Here in Roots-ville, we are blessed to be exposed to a lot of new music and new artists. It can become kind of a deluge, in fact, and information overload sometimes makes it hard to hear talent over the constant murmur of blogs and twitter even when it is legitimately present. Every once in a while a though, talent catches you with a backflip-kick to the jaw. First Look is the space where we share that moment with OKP readers, the moment where you are still seeing stars from the initial jawbone contact–and at this moment, Willis Earl Beal is the backflip/kicker in question.
Willis Earl Beal seems like an interesting dude. He was ‘discovered’ in roughly the same way that a plane-crash survivor stranded on a desert isle gets discovered–by floating a message in a bottle. In this case, Beal was posting home-made flyers at bookstores and other spots around Chicago and Albuquerque inscribed with self-portraits and messages like ”I want some friends & stuff”; “I am not a weasel” and “Call me right now if you are a nice, pretty girl.” There is no record of how many pretty girls dialed the number included (belonging to Beal’s grandmother, with whom he lived at the time) but other respondents included Leor Galil of the Chicago Reader and Davy Rothbart of Found magazine–who put one of his flyers (below) on the cover–and eventually assembled a limited (200 copies) edition box-set including poetry, artwork and an original LP. Entitled Acousmatic Sorcery, the record comprises 17 tracks of accomplished, brilliant and occasionally disturbing songs for voice, guitar and lap-harp recorded to non-archival tape with a karaoke machine. Though Beal’s music has a strong thread of minor-keyed blues that runs through it, the sound is far too personal to be described so simply, an effect which is heightened by the hiss of white noise and the pitch-waver of damaged cassette tape.
Those songs–”Blue Escape” is particularly haunting–would be enough to make you take notice by themselves. But then there is the raw, frenetic and plainly charismatic quality of Beal’s few live performances to date. Several qualities instantly compete for your attention: the strong, soulful voice–no longer disguised by the ghostly tape hiss–which can handle both tender acapella harmony and full-on blues wail. Not just in the way he sings but in the way he carries himself, a certain old-soul in a young man’s body quality, creating the same eerie sensation of time-travel that Aloe Blacc and Gary Clark Jr. do at moments. A fearlessness in physically attacking the song that suggests a young (and only slightly crazier) James Brown and most of all a sense of instant persona– the uncanny feeling that you already know who Beal is as an individual after just a few seconds of screen time. Watch screen tests of “Same Old Tears” and “Wavering Lines below as well as one random pub performance of “Close to Me” backed by a band called the Ghostones to witness all of these qualities in play:
A few youtube clips and those home recordings might be the end of the story except for the fact that Beal recently signed a four-album deal with Hot Charity, a brand new imprint of XL Records, the eclectic indie with a brilliant track record for recognizing underdog millionaires in the making (like M.I.A and Adele, to name just two). He will be performing at the Tomorrow Never Knows festival in Chicago on January 14th alongside Chairlift and European dates are already in the works opening for some arena-sized names who cannot be named yet. The first of the four LPs for Hot Charity will be a proper release for Acousmatic Sorcery. That, for the moment is tantalizingly ‘not available‘ on Amazon but a few key songs–including “Blue Escape” and “Monotony”–can be heard at the City of Dust blog of sometime Beal collaborator John Mulhouse. And that, basically, covers what you need to know about Willis Earl Beal. Guard your jawbone.