The best artists, to me, are the ones who constantly surprise you.
Beck definitely falls into that category. He started out as the very definition of a one-hit wonder, with the estimable “Loser” lampooning that wave of self-loathing that drowned out the ‘90s. But then, with his very next major-label record, he proved himself a genius. Odelay still stands as a remarkable record – it’s much less dated than you’d expect – and it began a string of consistently surprising works. He went from the breezy Mutations to the sex-funk parody Midnite Vultures to the shimmering, moving Sea Change, all in four years.
We haven’t heard from Beck since 2008, but in December, he’ll release another collection of 20 new songs. But because he’s Beck, he’ll do it in a most surprising way. Beck Hansen’s Song Reader is being touted as Beck’s new album, but he’s not recording a note of it. In collaboration with McSweeney’s, he’s releasing these songs as sheet music, and encouraging people to create their own recordings and share them online.
Which is, to say the least, brilliant.
I was initially taken aback by this idea, considering it a bit gimmicky. I mean, it’s sheet music. It’s expected – you write a song, you release the sheet music. It actually took me a while to figure out what’s so amazing about this concept: Beck is not recording these songs. There’s no “definitive” version for people to compare themselves to. So when those people get together with other musicians and try to hammer out their own versions of these tunes, there will be no “right” way and no “wrong” way to play them.
Think about a song everyone knows. We’ll choose the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” partially because it’s the most covered pop song in history. You all know it. If you were to hum it, you’d hear the song in your head first. And you’d hear it at a certain tempo, and you’d hear the lyrics sung the way Paul McCartney crooned them on Help. You’d probably hear an acoustic guitar and some strings, too. There are a lot of covers of “Yesterday,” and quite a lot of them stick to the tempo and arrangement of the original. But even those that don’t – the industrial takes, the reggae versions, the metal scream-throughs – feel like a reaction to the original.
The brilliance of Beck’s idea is to eliminate that cornerstone recording. When Song Reader hits, and people try to play these songs, no one’s going to know how Beck envisioned them. No one will know the “right” tempo, the “correct” arrangement. Even the vocal inflection, which tells more of the tale than people realize, will be a mystery. And so we’re going to get all kinds of versions of these songs, and none of them will be definitive. This will be music that truly belongs to everyone who participates.
This is an idea that could only work now, in the age of YouTube. It’s astonishingly quick and easy – and best of all, free – for anyone to share their versions of Beck’s new songs with the world. I hope this spreads like wildfire. I’m fascinated by the idea, and I’ll be keeping a lookout for these songs, and maybe trying my hand at a couple. But this is what I love about Beck. I could have guessed a million different things, and I’d never have predicted that this is what he’d do next.
December. Start practicing.
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I can’t believe I haven’t already reviewed the new Shawn Colvin album.
I’ve been enjoying it almost non-stop since its June 5 release, and at times it feels like I’ve already shared my thoughts on it here. I’m kind of amazed to find out that I actually haven’t, that I only imagined doing so. I know I’ve had several long conversations about it, and about how it single-handedly boosted one of my favorite songwriters out of the rut she’s been in for more than a decade, recasting her singular voice in new and surprising lights. I’ve told enough people how much I love this record that I guess I thought I’d told all of you, too.
Silly me. Let me rectify that right now.
Colvin’s seventh album is called All Fall Down. Hard to believe she only has seven albums, but Colvin is known for working slowly – her last record was released in 2006, the one before that in 2001. She’s also known for a particular sound, a sort of shiny folk music produced a particular way. Each of her previous albums has existed in this same space, primarily because most of them were produced by the same person – her longtime writing partner John Leventhal. On several of Colvin’s previous efforts, Leventhal even handled the lion’s share of the instruments. There’s no doubt this arrangement worked – just check out the wonderful A Few Small Repairs, her best-known album.
But it all got a little repetitive. I’m a Shawn Colvin fan, and I barely remember These Four Walls, her last effort. Something needed to change, and on All Fall Down, something did – Colvin left Leventhal behind and enlisted Nashville legend Buddy Miller to man the boards. The result is her earthiest, most organic album ever. There’s dust in these grooves, and the smell of desert air, and a sense of space and heart that you probably didn’t realize was missing.
Keyboards and electric guitars have been replaced by fiddles and lap steels here, but that’s easy. The real trick is finding the world-weary honesty that has sometimes been lost in Colvin’s songs, and bringing that to the fore. That’s a trick she and Miller accomplish with admirable aplomb on All Fall Down, so much so that at times here, the 56-year-old Colvin sounds like a completely new artist.
You may not hear the difference right away. The opening title track is a classic catchy Shawn Colvin song, built on acoustic guitars but fleshed out with ringing electrics and gang vocals. It’s one of only a few songs Colvin wrote with Leventhal this time out, and it’s the one that sounds the most familiar. But track two is a cover of Rod McDonald’s “American Jerusalem,” and it’s here that the new tone is set. Pedal steels and accordions provide texture over a spare guitar and whispered drum. The loping country original “Knowing What I Know Now” continues in the same vein, with fiddles and electric piano and some sweet harmonies from Miller.
