Before cylinders or 78s, let alone mp3s, pop songs circulated as pamphlets, with notation, tablatures and lyrics that let people rock the hot new jams – provided they could play them. The latest in a run of high-concept projects (see Rework_Philip Glass, the music for the videogame Sound Shapes, the online Record Club covers project) Beck's latest LP is a handsomely-designed portfolio of 20 new tunes printed on high-grade paper stock. What's it sound like? Well, it depends on how you play it.
Notated for piano with guitar tablatures (excepting five songs tabbed for ukelele) the music fits the format: folksy numbers without overly complex chord changes or rhythm shifts, often designed with a pre-rock swing in mind. But directives can be abstract, by intent: On "Saint Dude," a slacker ode nodding to The Big Lebowski, the indicated tempo is "abiding." Old-school conventions get mirrored or flipped: in "America, Here's My Boy," the going-off-to-war song becomes something darker and less jingoistic. But aside from some formal yucks – the piano instrumental "Mutilation Rag" offers instructions like "the Right Hand grows angry" – and trademark flashes of absurdist wit, the songs here largely play it straight, giving maximum interpretive room for a web-nation of DIY musicians. Since appearing as a free .pdf "single" download, the wistful ukelele ballad "Old Shanghai" has turned up in YouTube and SoundCloud postings at songreader.net as sultry bedroom crooning (you go, Ali Rapetti), campy synth-pop, and rag-tag chamber-folk. Some versions are very good – Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields even knocked off his own croony version, accompanying himself on toy piano, for a New York public radio station. Others not so much. But in every one, the song sounds like a century-old standard. Maybe someday it will be.