Karl Blau’s releases often have the air of hobby. Not in any amateurish way, but with that wonderful sense of freshness that an outsider can bring. It gives an artist freedom to be liberated from the burden of expectation—something Blau takes full advantage of. Don’t get me wrong, the guy deserves a much greater listenership than he gets, but that’s life. On his previous album Beneath Waves Blau created a haunted, water-logged world of surprising sweetness—under-appreciated, of course. But it has at least allowed Blau to give us Dance Positive. The concept is that each of these songs is intended as “dance music with intelligent lyrics”; and the lyrics Blau chooses come from his D+ bandmate Bret Lunsford.
A familiarity with D+ is not necessary to appreciate Dance Positive, but to call these songs dance music is a bit of a misnomer. Though there are a few grooves that undoubtedly fuel head movement, and though Karl Blau’s more comfortable with using drum machine here than on previous albums, the album’s never really overt about its objective, in that respect. Rather, he shows us how indie music’s low-fi heart and casual complexity can be tweaked to remind us somewhat more prominently of the beat, without sacrificing the importance of the words.
For those familiar with Blau, his eclectic and all-encompassing musical vocabulary would cause no raised eyebrow towards this concept; but compared to his recent solo work Dance Positive is a noticeable departure. You’d never expect “Put Me Back”‘s pulsing synth hook—but guess what, it’s perfect (and synth-pop!) under the Doctor Who sonics in the background and Blau’s vocordered voice. That’s more overt than most of the tracks; most of the rest of the disc shows as much an appreciation of the traditions of rock-n-roll as anything else. “The Business”, which may be a barb aimed in the direction of the music biz, is built off a classic rock chord progression, but it’s subverted by the raw, multi-layered vocals and walking-pace guitars.
Throughout, Dance Positive throws out this carefree air; it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this gives the album a large part of its charm. This goes hand in hand with the music’s amateurish quality—the raw-sounding voice, the scratchy recording. “Heatherwood” is wonky: the trumpets in the chorus can’t hold their notes in tune (on purpose). It’s a good expression of Blau’s uncertain interaction with the world. When he sings “I wonder if Heatherwood” it could just as easily be “if Heather would.” “Are You Done” is all tapping bongos and overlapping echoes, but comes over more waterlogged lament than jump-on-the-floor. Of course it’s not all successful. “Sky” requires patience, but the vocals fail to take hold. But it’s one of the only low points on an otherwise surprisingly consistent collection of songs.
On “Kill the Messenger”, the lyrics switch from first to second verse: “Not dumb enough to think that you invented it / I like your style a lot” to “I’m dumb enough to think that you invented it / You hate my style a lot”. The effect is sad, sure, but the consistency is in Blau’s appropriation of the outsider, or rejected, figure. As long as this outside perspective continues to give us such a variety of eclectic but always interesting music, we can’t complain. Rather, we should be celebrating louder: more people should be listening to Karl Blau.