[21 September 2008]
Washington state musician Karl Blau’s got something like 17 full-lengths under his belt in the ten or eleven years he’s been recording for K records and Knw-Yr-Own. That doesn’t even count the 15 CD-Rs of songs and field recordings he’s done as part of his monthly mailing series, Kelp! Lunacy, the D+ albums he’s done with Phil Elverum and Bret Lunsford, the Your Heart Breaks albums (including one released this year), and his guitar/bass playing for Laura Veirs. While it’s almost impossible for any but the most dedicated of fans to interact completely with this massive output, Blau does makes it easy to approach his music casually when you feel like it—his songs have the familiarity of well-recognized folk forms and ‘50s-pop chord progressions. Nature’s Got Away is his latest effort for K Records, and though it doesn’t have the same impact as some of his more exploratory work of the past, it has plenty of that humble Karl Blau charm.
Between all his recording, Blau keeps up a near-constant stream of shows, mostly to his preferred all ages audience. The instructions on having him perform for you on his MySpace page paint a pretty telling picture of the mundane concerns of the small-show musician—gas prices, passing the hat. In his music, Blau manifests a similarly straightforward invitation. You get as much out as you put in. Moving on from the washed-out folk of 2006’s Beneath Waves, Nature’s Got Away is full of these rumbling appropriations of old-style folk and pop. The 1-4-5-1 chord progression gets a heavy workout; guitar arpeggios and vocals running up and down major thirds likewise form the familiar language of Blau’s latest record. What makes this different from a simple homage, though, is Blau’s wandering and seemingly endless curiosity. His guitar lines, recorded with a low-fi covering of fuzz, wander off in the middle of songs into mini-jams. His vocals are as likely to throw in an odd, out-of-key note to end a phrase as to complete the expected melodic arc.
But it’s a bit academic to bring music theory to play on Blau’s otherwise sweet music. In a sunnier mood, the singer finds a grace he’s not concentrated on with such force previously. “Mockingbird Diet”, the album’s standout, makes the animal imagery of traditional folk its own—not, as he says, just by “reciting their lines”, but in the song’s sweet guitar sawing and its twisting melody. The piano-fog of “Stream of Ganders” and mantra-like “That’s the Breaks” likewise show a musician at peace with his medium and his surroundings. As he swoons down over tinkling xylophone into the repetition on “That’s the Breaks” he almost sounds like a thin, Northwestern Frank Sinatra for a second.
As you might expect in the midst of all this open-eyed experimentation, there are occasions when the musician’s choices are more interesting than particularly compelling. Shorter pieces like “Ghostly Appearance”, while engaging with its slapped bass sound, are more esoteric than particularly gripping. Blau’s excursions to the edges of vocal technique likewise don’t always hit the mark. The speak-sing mysticism of “Of Your Feet, of Your Place” recalls the Impossible Shapes, though Blau’s obviously much more organic, more rough. And on “Carry and Rob”, his Bob Dylan-aping vocal affect comes across in an odd, squeaky caw, detracting from the otherwise compelling music.
Blau’s songs do have the quality of sketches, sometimes, but it’s part of the charm. He’s previously avowed influence from (among a wide variety of musicians) Tori Kudo of Maher Shalal Hash Baz, and you wonder if the Japanese artist’s aesthetic of improvised and random beauty informs the way Blau makes his subtle music. It’s not in the large statement, but the small, on-the-front-porch wisdom that Blau’s musicianship and, yes, wisdom shine through. That’s enough for his fans, and it should be enough for us too.