April 12, 2012

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Odd Sincerity

Willis Earl Beal

“Acousmatic Sorcery”

(XL Recordings)

Loneliness drove Willis Earl Beal—compulsive artist and worker of menial jobs—to hang up carefully drawn flyers in Albuquerque, N.M., a few years ago, presenting himself as an eligible bachelor. One such flyer made the cover of Found Magazine, featuring a self-portrait of him in a suit with a bow tie and matching handkerchief, with statements like “I like oatmeal” and a request for bachelorettes to “Call me right now … if you are a nice, pretty girl.” Regarding this, Beal told Chicago Reader, “People really understood it, because there was humor and there was sincerity.”

That quote is the key to grasping Beal’s music, which is often considered to be in the category of outsider music, where there can be a detachment between how the listener gets enjoyment from the music and the creator’s intentions. Beal, who is also driven to get his art out, is perhaps not as naive as he might initially appear; he’s been on the national-TV talent show “The X Factor,” and recently, XL Recordings has re-issued Beal’s album “Acousmatic Sorcery,” previously released by Found Magazine as a 17-track limited edition package, as an abridged 11-track wide release.

Beal is a self-taught musician, which is apparent on these low-fidelity home recordings, which use very simple arrangements featuring tarnished-halo guitar plinks, messy beats and occasional cheap keyboard notes. The album wanders from the spiritual pondering of “Cosmic Queries,” which includes lines such as, “Tasers in the field of dreams / Shock those who wander, it seems” to the gentle, nearly monotonic “Evening’s Kiss” and the distorted-beat quasi-hip-hop of “Ghost Robot.” However, the most memorable tracks are the ones with ardent emotions and gospel and soul impressions, such as “Take Me Away,” with outbursts like “Right now!” and “If you believe!” On “Away My Silent Lover,” Beal even seems to be on the verge of crying.

This is hardly some underground masterpiece, but Beal does have an affecting vocal delivery; just about every discussion of Beal’s music involves his tangled backstory, so it’s up to the listener to decide if she’s listening to the music or the musician.

General Strike

"Danger in Paradise"


The British group The Flying Lizards is best known for its eccentric cover of the Barrett Strong track “Money (That’s What I Want),” warping common pop sensibilities with an embrace of sound experimentation and gleeful madness.  Around the same time, the lesser-known group General Strike, comprised of several members of The Flying Lizards, had a similarly playful, subversive approach, but with a key difference:  instead of bending pop music, General Strike presented a unique take on Jamaican dub.

Recorded in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, General Strike’s album Danger in Paradise was originally released in 1984, and the label Staubgold has put it back in print in a vinyl edition and as digital downloads.  General Strike’s core duo is comprised of multi-instrumentalists Steve Beresford and David Toop, and they’re joined by Flying Lizards brainchild David Cunningham, who lends to the semi-musique concrete feel of the album with his tape manipulations.

Danger in Paradise largely does not use the reverb-drenched, echo-laden style of dub pioneers King Tubby or Lee Perry, but it demonstrates the ability to suggest a heavy groove with minimal elements, often presented with clarity.  The bass guitar lines bear the most dub influence, with the right sauntering pace and infectious patterns, and the track “Parts of My Body,” with spoken word vocals, sounds the most like a typical dub song, with constant hi-hat tapping.

Going from song to song, the listener rarely knows what to expect, from the album’s opener “My Other Body” with an unusual, glitchy rhythm and vocals from Dawn Roberts, to “Interplanetary Music,” the album’s most crowded song, with violin flourishes treated with a tight delay effect, a singsongy repetition of the title, and veteran improviser Lol Coxhill on sax.  Equally strange is “Guided Missiles,” a bizarre take on waltz-time, ‘50s dancehall ballads with disquieting background noises and lines sung in falsetto, discussing such things as “guided missiles aimed at my heart.”  Toop and Beresford are clearly in love with sounds, particularly on tracks like “Sea Hunt” with water sound effects accompanying the melodica, sleigh bells, and tremolo guitar.  Danger in Paradise is an overlooked and impressively inventive album, and no dub album comes to mind that sounds much like it–but perhaps more albums should.


April 12, 2012

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