Colvin and Leventhal co-wrote “Seven Times the Charm” with Jakob Dylan. I point that out because it’s a terrific song, despite those odds. A dusty waltz that would make Gillian Welch smile, the song is a perfectly-crafted portrait of a doomed relationship: “And we go once down the aisle and twice round the stars, you had all the persuasion of a snake on my arm, and seven times the charm…” This one features dazzling lead guitar by Bill Frisell and backing vocals by Alison Krauss. Beat that.
And the record never comes down from there. “Anne of the Thousand Days” is ghostly and captivating, Frisell’s ringing guitar complimenting Colvin’s voice perfectly. (A reference to email is the only false note. It’s certainly a songwriterly detail, but it jars with the organic tone of the song.) “The Neon Light of the Saints” is a stomper with a mini-orchestra in tow, and “Change is On the Way,” co-written with Patty Griffin, is a piercing breakup song that floats along on its pedal steel lines.
All Fall Down ends with a pair of covers, one of recent vintage, one a golden oldie. It’s a tribute to newly-minted Irish singer Mick Flannery that I think his “Up on That Hill” is one of the best songs on this album. Colvin hews close to the original, but adds an ocean of emotion to it, and just to top things off, invites Emmylou Harris to sing it with her. She closes things out with B.W. Stevenson’s 1972 lullaby “On My Own,” and it’s just the kind of tune these musicians might pull out to end a session on a graceful note. It’s pastoral and beautiful, like a slow kiss goodbye.
Shawn Colvin’s been so very good for so very long, but All Fall Down may well be her best record. It’s the best kind of redefinition – it retains the core essence of Colvin as a songwriter and artist, but replaces all the scenery with something new. Teaming with Buddy Miller was an inspired decision, and the record they made together is a deep, memorable high water mark for an already-tremendous artist. Sorry it took so long to review this. I hope, like All Fall Down, it was worth the wait.
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Peter Mulvey is one of the most interesting songwriters I know. From the wry “The Trouble With Poets” to the fiercely humanist “Deep Blue” to the righteously furious “The Fix is On” to the phenomenal spoken-word piece “Vlad the Astrophysicist,” Mulvey has proven himself one of the most versatile folk artists around.
But even though he has a strikingly original songwriting voice, he loves interpreting other writers’ material. He always has. Mulvey began his solo career in the subways of Boston, playing covers and trying to snag a few seconds’ attention from busy passersby. The first fascinating cover I heard him pull off was a guitar-and-vocal read of Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times.” He’s included other people’s tunes on virtually all of his albums, some total reinventions and some straight homages, and he released a whole album of them, Ten Thousand Mornings, recorded live in those subway tunnels.
And now he’s given us a studio album of interpretations, one that runs the gamut from country to jazz to pop balladry. It’s called The Good Stuff, and it’s delightful. Mulvey assembled some old friends, dubbed here the Crumbling Beauties, and embarked on this trip without a map, pulling songs out of a hat and giving them a whirl while the tapes rolled. The result is a loose and fun collection that runs all over the place, beholden to no genre, style, or train of thought. After 2009’s dense Letters From a Flying Machine, it’s great to hear Mulvey cut loose on some of his favorite tunes.
And if you think I’m kidding about the variety on display, think again. The Good Stuff slowly strums to life with a take on Melvern Taylor’s ballad “Sad and Blue,” but then jumps into Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and Willie Nelson’s “Are You Sure.” (As you can imagine, Mulvey’s deep, sonorous voice proves a perfect fit for the Cohen song.) In short order, he’s slamming through Chris Smither’s skipping “Time to Spend,” spinning a graceful version of Bill Frisell’s lovely “Egg Radio” and taking on Tom Waits’ creeping “Green Grass.” Oh, and then he whips out Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.”
This record just goes everywhere, and shows the depth of influences Mulvey brings to his work. That all of these covers work to one degree or another is remarkable. Mulvey pulls off a back porch ramble through Jolie Holland’s “Old Fashioned Morphine,” brings that low voice to bear on Schwang’s “Sugar” (which he previously covered on 5:30 a.m.) and strikes just the right tone with Joe Henry’s complex “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” And then he chooses Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear” to finish things out, like a breeze gently closing a door.
But wait, there’s more. The Crumbling Beauties had such a good time making The Good Stuff that they stuck around for another half-dozen tunes, which Mulvey has released separately as an EP called Chaser. While it begins with Randy Newman’s acerbic “It’s Lonely At the Top,” the rest of Chaser hews closer to old-time jazz tunes: “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” It’s a less invigorating listen, but still a fun one, and it makes for a perfect… well, chaser.
Peter Mulvey’s carved out a singular career, essentially by doing whatever he wants, and doing it very well. He’s been under the radar for years – this is his 12th album – and I don’t expect The Good Stuff to change that. But like everything he’s done, it’s well worth hearing. It’s a fun wander through Mulvey’s musical mind, laying bare the full scope of his inspiration. It’s a nice palette cleanser for whatever he whips up next, which will no doubt also be well worth hearing. Check out Mulvey here.
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By my count, this is my 600th Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column. I know, I don’t look a day over 400. Thanks to everyone who has followed along this far. On to 601 next week, with the return of the WTF Awards. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.