[8 October 2009]
Karl Blau, based out of Washington state and a member of the Knw-Yr-Own collective of songwriters, is known as one of the more prolific folk and lo-fi artists currently on the scene. I first became aware of Blau—most famously a member of D+ with Bret Lunsford (Beat Happening) and Phil Elvrum (The Microphones, Mount Eerie)—in my early high school days, trying to find any artists in the quickly expanding Phil Elverum hype machine fueled by The Glow. During that early part of the decade Blau established a unique way of distributing his music, Kelp Monthly, a subscription service through which Blau and his friends deliver his latest recordings in individual, handmade packaging to all members. And he’s done business this way pretty much ever since, occasionally releasing a record with his old friends at K or some other independent. Last year’s critical breakthrough Nature’s Got Away, which earned Blau comparisons to Sebadoh and Grizzly Bear, was one such record and now Zebra follows in its footsteps.
The press leading up to Zebra has Blau pegging it as an African-influenced album which, along with the lo-fi leanings, could have listeners either up in arms over yet another noisy polyrhythm album or embracing another artist into the growing fold of eclectic folkies occupied most visibly by Vampire Weekend and the Dodos. But while there is certainly an African influence, I was pleased to find that only every so often is this influence presented as more than a subtle, supportive idea. For example, the drums during the guitar solo of “Welcome in NW”, or the way the bass is played throughout “Free the Bird” recall plenty of old R&B hits. The rhythm of “Nothing New” owes equal debt to Afrobeat and Motown, while “Crucial Contact” carries all the touchstones of a bouncy mid-70s seduction ballad. But above all that, Blau’s work here seems to more directly recall this decade’s era of Yo la Tengo. Blau takes their format of piano keys, simple jazzy drumming, bright guitar, and whitewashed vocals, and then reprograms that formula into a variety of different contexts.
The aforementioned “Crucial Contact” may have all the touchstones of some seductive soul, but it’s also as tensely arranged as Yo la Tengo’s more paranoid sounding music, running itself out on a very Kaplan-esque white noise guitar solo. “Nothing New” finds Blau very close to Michael Stipe territory, while “Tha’ Ole Moon Smile” contains a funky rhythm that owes more than a little to Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” and “Dark Sedan” goes for the gusto with a less excited take on of Montreal’s recent disco explorations. “Goodbye Little Song” like “Moon Smile” owes an obvious debt to something but I just can’t rack my brain for the answer. Any soul enthusiast should have no problem pointing it out, though. The constant aesthetic throughout these shifts is Blau’s laid back, naturalistic attitude. None of the songs feel overly dressed, or self-important, and so much of the pretense that seems attached to the modern lo-fi movement is missing on Zebra. Only at the very end, on the Bitter Tea-influenced “Gnos LeVohs” does any semblance of confusion or disappointment enter my mind, and even that moment is delivered relatively gracefully.
Instead of some kind of attempt at crossover from obscure artist to blogger pop sensation, fans of Blau are granted a relaxing, enjoyable album about a variety of small dilemmas - bugs and chemically treated plants, for one - while newcomers such as myself are given an inviting entry point into Blau’s catalog, provided folksy kind of music is in your lane. What sounds conceptually like a cash-in on a couple of trending styles is in execution a simple, solid release with a plan and the talent to see it through. I can’t really speak for the quality of Blau’s previous work, or how this measures to it, but Zebra is a heck of a record and one of the more easily enjoyable rock albums I’ve discovered this year. From the psychotic cover art on down, this is not an LP to be missed by fans of the K Records family, or those interested in an R&B Yo la Tengo with jazz rock finesse and lo-fi appeal.