A runaway episode from LaVere’s own life indirectly accounts for both the original compositions (eight) and the covers (four: Townes Van Zandt, Ned Miller, Mike McCarthy, John Lennon). But their through line is ultimately less arresting than their catchiness. “Self Made Orphan”’s jaunty syncopation, for instance, and the way that LaVere’s early-morning voice rides it would be their own rewards even without the sneaky universality of confessions such as “I daydream every song’s about me, / I daydream every song’s about you too—especially the sad ones.”
This CCM veteran’s blue-eyed-soul voice and Hohner Hall of Fame harmonica have never sounded better than they do on the three blues that kick off this authoritative reclamation of his turf. Two vintage (“Honey Hush,” “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”) and one by ZZ Top (“Jesus Just Left Chicago”), they’re lean and mean. Unfortunately, they’re offset by “Christianized” versions of songs by Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, and whoever wrote “The House of the Rising Sun,” versions that in changing parables into sermons render them flaccid.
“Fault Lines” is the hookiest Petty in decades because it borrows its bass line from “Walk Like an Egyptian.” “Red River” evokes old times because it stars the heroine of “Free Fallin’” (now burdened with motherhood and extra good-luck charms). As for Petty, he’s a “Full Grown Boy” and a “Forgotten Man” who “ain’t on the Left,” “ain’t on the Right,” and “ain’t even sure [he’s] got a dog in this fight.” In short, he speaks for plenty of ordinary folks—probably because he’s one of them.
Don’t begrudge this British 23-year-old his success. It’s not his fault that lots of people too young to remember Dan Hill find the whole love-me-I’m-really-sensitive routine irresistible. The irresistibility of Sheeran’s love-me-I’m-verbally-inept routine, however, is harder to explain. “Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks?” “Put your open lips on mine,” “I wanna fall in love and put your faith in my stomach”—the only thing that gives him more trouble than anatomical references is rapping.
Warby Parker Presents Song Reader: Twenty Songs by Beck (Capitol) is the latest permutation of the anachronistic sheet-music “album” that Beck Hansen debuted in late 2012. One might think, with Beck himself participating on one track (“Heaven’s Ladder”—hey, didn’t he say that he’d never record any of this material?), that these renditions will acquire “definitive” status and therefore nip in the bud the perpetual interpretation that Beck intended. But if one thinks that, he would be wrong.
With performances by acts as different from each other as fun., Marc Ribot, Norah Jones, Jack White, and Jack Black, the quality varies greatly. What’s really not definitive about Warby Parker Presents, though, is that most of the material has already been done better, if not by one or more contributors to songreader.net then by the Portland Cello Project, whose 2012 Portland Cello Project Play Beck Hansen’s Song Reader is still the best way to make this delightful music’s acquaintance.