The Portland Cello Project’s Beck Hansen’s Song Reader album has been the soundtrack to a lot of my 2013 so far; it started as something I bought/listened to as a reminder of their “Beck The Halls” Christmas concert from the end of last year (Where the above video was recorded; if you can imagine the view from the left of the audience, about midway back, that was me), but it’s unfolded into more of a delight than simply nostalgia the more I listen. Here’s another video from the December show, with the spectacular Jolie Holland providing amazing vocals (Seriously, these are vocals to die for), to give you an idea of what you missed.
Part of the appeal is hearing the music performed in such an un-Beck way; the PCP and guest vocalists give the music more of a jazzy feel, with some easy listening thrown in at times (“Just Noise” could be a Bacharach song), that manages to free the songs from what you’d expect of Beck, and makes his music into something… else, somehow. The humor is allowed to come through, in a way that his own performances tend to underplay for whatever reason. Check out “Last Night, You Were A Dream” and imagine it being performed by Beck; the joke would somehow feel flatter, somehow…?
There’s something very playful about Bob Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”; it sounds like a parody of the blues, in some way, with such a traditional backing and basic riff playing under Dylan’s usual whining (Although, this is from Blonde On Blonde, one of “the” classic Dylan albums, so maybe it sounded more fresh and exciting back then), and there’s a fun bounce to the whole thing. You can imagine everyone having a good time playing it, even as Dylan complains about an unfaithful lover who apparently was very into her headwear. This, however, wasn’t the way that I discovered the song.
No, I found it through a cover by Beck from a couple years back that has an entirely different vibe to it:
This is… bouncy, yes, but it’s a more glam rock stomp, and performed in such a way that recalls Beck’s music from the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack, so much so that I wonder if it was recorded at the same time; definitely, the fuzzy bass and cymbal-happy drums feel very similar to, say, “Garbage Truck” or whatever, and the beeps and blops at 1:27 are, I’m sure, lifted from the Katayanagi Twins battle from the movie:
I far prefer the Beck version; it’s a cover, yes, and it’s as much as unfaithful rip-off of other people’s music as the original, and yet… I don’t know. It sounds more fun, more exciting to listen to, and more into the joke behind the whole thing, if that makes sense. Like his Sex Bob-Omb tracks from Pilgrim, it’s a song that makes me wish I was twenty-years younger and able to play guitar.
I remember, very clearly, watching the opening scenes of the movie version of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World at San Diego Comic-Con in 2010, and being very nervous; was Michael Cera right for Scott? Didn’t everyone feel a little low energy and quiet? Didn’t this seem a little too… mannered for the all-out awesomeness that the comic seemed to offer up without fear? And then Sex Bob-Omb did their first number and everything was just fine.
There is no song in the world that makes me wish I had been in a band as a teenager, just making music and throwing ridiculous guitar shapes while doing so, kicking myself into the air Pete Townsend-style, than “We Are Sex Bob-Omb”; it’s loud and messy and exactly the kind of brash and fearless and unmissable that I wanted the movie to be, and that I wish I could’ve made when I was half my age, if that makes sense. There’s something about this song, with its stuttering bass and relentless drums that feels like a dare, or a promise: “This is what we’re doing, come with us or don’t.” It’s beautifully messy, scrappy stuff – The “Yeah Yeah”s that aren’t harmonies, almost but not quite, the scream at 1:06 that announces the closest thing the song has to a bridge as the cymbals stop and we get the vocalist (Mark Webber, I think, but it might also be Michael Cera or even Beck, who wrote/performed the basic track) essentially speaking in tongues breathlessly – that just feels like the result of energy that isn’t harnessed or focused, just excited by its own potential, and a love for music. Because of that, it feels like some lost garage anthem, which was likely the goal.
This song just sounds like happiness to me; an eager, excitable, happiness that’s entirely infectious and inexplicable. The promise of music, reduced to its basic appeal, perhaps. How can you really say better than that?
I always feel guilty about the fact that I first heard Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in a car commercial; there’s something about Drake in general, and “Pink Moon” in particular that that feels like heresy, as if just by that process of discovery, I’ve somehow cheapened the music and Drake’s tortured experience in life. This is what’ll happen to future mes, when Elliott Smith is used to advertise sneakers and they hear “Needle In The Hay” for the first time. There’s a lot to connect Drake and Smith, even beyond the tortured artist stereotype; a sensitivity and serenity to their music, a preference for hushed vocals and finger-picked acoustic guitars… Smith is, in many ways, the more openly self-loathing descendant of Drake’s, but there’s a warmth to Drake that Smith sometimes misses.
(A lot of that warmth, I think, comes from Drake’s voice, which is weirdly charming in its breathiness here, and the almost comforting nature of the song, which is simple and open and has the type of chord structure that makes it feel more relaxing than others, for some reason.)
Having said all of that, my favorite version of “Pink Moon” isn’t the original; it’s Beck’s cover from a few years back, which adds a melancholy – again, I’m tempted to say that’s a vocal thing as well – to the original, a sadness and resignation that gives the entire song a strangely more affecting mood.
Clearly, I just like the sad songs.