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Karl Blau
Beneath Waves

It's important you know that Karl Blau lives on an island, an island just off the coast of Washington State — with regular ferry service, to be sure, but with all the selective isolation that implies. Because he lives on an island, this K Records mainstay, a collaborator with Microphones, Laura Veirs and others, does most of what he does himself, not in that tossed-off way that home recorders stealing a few minutes in urban bedrooms or suburban basements do, but slowly, with full consideration and development of every idea that comes to him. He joins the world when he wants to — through tours with like-minded artists and his KELP! Monthly series of home recordings — but he remains essentially outside it.

What immediately strikes you is that Beneath Waves is far richer and more nuanced than most lonely songwriters' output, with a density of instruments and ideas that speaks of fruitful isolation, broken sporadically and by choice with collaborative communication.

It is this balance of eccentricity and craft that makes Beneath Waves so compelling. You feel, in listening to the lightly ska-inflected "My Johnny," that you're in direct contact with an individual vision, one that's almost uncontaminated with fashions or trends. There's a person here, someone who's willing to back a track with nearly six minutes of the same upbeat-accenting piano notes and to slip a slinky saxophone solo into the cracks of its indie-personal lyrics. Nearly every cut brings unexpected epiphanies — the quiet break midway through "Crashing Wave" with its high crooning vocals, the fat Kingstown bassline in "Into the Nada," the flute solo that leavens rock-urgent "Dragon Song" — that could never pass a committee process. Yet alongside this individuality, there's a clarity, a structure, an attention to details here that is quite different from most homemade recordings.

Although his lyrics are oblique, the sea seems to represent a kind of touchstone for Blau, a place he returns to again and again, just as he describes in the album's gospel-stately opener, "Crashing Waves." This song — and others like "Notion," "Ode to Ocean" and "Dark, Magical Sea" — treat the water that surrounds him not so much as a metaphor but as a central fact of his existence, unruly, unfathomable, yet in its way reassuring. "Ode to Ocean," one of the disc's most translucently lovely cuts, explores this going/returning dynamic with diaphanous textures of picked guitars over metronomic rim shots. "There's a part of me that wants to be a part of you," Blau sings early on, and then later, "There's a part of me that wants to be apart from you." It's ambiguous — is he talking to a women or the water or both? — but that indeterminance opens the song up from the inside.

It's hard to pick favorites here, because the songs are all different and all successful on their own terms. Still, it is hard to resist the tropical lilt of "Into the Nada," one of two reggae-influenced cuts on the disc. The three-note bassline is minimally perfect — just the couple of notes needed to suggest reggae — and it plays tag with syncopated drums and happy ska-saxes. The whole song is about the obliterating joy of music, embodying and describing the euphoria "as you vocalize, vocalize into the nada."

"Dragon Song" and "Notion" are equally good, but recognizably indie rock, built on slashing guitar lines and tumultuous percussion. "Notion" is particularly interesting because its tempo stretches and snaps like taffy, catching your attention as it upsets your expectations. There's a dreamy, distorted guitar break that cuts the thing in half, and, again one of those oddly perfect touches, a chorus of surreal, chirruping voices that play call-and-response with Blau's earnest song.

Some listeners might find the spoken-word intro at the beginning of "Shadow" a little embarrassing, and others may not buy into the occasional reggae-lo-fi aesthetic, but it's hard to deny that there's a fascinating personal vision in play here. Rarely is eccentricity expressed this clearly, or with so much care and skill.

by Jennifer Kelly

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