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Play It Yourself

We did what the guy wanted. Beck, I mean. Beck Hansen. Singer, producer, experimentalist, pop devil. Beck has a new album, titled Song Reader. It's unlike any other.

Beck . (credit Gina Ribisi):
Beck . (credit Gina Ribisi):Read more

We did what the guy wanted.

Beck, I mean. Beck Hansen. Singer, producer, experimentalist, pop devil.

Beck has a new album, titled Song Reader. It's unlike any other.

There is no CD. No download. No audio. As of this writing, you cannot hear Beck doing an authoritative, this-is-the-song performance.

What is there? All the songs are offered - in sheet music. Want to hear them? (They're pretty fun.) Go get your guitar, piano, or ukulele, and play them.

It's not so much an audio release as a publishing event. Beck partners up with the far-sighted publisher McSweeney's to produce an elegant box containing 20 sets of sheet music, designed by a dozen artists commissioned by McSweeney's, in the mode of a bygone age, when performance of printed music was the way most people heard popular songs. Beck worked with composer Bettie Ross and others to transcribe the tunes and produce the sheets.

Very retro. Or very pro. Because if you don't read music or play, you have an Internet option.

You can go online and find a growing number of artists and groups who have recorded tracks from Song Reader.

The album's website ( invites you to post your own version of a great tune from Song Reader titled "Old Shanghai," Beck's noir take on old-timey orientalism. Come-hither: "Only you can bring Beck Hansen's Song Reader to life. Login to download 'Old Shanghai' and share your interpretation."

Scroll down for a bunch of bands, soloists, and ensembles performing the tune.

In Philadelphia, a group of local musicians - including Sean Hoots, Andrew Lipke, the Levee Drivers, Kuf Knotz, Ben Smith, and others - will work their way through the Song Reader at World Cafe Live on Jan. 8. (Tickets: $12. Information:, 215-222-1400.)

Outside the website, "Old Shanghai" has spread Web-wide. A delightfully hipster bunch from the New Yorker does it, apparently in someone's cozy New York apartment. The Latin alt-pop trio Contramano does a version, as does ukulele artist Al Wood. So does the Portland Cello Project, featuring Lizzy Ellison. All different, all fascinating.

Beck was hoping this would happen. DIY players do it themselves, producing all sorts of arrangements and approaches. No one approach will be the one. Not even, should he choose to do it, Beck's. Proliferation. Blam! Down come the walls between producers (recording companies and artists) and consumers (you, me, and the guy with the uke).

It's like the old days, say, 1850 to 1920, when hit tunes were million-sellers via sheet music. Up to 1920, recordings were seen as ways to promote the printed music, not the reverse. Beck writes, astonished, that "Sweet Leilani" by Bing Crosby sold 54 million copies of sheet music in 1937, a lot more than the record. People wanted the experience of playing it themselves.

Back then, everybody with a parlor piano could pound out a homemade version of "The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady" (1917) or "Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?" (1898). They might never hear the Edison cylinder or Berliner disc. But if they or a pal could play, or if there was a player piano in town, they could hear the tune.

In an essay in Song Reader, journalist Jody Rosen writes: "Beck took inspiration from the look of song sheets as much as from their musical contents." True. In an era of shrunken album art, art values alone make Song Reader worth playing.

Beck, ever the self-undermining genre-juggler, has a rollicking good time, telling jokes all over the place. A tune titled "Saint Dude" has the musical direction "Abiding," a cock of the head to all those Big Lebowski fans out there. On the back of "Just Noise," an article tells us (with retro-infused wit), "The Secret to Music is Hygiene." On the reverse of the tune "Old Shanghai," he gives the bonus tune "There's a Sarcophagus in Egypt With Your Name on It." He doesn't avoid nostalgic gestures - he just plays with them.

And that's where the bossa nova band I'm in, Combo Bossa Nova, of Lawrenceville, N.J., comes in. We've made our own version of the tune "Just Noise" off Song Reader, hereby offered for your listening pleasure, at

Here's how we worked it up. I selected a tune we could, as we say in the band, "bossa novize." I e-mailed the sheet music, plus videos of me strumming the tune on guitar, to my five bandmates. Each worked on it and brought ideas.

Our guitarist, Rich Tarpinian, and his wife and bassist, Darla Tarpinian, slowed it to bossa tempo. Rich also created a tasteful guitar intro. Darla worked with our drummer, Cliff Hochberg, to get a true bossa nova beat; Cliff was especially exacting. Master mandolinist Bo Child created a sweet call-and-response part. Lovely vocalist Heather Robbins worked with the melody's twists and turns. I got roped into singing harmony and playing a flute solo.

We had no "original" to listen to. DIY. We had a ball working up and recording "Just Noise." I could've sung better.

It ain't the only way this tune could be played. As written, it's a deceptively peppy thing, on the surface reminiscent of the Sunshine Pop of the 1960s (say, "Punky's Dilemma" by Simon and Garfunkel or "Happiness" by the Anita Kerr Singers) but, as often with Beck, ironically twisted. Pianist John Lewis of Brit music mag Uncut plays the tune faithfully, if you'd like to compare versions.

Heather has a friend who brings up an objection to Song Reader: If you don't read music, you might feel left out. True, you can go online and see all these random versions, but what if it's Beck you want? What if you really want a single, authoritative, this-is-the-tune version? Isn't it a cop-out, a denial to fans?

All good questions. I wanted to ask Beck, but he wasn't available. He does write in Song Reader about how he worked up the album with McSweeney's chief Dave Eggers. He writes that he was after more than "just an exercise in nostalgia." Easy-access, infinitely replicable digital has changed the nature of songs. "How do you ask people to take the time to learn to play them?" he asks.

How indeed? A lot of people already are complaining. He celebrates sheet music "as a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it."

Now that Combo Bossa Nova has had its way, I can say "Just Noise" is a smart, worthwhile confection that stays lodged in your head, working little surprises. Playing a tune yourself calls you to attend, to spend time, to guide yourself through. At the far end, you really know it.

As I said, we did what the guy wanted.

To see John Timpane and Combo Bossa Nova perform "Just Noise," go to