There’s nothing ‘cool’ about Karl Blau. His deliberately simplistic, fiercely DIY styling recalls the original intentions of independent pop music: his on-disc persona is inward-looking but quietly engaging, like a talented but slightly alienating kid; his music is pleasant, but if you could pass over it easily in a snap judgment – intricately shambling organic-folk. That would be a mistake. Blau’s music can be jeweled, shining quietly to itself while we celebrate less complex/more gimmicky nouveau-folk heroes Devendra, Joanna, Sufjan. In contrast, Blau’s songs take their time to work themselves out, throwing splashes of instrumentation in and around recognizable folk melodies in a way that should seem more haphazard than it does. Which is to say, Blau’s musicianship and compositional skill are quietly stated but, if you give the music time, impossible to ignore: he’s a talented guy, this Karl Blau.
Prolific, too: an Anacortes, Washington native, Blau has a history playing flute, drums and saxophone in indie bands The Microphones, Little Wings, and D+. He plays bass in The Tortured Souls, Laura Veirs’ backup band. His solo debut, Clothes Yr I’s, was originally released in 2001 on the Knw-Yr-Own label, and re-released to a wider audience in 2003 on K. Since then, Blau has been putting out a monthly CD subscription service, Kelp! Monthly, which sends hand-packaged (by Blau) CDs containing original material, covers, collaborations, and random sounds to subscribers. Guests on the series are much the same as those found gathered on Beneath Waves, and have included Phil Elverum, Dave Matthies, Nate Asheley and Laura Veirs.
Where Clothes Yr I’s was characterized by organic, as-if-thrown together at the last minute woodfire sing-alongs, Beneath Waves is, as the title would suggest, firmly preoccupied with the aquatic: from the rocking shanty 3/4 of “Crashing Waves” to the prostrated praise of “Ode to Ocean” to the wet, rolling formlessness of “The Dark, Magical Sea”.
Beneath Waves certainly has a trajectory, too. The opening cut “Crashing Waves” sings, “do you remember the mountains? I was there just the other day”, with folk-country, dense-tracked feeling—heartfelt and full of life. Life reflected/celebrated all through the album’s first act (titled “Side One”), culminating on “Into the Nada”, perhaps the album’s best song with its horn refrain and Bright Eyes melody. The sentiment, though, slowly changes; abandonment and self-sacrifice take over slowly, through the “Ode to Ocean” and “Ode to Demons”, right into the quiet, confidently-stated dissonance of “The Dark, Magical Sea”. By the time the simple guitar line enters, building texture behind, you can’t help but imagine yourself immersed beneath the waves, looking up at a barely visible outline of a ship, happy to be drifting to the bottom. So, true: though pretty, these melodies hold the same dark contradictions as the ocean.
There are a few idiosyncracies on this album blatant enough, perhaps, to turn away the less adventurous listener. The “trickle, trickle” interjection on “Notion” is so unexpected it makes you jump, like a cell phone has gone off on record. It’s redeemed by a neat piece of Middle Eastern noodling on the middle of that song, building nicely to the finale; but disconcerting nonetheless, and communicates: Blau’s into experimentation, perhaps for experimentation’s sake. Similarly, the spoken-word introduction to “Shadow” and later vocal hiccups are interesting, but distract from the song’s simple, peaceful beauty.
However, as a whole the album is very strong. Somewhere in the middle of “Ode to Demons”, you realize Blau’s voice is beautiful, all heartfelt outcry and smooth resonance; and you want to go right back to the beginning and hear his songs all over again. The music is packed so tight with meaning that each time you do, new wonders open up – yeah, kind of like the dark and magical sea.