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Craig's Music Club
Music CD Reviews

Spotlight on: Beneath Waves by Karl Blau



Cover of Beneath Waves by Karl Blau Karl Blau, Beneath Waves

I was definitely surprised when I learned that singer-songwriter Karl Blau had never recorded a solo album for K Records prior to his latest release, Beneath Waves. This is because I have felt his presence on so many other artists' releases. Originally, I was introduced to his low-key bass playing with Bret Lunsford (a founding member of the highly influential Beat Happening on vocals and guitar) and Phil Elverum (drums, of course) in their band D+.

His influence has also been greatly felt on all of Elverum's work as The Microphones. Blau played on The Glow, Pt. 2 and there is even a song called "Karl Blau" on its predecessor, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, an album that Blau himself recently rerecorded for his KELP! Monthly subscription series (showing that influence goes both ways). With those, and his guest appearances on albums from Little Wings (Wonderue) and Mirah (Advisory Committee), it just feels like he's been hanging around Dub Narcotic Studios forever.

However, research tells me that his previous solo albums (the last of which was 2001's Clothes Your I's) have all been released on D+ bandmate Lunsford's Knw-Yr-Own label out of Anacortes (the other thriving Washington music mecca). In any case, Blau's newest musical expression, Beneath Waves, is out now on K, and it's mostly brilliant. It seems to have taken Blau quite a long time to put together this album (four years, if my math is correct), but it has been more than worth the wait.

Beneath Waves begins audaciously with its two longest tracks, the seven-and-a-half-minute "Crashing Waves" and the nearly-six-minute "My Johnny." Both are impressive soundscapes involving many varied instruments and multiple melodies. Listening to them multiple times is not only suggested, but also rewarded by further insight into the depth contained within them.

My favorite, "Into the Nada," however, is a more lighthearted offering: a surprising amalgam of Jethro Tull, Van Morrison, and Jimmy Buffett that still manages to sound entirely original. This song goes right into "Notion," a pitch-perfect flashback to early 1990s grunge. Nirvana fans will love it.

Following are two odes. The beautiful "Ode to Ocean" ("There's a part of me that wants to be a part of you ... sandy skin, sandy skin") ends much too quickly. It is also, unfortunately, the last really good song on the album. Of course, this is convenient for the average listener, who can just stop the CD right there, but more passive listeners -- those of us who just like to have the music wash over us while we do something else -- are in for a downslide for the rest of the album.

Blau certainly has a way with a melody -- he has a musical confidence that allows him to combine deliberate dissonance with transcendent melodies, always with a deep sense of rhythm ("Slow Down Joe" is a prime example). The best songs on Beneath Waves ("Crashing Waves," "My Johnny," "Into the Nada") are melodic and often fun, always with a sense that Blau is in complete control of how he wants to be perceived by the listener. They rank up with the best pop music being made today, even with the best coming from K Records.

Unfortunately, the last three tracks are something else entirely. They're uninteresting. "Ode to Lemons" sounds a bit too much like a Microphones retread to make much of an impression (although, as I said above, it's hard to tell who did this kind of "wall of sound accompanied by a light voice" kind of thing first). "Shadow" starts with a meaningless poem, further devolving into something sounding like treacly children's music. And "The Dark, Magical Sea" is a droning bore that should not have been chosen as the last impression of this CD, unless it was intended as a soporific in place of the listener's usual sleeping pill. Three drastic missteps that, while they do not dampen the effect of what came before, certainly bring what was a stratospheric experience back down to ground level. And that's just too bad, because otherwise Beneath Waves would be the first great album of the year.



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