song Reader" is best when artists avoid conservatism. Marling's lovely, upbeat rendition of "Sorry" is heavy on the strum but light on the delivery, and Loudon Wainwright III's take on "Do We? We Do" makes it sound like a hillbilly classic. Los Angeles avant-rock institution Sparks is as glistening and inventive as ever on "Why Did You Make Me Care?"
Less exciting are David Johansen's lumpy "Rough on Rats," fun.'s adult contemporary take on "Please Leave a Light on When You Go" and Lord Huron's "Last Night You Were a Dream." Beck's own take is fascinating. His lament, "Heaven's Ladder," sounds like "Band on the Run"-era Paul McCartney & Wings.
"Warby Parker Presents Beck Song Reader"
3 stars out of 4