Acousmatic Sorcery – Willis Earl Beal (First Impressions)
I finally managed to track a copy of this elusive album down in the irregularly opening record stores of Australia and while I can’t say that the result left me entirely satisfied with the journey that’s not out of disappointment, but sheer surprise. Beal has been likened to the last indie breakout hit Lana del Ray but to my ears they actually couldn’t be more different, though it is true that they are both distinctive voices in today’s same sounding scene. My problem with both, if you want to call it that, is just how distinctive their voices sound compared to themselves, on a track to track basis.
Del Ray is famously known now as a “Gangsta Nancy Sinatra” combining as she does commune crooning and ghetto rap,altering the ratios dramatically for each song. Earl Beal on the other hand has a much less marketable and coherent combination of sounds: he starts out with a Tom Waits bluster, all bellows and obnoxious noise ( the first two tracks on the album almost dare you to stop listening) then mellows faster than even a potent shot of Prozac would allow, strumming simple melodies on a guitar and singing softer than a shy mouse; I would say that he reminded me of Jose Gonzalez but I would be lying if I implied that a single soul still remembered his name before now ( what did happen to that guy?). So loud and quiet, a queer combination but not unheard of.
The real shock comes next though, when you start listening to the lyrics that he is listlessly delivering. From verse to verse, bridge to bridge Beal alternates between Southern Blues, Bellflower Folk, and Freestyle Rap; it’s as if he’s balancing on a tightrope between them, swaying from one side to another as he overcompensates with each step. There is no overcompensation to be found in the content of the songs though, his rap resembles Dylan’s freewheeling more than it does say Kanye’s macho-masochism and his poetry is sparse and prosaic, lacking any of that flowery pretension you see in the work of coffee-shop post-grads. That though isn’t necessarily the best thing, both those approaches lend an air importance to the work whereas Beal’s feels more like impotence. The words are quieter than the vocals and it becomes hard to hear them over the shock of the style.
I really want to like Acousmatic Sorcery but Beal makes it hard; for every moment of beauty and talent that draws you in there is another of almost intentional alienation. Whatever its flaws though there is no way to say that you can say that this is not an interesting album; it’s just one that is going to need several spins before I can wrap my head around it.