It may seem like an oddball move to releasing new music not as an album of recorded songs but as a collection of sheet music. But for Beck, an always unpredictable and inventive musician who certainly has a history of experimenting with how people experience his music, it's a perfect fit. Published by McSweeney's, Song Reader is a handsome collection of 20 songs distilled down to their core melodies, chord progressions and words, and written simply enough to be interpreted and arranged by fellow musicians and fans alike. Beck is also encouraging fans to share their recordings of his songs on his Web site.
Without definitive, Beck-recorded versions, it's been fun to leaf through the lyrics and imagine our favorite artists putting out their own takes. Among them, Stephin Merritt seemed like a no-brainer. As The Magnetic Fields' songwriter, Merritt has delved into similarly high concept projects -- from the masterpiece 69 Love Songs to the guitar feedback-rich Distortion. And like Beck, Merritt shares an innate love of composing perfect, universal songs with memorable melodies that could hold up no matter the arrangement or performer.
So when we brought Merritt into the studio to record a version of "Old Shanghai," it was both a mystery how he would approach the song and make it his own, but also what the song even sounded like.
Merritt arrived with a tinier-than-normal toy piano which he stacked on top of a tambourine, which was on top of a pen that made it even more rickety and off-kilter when he banged out the simple triads. On top of that, he also placed a metal wind-up bird, which he wound to open the song and paused in the middle to rewind.
Combined with jangling bells around his wrists and overdubbed reverb pops from a guitar amp, Merritt seemed to recreate a mess of sounds one might hear on a boisterous street in Shanghai. The result is an equally eerie and playful interpretation of Beck's song.
"That was worth doing the whole project right there," Beck laughed after hearing Merritt's performance. Indeed, it was. It'll be just as exciting to hear other versions of these songs as they make their way into the hands of other musicians.
For more on Song Reader, be sure to listen to the entire interview with Beck, Stephin Merritt, and New York songwriter Amy Regan, check out Studio 360's own lengthy interview with Beck, and hear their rendition of one of Beck's songs.