I expected Willis Earl Beal's second full-length to be a more accomplished affair, and it is. This is a mixed blessing. Though it's sure to prove beneficial to his career, it removes some of the claustrophobic, in-your-face directness from his work—and I could say the same thing about Lonnie Holley's new album.
While it's understandable that a D.I.Y. artist would want to make the leap to a studio environment after years of home-taping, there's a lot to be said for the bedroom approach, in which strong-willed performers can express themselves in an unvarnished form.
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It's also a great way to encourage bookers, promoters, radio stations, and music supervisors to ignore your catalog, so it doesn't offer the best route to sustainability. Self-producing also takes time and limits the range of moves a performer can make, so I sympathize with those who seek out experienced producers, like Rodaidh McDonald (King Krule, Savages, the xx), who helped Beal to up his game, not by leaps and bound, but by carefully considered inches.
Consequently, this former street musician has hardly sold out. If anything, his vocals sound stronger and more confident than ever, but I miss the roughness. When I saw him play Barboza's grand opening in 2012, he yelled through the entire performance, which was more exciting and less irritating than that sounds. When you're on the streets, you've got to project to be heard, but now he sounds more like fellow Chicago singer J.C. Brooks than Bobby Womack, especially on "Coming Through," a duet with Cat Power (Beal has since moved to New York).
This non-LP track doesn't appear on Nobody knows.
Those who haven't heard Acousmatic Sorcery, however, may have a different perspective. After all, the album opens with an acappella number, "Wavering Lines," which gradually admits some not-so-gentle cello scrapes. He also growls, cusses, and boasts about his prowess—"Hole in the Roof" recalls Screamin' Jay Hawkins—so it's possible I'm letting first impressions interfere with my ability to evaluate the new record objectively. I do want to see him grow as an artist, but I prefer more grit, noise, and negative space. It's like the difference between Liz Phair's Girly-Sound tapes and the label-sanctioned records she made afterward.
If I'm on the fence for now—my feelings may soften over time—Nobody knows.* proves, at the very least, that Beal wasn't a media-generated one-hit wonder. His back story is so colorful that his first official release was bound to generate a lot of hype, but his second could've taken decades to materialize or it could've been a dud. He could've returned to the streets or he could've returned to the military (he's a mercurial guy who's gotten into fights at shows). But none of it strikes me as an act. He's the real deal. A true artist who lives to make music that he wants you to hear. And he hopes you'll like it. But he isn't going to force your hand.
* The period and lower-case letter are intentional. Beal likes to refer to himself as "Nobody."
Nobody knows. is out now on HXC Records (orig release date: Sept 10).