Crate-Digging: Karl Blau – Beneath Waves

The original intention of this column was to listen to all the records in my collection in alphabetical order by album title. I’ve abandoned that for the most part. But I’ll come back to it periodically.

(K Records, 2006)

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve listened to this record a couple times and could never remember what it sounded like afterward. It just disappeared from my memory. That’s kind of sad, because it’s not not memorable – I have “Notion” flitting through my brain right now (and I can’t get it out, to be honest). So right there you have exhibit A of Beneath Waves existing within my brain without having to rely on a delivery device to remind me how it sounds. In fact, it’s all changed – I totally dig this Karl Blau release, and I don’t care who knows it! In fact, I wasn’t even finished listening to it yet before I had to hop on here and tell you how good this album is. So I have to go for a bit to finish it up, but I’ll be back. Two and a half more songs to go.

[A few minutes later…]

There we go. I’m very pleased. And I can also see why I may have zoned out during the first couple tries – Blau’s kind of a woodsy kind of indie folky dude, a Pac-NW lifer from Anacortes, Washington, also home of The Microphones’/Mount Eerie’s Phil Elv(e)rum, with whom he’s collaborated, both on Elv(e)rum’s albums as well as in the band D+, which also included Beat Happening’s Bret Lunsford. So a little earthy preciousness is to be expected, but he’s no commune prima donna – and what’s this? Case in point – Blau currently plays bass in Dylan Carlson’s drone-metal trailblazers Earth. Talk about a completely unrelated subgenre… at least we know the man is versatile. That was my “holy crap!” moment of the day.

But back to the zoning – Beneath Waves follows what you’d expect from a bearded lumberjack indie boy: meditations on the ocean throughout, nature, consciousness, friendship. But don’t let it turn you off as as some sort of hippie nonsense – Blau really shines here. Unfortunately, it’s the only one of his records I’ve listened to, so I can’t verify, but apparently his palette is even broader on previous releases. Doesn’t matter – what’s going on here really works as he marries the lo-fi approach of Sebadoh with an instrumental menagerie to rival Olivia Tremor Control’s – he clearly has the key to the latter’s instrument closet. (And if this were high school, he’d smear castor oil on all the tuba mouthpieces.) Woodwinds peek out during the extended instrumental bridge of opener “Crashing Waves,” its 7 minutes drifting peacefully along a path blazed by dorm-room indie and ending on the seashore. Ballsy move, opening the album with such a long meditation – but I don’t think the K Records crowd is really going to care much about that. But it’s the follow-up, “My Johnny,” that’ll really throw you off the scent of the album, as it blends a New Orleans jazz band sound into the indie framework for a light yet flavorful romp. Does it sound like I’m describing a veggie wrap? Well, it’s unintentional – although a good one is filled with all kinds of colorful variety, and that’s exactly what “My Johnny”’s filled with, so take that for what it’s worth.

I don’t think I could do a rural Washington review without mentioning Kurt Cobain’s influence, obviously the most visible of the geographic scene, but also a surprisingly versatile musician and songwriter once you get past the grunge thing. Blau channels Cobain in both composition and style in a few places, in particular the overdriven acoustic guitar that recalls Nirvana’s not-quite-Unplugged performance for MTV. It works really well, and switches things up a little bit here and there, in particular the pocket-sized “Dragon Song,” the train-shuffly “Hold on Joe,” and “Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana cover)” dead ringer “Notion.” He dials it back down to close the album, with the delightfully Yo La Tengo–esque meditative “Ode to Ocean” and the pastoral waltz “Ode to Demons” before stripping off his Lou Barlow slacks and donning a Nick Drake swimsuit (er, or something) for the beautiful “Shadows.” It’s certainly true that Karl Blau makes the most of his recording budget and K Records studio time (unless he’s recording at home, and he very well may be), layering his singular creations uniquely across the admittedly limited indie rock landscape. That he does so with such great success speaks to the skill with which he wields his tools.

I’m glad to have (re)discovered Karl Blau – I’m pleased I didn’t give up on him. It’s so refreshing to hear myself ask unorthodox questions as I’m spinning a record, and the fact that I did on this go-round is a certainty that Blau has done something right to hold your attention. So don’t be surprised if any of these questions cross your mind throughout Beneath Waves: “Have I heard a cooler flute breakdown than the one in ‘Dragon Song’?” “Is that awfully sloppy guitar in ‘Into the Nada’ intentional?” “How did he get through the entirety of ‘Notion’ without once rhyming the title and ‘ocean’?” “This dude plays in Earth?” It just means you’re listening to it the right way.

RIYL: Bill Callahan, Sebadoh, Olivia Tremor Control

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