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.
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.