Karl Blau

by Rob Horning

13 December 2005


It’s hard for any concert

event to be totally compelling on a Monday when it’s nearing midnight, but Karl Blau, a songwriter loosely associated with the scene around K records and Phil Elvrum (he also has an album-a-month subscription service called Kelp), managed to do it, despite the inherent obstacle of his own songs’ somnolent gentleness, putting on a riveting performance for nine or ten people in the basement of a place called The Cake Shop on the Lower East Side. He has a fine voice and is competent on guitar and bass, but what made his show so excellent was his expertise with this little digital looping box/pitch-shifter device that he had a separate microphone connected to. He would build up the songs organically, first looping a human-beatbox drum pattern, then layering some backing vocals and harmonizing with himself, sometimes laying down a bassline or a rhythm guitar figure or sometimes staying a cappella, and then breaking into the verses of his songs, which tend to celebrate natural phenomena like the ocean and the stars. It was fascinating to have the song’s construction be an integral part of the song itself, how the process and the product merged, a formal approach that seemed to especiallly suit his lyrical themes of natural harmony and eternal recurrances. His solos were not feats of dexterity on his guitars but were instead well strategized and orchestrated loop layers that built to impressive levels of complexity and intensity without ever seeming utterly random. He was as masterful with the whole one-man-band approach as anyone I’ve ever seen try it; it was very reminiscent of James McNew’s performances as Dump (which are, in my experience, more interesting than Yo La Tengo shows). And even when Blau did “an art piece” of loop samples of things like the buzz from the amp and improvised hummed melodies, it didn’t seem indulgent but genuinely exploratory—all while demonstrating his faultless instincts for what will sound interesting, and what sounds will work with each other melodically and rhythmically. And he seemed without pretension too, which usually appeals to me, even if it’s just an illusion.

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