Willis Earl Beal, Acousmatic Sorcery, Hot Charity/XL Recordings
Image to the right: art by Willis Earl Beal
Every once in awhile an artist emerges who is, to all appearances, completely self-taught. That's the case with 27-year-old Chicago street performer Willis Earl Beal, whose Acousmatic Sorcery is rough, raw, and bursting with emotion. He plays the sort of folk-blues you'd expect from someone with limited access to the amenities of the modern world, and near as I can tell, it isn't a put-on. I don't mean to sound skeptical; it's just that I haven't heard anything quite like it since Mississippi Fred McDowell started laying his tunes down to tape.
Beal recorded these 11 songs while living in Albuquerque between 2007-2010 after an uncomfortable stint in the army, which was a time of great loneliness. The process helped him to cope with his feelings of isolation. His toolkit included three guitars (acoustic and electric), pots and pans, a lap harp, a cassette-based karaoke machine, and a Radio Shack microphone.
"Ask me who I'm with, and I'll tell you I'm without."
Instead of a label like Rounder, his debut appears on XL Recordings, which also comes as surprise, except that I can hear a link, tenuous as it may be, between Beal and Gil Scott-Heron,* who released his final album on XL (Sorcery began life as a Found Magazine release, accompanied by Beal's drawings, flyers, and notes). By the time of I'm New Here, Scott-Heron had decades of experience under his belt, but he continued to keep his own council. He was his own man and Beal is, too. If he wants to throw chimes onto a song, he does. If he wants to talk instead of sing, he does. I doubt he's heard Moondog, but the effect is similar.
Further, Beal doesn't sing the same way on every track. He's playing by instinct rather than design, such that his album appears to feature different vocalists. I suspect he's trying on a variety of voices to see what fits. That doesn't mean one style is more real or authentic than the other, though I'd imagine he'll rein himself in more in the future, since that's what most artists do. As he told Pitchfork, "I don't want to make one kind of sound." The more a musician performs, the more a cohesive style emerges, intentional or otherwise. For now, though, I hear Robert Pollard on "Evening's Kiss" and Nick Drake on "Sambo Joe from the Rainbow."
Only on "Ghost Robot" does it become clear that Beal, despite appearances to the contrary, lives in the present, since he references "emo," "chronic," and "Wall Street investors" (in contrast to "Cosmic Queries," which celebrates the timeless pleasure of "oatmeal with cinnamon and butter"). Instead of citing 1960s acts, like McDowell, Beal claims the still-active Tom Waits as his primary influence, though I don't think they sound much alike, except on "Take Me Away," which shares a chugging, rhythmic sensibility with "Get Behind the Mule," and he says he owns the man's entire output. (The more I listen, the more I also find parallels to outliers like Basehead and Chocolate Genius.) No matter what happens next, Willis Earl Beal will never sound this fresh and loose again. Get it while it's hot.
* I guess I'm not the only one to make the connection. When I looked him up on YouTube, Scott-Heron popped up on the side of my screen...but so did XL signings Adele and the Horrors.
XL Recordings releases Acousmatic Sorcery on April 3. Read the Chicago Reader profile here. And if you'd like him to sing you a song, call 773-295-2135. If you'd prefer a hand-drawn picture, write to P.O. Box 471881, Chicago, IL, 60647.