Karl Blau: Clothes Your I’s

[13 March 2003]

By Robert Horning

Originally released in 2001, Clothes Your I’s sees somewhat wider distribution with this K Records re-issue. It’s only fitting K should re-release Blau’s work, as Blau, who hails from Anacortes, Washington, has been traveling in the K Records orbit for some time now, playing with Bret Lunsford (ex-Beat Happening) in the band D+ and occasionally collaborating with the Microphones and Little Wings. Like those groups, Blau makes loosely arranged folk music on a variety of eclectic, frequently acoustic instruments.

The album’s shambling arrangements and primitive percussion seem at first an attempt to convey casual spontaneity, but the obvious multi-tracking through which the songs are built belies that impression. Instead, Blau achieves an organic feel not through directness, but through sheer accretion of disparate elements, as in “Down in You Go”, where Blau drops a melodica line, some delicate, mumbled vocals and a washed out bongo track on top of some tentative bossa nova guitar playing to create a love song that is surprisingly affecting in its junk-shop richness. Rather than the accidental effect of a spontaneous lo-fi recording, the disintegrated feel of Clothes Your I’s is certainly a deliberate strategy, carefully orchestrated through abrupt endings, punctuating silences, disruptive drum rhythms, and intrusive instrumental flourishes. Saxes, banjos, fuzz-out guitars, kazoos, maracas all pop in haphazardly to ruffle whatever texture had developed. Amazingly, this kitchen-sink strategy doesn’t leave the songs sounding cluttered. Because they never blend together, each distinct sound feels buffered by space in the mix, leaving the songs with an inviting openness—a welcome change from the claustrophobic, densely compressed sound of most contemporary rock records, where subtle dynamics have essentially been flattened out of existence.

While Blau shares a clear affinity with his K records compatriots, he seems also a kindred spirit of James McNew, whose albums as Dump use some of the same sonic strategies. “Pendulum”, the first track on Clothes Your I’s recalls the finest moments on Dump’s A Plea for Tenderness, slowly building to an emotional crescendo by repeating a simple and satisfying chord progression overlaid with lovely melodies picked out on the kind of synthesizer you get at Radio Shack. Both Blau and McNew have similar voices, capable of comfortably exploring the higher registers of their range without ever sounding harsh or operatic. The strain to reach the notes only sweetens them.

Blau also clearly owes a debt to XTC’s Andy Partridge, whose jaunty vocal rhythms he appropriates on songs like “Computer” and “100,022”. Like Partridge, Blau lays the accents in unusual places, alternately hurrying and halting through wistful lyrics, which conjure a pervasive sense of loss without really specifying anything. Unlike Partridge, Blau fortunately never ventures into the whimsical territory XTC often entered post-English Settlement. On Blau’s record, you won’t find labored odes to country life or trite polemics along the lines of “Dear God”. Blau does not deploy eccentricity as a self-conscious style the way Partridge frequently would, trying to manufacture charm out of oddity. You never get the sense Blau is being odd on purpose—if listeners find him odd, it’s probably because of their own expectations.

Blau’s lyrics are largely incomprehensible, audible only in disconnected fragments. But the difficulty in understanding the words is actually one of the strengths of Clothes Your I’s. Blau’s lyrics are perfect in that they only make sense when sung—they don’t invite close scrutiny as words, but retain their rich, expressive possibilities through his evocative, unaffected singing. In general, lyrics tend to lose their potency when they are bound to some literal meaning, circumscribing whatever personal experience the listener might want to connect with the music. Most listeners are not listening to music to better understand where the songwriter is coming from, but instead to have some means to give expression to their own inchoate feelings. The indeterminacy of Blau’s words matches the open feel of the music, offering the listener lots of ways in. Once inside, you’ll likely find it cozy enough to stay.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/blaukarl-clothes/