You’re Not on Acid, You’re Just Listening to Willis Earl Beal

April 2012 belongs to one of America’s newest buzz acts, Willis Earl Beal: a man who ignores today’s traditional marketing strategies and gets right down to the grit. Every article written about the musician reveals Beal’s humble beginnings and his unyielding ambition to make music for a living. He started off busking in Chicago’s subways and leaving CD-Rs of his home recordings around the city. Until recently, Beal even embraced fans and curious members of the press by dispersing his private phone number publicly and literally inviting people to call him up. Apparently too many people were struck by the musician’s openness and followed his lead, resulting in a surplus of phone calls that Beal couldn’t keep up with. The phone number he previously provided now forwards callers to a voicemail that says Beal is “taking a break from the calls right now,” because he’s “getting an explosion of calls” and he’s really busy. He adds at the end, “I love you, and I appreciate your support.”

On April 3, Beal released his 11-track debut album Acousmatic Sorcery (XL Recordings/Hot Charity), finally providing fans with a full picture of Beal’s musical capabilities. The songs are a less-is-more representation of what a versatile musician creates when he’s hungry to make his first record. The tracks stem from dozens of demos he recorded using a cassette-based karaoke machine, some other flea market finds and his own makeshift pots and pans drum kit. The scaled-back mixed bag of songs are at first a bit jarring; it seems as if Beal has so many goals set for his music and he can’t choose a steady sound. Ranging from experimental to gospel, each song has its own set of rules as Beal changes instruments, vocal styles and techniques.

Beal’s wide array of sounds aren’t meant to confuse listeners–he’s just trying on all his different hats. “Take Me Away” plunges listeners into a deep and greasy pool of New Orleans-esque soul, with its bellowing and repeating “oh lord,” and “right now” lines. “Cosmic Queries” ends in a beckoning, poetic monologue, preaching an individual’s fight for survival. “Bright Copper Noon” lays clanking, distracting strings beside whistling and background vocals. Critics often argue that artists don’t push themselves enough to try and create a variety of material. Beal’s efforts demonstrate the true possibility of genre-defying songwriting.

When Beal isn’t booming away with his strong, rotund voice, he’s delicately singing about small pleasures, such as the simple excitement behind an untainted crush. The song “Evening’s Kiss” features Beal plucking basic guitar notes while singing about crushing on a diner waitress, “Gazing at the phase of an overcast day / Watching rain fall from a dim cafe / Can’t see the wind, but I see the trees sway / Now the evening’s kiss, got me fading away.” If the song were paired with expensive production and a backup band, it could be a top-40 hit, but Beal breaks it down into a personal, quiet confession. Other songs on the album, like “Sambo Joe From The Rainbow” and “Monotony,” take the same approach of presenting poppy, rhyming songs in bare and interesting ways.

Acousmatic Sorcery‘s final song is an eight-minute track called “Angel Chorus,” which fades from a shrill refrain into another poetic monologue, as Beals tells the story of a late night when he goes out to a club alone and wallows around, trying to fit in. Beal walks listeners through encounters at the club, describing the scene and the people he meets. He sociologically breaks each moment apart and talks about the sometimes unattractive superficial realities of such social situations, with powerful lines like, “I’m even alone in a crowd of many / I would join my peers, but I don’t recognize any.” “Angel Chorus” is an accurate depiction of Beal in today’s industry. He’s different from the rest. He’s not going to try to impress you or convince you to be his friend, but he’ll win you over with his honest and genuine appeal nonetheless.

Acousmatic Sorcery opens a door into the grizzled, art-making mess inside Willis Earl Beal’s head. Simply being himself and using the tools he has, he constructed this world of lo-fi songs, stream-of-conscious poetry, meandering prose and hand-scrawled drawings. Although the music has a rough and complicated sound that might be hard to get past, once you do it’s rewarding, similar to the music of Beal’s musical influence, Tom Waits. Beal comes off somewhere between a beat writer and a homeless person, but he’s managed to use his openness to his advantage and a lot of people are receptive to it. Although Beal has caused somewhat of a blogosphere storm, his phone number is still up on his website, as is his address with the tag “write to me and I will make you a drawing.”

–Jen Brown


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