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String sleaze

Portland Cello Project captures the hipster charm of Beck's Song Reader



Here's a fun fact: between the release of Beck's Midnight Vultures in 1999 and Modern Guilt in 2008, revenue from U.S. music sales and licensing dropped from $14.6 billion a year to about $7 billion. That was probably not Beck's fault. The invention of MP3 encoding and tandem growth of broadband internet made recorded music free for a lot of people, and therein lay the demise of the American music industry.

Whether that is a good thing depends on whom you ask. Those of us who came of age in the 1990s knew that the music industry was evil. They wanted to make your music and your tastes for you, and they wanted to do it wrong. If you cared about music, the only reliable way to avoid the corruptions of the industry was to Do It Yourself.

Ironically, the industry was once based entirely on Doing It Yourself. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Tin Pan Alley raked in millions by publishing sheet music. People played it in their homes, often on the cheap upright pianos that gave Tin Pan Alley its name. Then the phonograph came along and, as the mammal devoured the dinosaur, recorded music devoured the sheet music industry.

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  • Photo courtesy of Tarina Westlund

Then the computer devoured records, which brings us to where we are today. In this strange epoch, it is fitting that Beck—whose "Loser" touched off a major-label bidding war when it debuted on KCRW Santa Monica in 1993—has released his latest collection of songs not as a recording at all, but as a collection of sheet music called The Beck Hansen Song Reader.

Anyone can buy the Song Reader and play it, provided they know several skilled multi-instrumental musicians. One such group is the Portland Cello Project, which has released a recording of all 20 Song Reader tracks that is simultaneously the most modern and the most old-timey album I have heard all year.

As a project, it is contemporary in the extreme. Besides the obvious novelty of its form, it features several counterfamous notables of the Portland indie scene, lending it the atmosphere of a hipster salon. The Song Reader is published by McSweeney's, and the combination of that journal, Portland and cellos threatens to create a critical mass of critical darlings.

Yet Portland Cello Project Plays Beck Hansen's Song Reader remains admirably grounded. Part of that is the songs themselves, whose often old-fashioned structures reflect the sheet music era. Many of them also feature the sweeping downbeat chord changes of Beck disco-sleaze, however, and that device turns out to be uniquely suited to an ensemble of cellos. With the addition of contemporary rock bass and drumming, PCP manages to shift between the hoary and the modern in a way that makes both kinds of song sound completely natural.

Unavoidably, some of it descends into kitsch. "We All Wear Cloaks" is the kind of jug-blowing groaner that one might fear encountering in a folder of sheet music written by a 42-year-old Scientologist. For the most part, though, PCP plays it straight, and the songs live up to their scrupulous attention.

Among the 20 tracks are deft soul ballads that become haunting in their understated performance, taking on the loud-played-quiet urgency of early Belle and Sebastian. Others have the familiar glitz of Beck's middle career, and the ensemble renders them with a loose confidence that evokes Curtis Mayfield. PCP makes The Beck Hansen Song Reader a trove of small gestures done right, and it marks a satisfying beginning for a project that was designed to be repeated.

The Portland Cello Project plays the Missoula Winery Mon., Jan 28, at 8 PM with openers the Alialujah Choir. Sold out.


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