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Local artists fill in the blank canvas of Beck’s ‘Song Reader’

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Updated: February 9, 2013 6:26AM

In pop music, when hard-pressed to do something new, do something really old. This maxim plays out in the latest batch of songs from Beck, an album the “Loser” star did not record, but one you now can hear — if you play it yourself.

“Beck Hansen’s Song Reader” is a fancy folio containing 20 pieces of sheet music, plus nearly a hundred pages of art (from Marcel Dzama, Leanne Shapton, Jessica Hische and more), published in mid-December by McSweeney’s.

In some introductory liner notes, writer Jody Rosen describes the project as “an experiment in ventriloquism.” Beck wrote the words and music; now you have to give them voice and sound.

Many musicians, professionals and amateurs, are doing just that. The website for the project already overflows with videos of wildly varying performances of the songs. Dig Amy Regan’s sultry reading of “Do We? We Do,” John Alexander’s Jackson Browne-y take on “Ye Midnight Stars” or the lighter-than-air “Old Shanghai” by Contramano.

Typical of Beck, this “album” — songs he’s been tinkering with since 2004 — is an eclectic bunch. Last Thursday night in midtown Chicago, a similarly eclectic bunch gathered to play the set in its entirety.

Funky pop trio Mos Scocious hugged a wall at the Tonic Room, 2447 N. Halsted, amended by keyboardist Ben Joseph and two horn players (Doug Daniels on sax, Jerry Mohlman on trumpet), and acted as the backing band with a rotating cast of singers tackling the material — most of them darting eyes toward the oddity in the room: a music stand.

The Mos Scocious guys frequent the Tonic Room and aren’t necessarily strangers to printed charts. Guitarist-singer Bradley Butterworth, bassist Josh Rosen, drummer Rob Dicke met in Columbia College’s Jazz Performance classes, and Dicke continues studying in DePaul’s jazz program.

“The notes and ideas [in Song Reader] are very basic,” Butterworth said. “It’s like he gives you half a blank canvas, so the songs can really become your own. We’ve certainly done a lot to these songs that isn’t on the page.”

Michelle Hallman, for instance, opened “Rough on Rats” in tender a cappella before kicking the song into roadhouse overdrive and smacking it with her bluesy belt. She later roared through “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard” — and rapped one verse.

“It’s not in the music that way,” Hallman told me Thursday night. “It’s just my homage to Beck.”

In the sheet music itself, the notations for “Mutilation Rag” describe the piano instrumental as “a struggle between the right and left hand.” Joseph braved it and nailed it — while keeping the staggering “Piano Has Been Drinking” melody upright before expertly mashing the keys and declaring victory.

Singer Maggie Kubley of the Embraceables (featured in the Sun-Times-shot video) ignited the evening with a slow burn into “Last Night You Were a Dream,” bringing palpable dynamics to the song’s morning-after disillusionment. Kubley was slumming here, opening and closing the set with impressive pipes and the kind of direct emotion you don’t expect when popping into a college-’hood dive.

Three-part harmonies filled the folksy “The Wolf Is on the Hill,” led by singer John Cicora, who then turned “Do We? We Do” into a stomping voodoo groove, complete with a jowl-shaking Screamin’ Jay Hawkins impression.

“It’s like going back to the days when you had to buy sheet music in order to hear music,” Butterworth said. “You had to be involved, take the initiative. You had to do this” — and here he gestured at the bar, with more than 60 people. “You had to get people together.”

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