Beal’s singing anchors an eclectic approach
by James Brotheridge
Willis Earl Beal
Willis Earl Beal’s voice is a tremendous natural gift that can alternately soothe or scrape a listener’s ears. It’s what makes the opening to Nobody Knows, his second album, so arresting. The first song, “Waverling Lines”, begins with Beal singing a cappella. Eventually, a second track of his voice jumps in to harmonize, soon joined by tense strings. That bold introduction is followed by “Coming Through”, a slice of dead-on neo-soul with Cat Power on backing vocals. Nobody Knows is full of shifts like that — from minimalist laments backed by janky samples or dirt-simple synth parts to soft pianos and what passes for sweet sentiment on this record.
Through it all Beal’s voice is an angry storm that occasionally lashes out.
The casual listener could be excused for dismissing Beal’s music at first. He’s the kind of multimedia artist whose work at first glance can read like gimmickry. On his first album, Acousmatic Sorcery, he performed live backed by tapes. Order the new record from his website, and you’ll get a “manifesto poster”. If you were alert and aware not so long ago, you could go to the man’s website and find his home phone number listed there. He’d often take the call, from what I understand.
“Being humbled is having gone through a series of things, having discovered something, and now you’re a tame person, comfortable in your own skin,” Beal told Noisey, Vice’s music site. “That’s not me. I’m just as pretentious and self-absorbed as I always was.”
I hear no pretentions whatsoever in Nobody Knows. On “What’s the Deal”, he takes lines like “just be nice” and repeats them over and over, dragging them out and making them as raw and painful as possible. Elsewhere, on “Everything Unwinds”, he conveys gentle despair with nothing but a simple synth in the background.
Far from pretentious, Nobody Knows is streamlined and emotionally vital on every track.
The Ballad of Losing You
I don’t know Zachary Lucky personally, but for his sake, I hope the notion of art imitating life that Greek philosopher Aristotle first advanced in his book Poetics doesn’t apply here. Because if it does Lucky recently endured the mother of all break-ups. Considering he’s only 24 years old, the heartache he evinces in this suite of 10 songs (including a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ for the Day”) might seem a little overwrought. But the longing and sadness that he communicates on songs like “After All the Months We’ve Shared” and “More Than Enough Road” is certainly heartfelt. Sparse arrangements add to the sense of malaise, with Lucky joined on guitar by pedal steel player Aaron Goldstein, bassist Chris Prpich, banjo/dobro player Benjamin Hadaller, fiddler Karrnnel Sawitsky and pianist Jonathan Anderson. He’ll be at the Club on October 3. /Gregory Beatty
The Electric Lady
Want to know Janelle Monáe’s travel plans? “I’m packing my space suit/And I’m taking my shit to the Moon” she sings on “Sally Ride”, a song nominally about the first American woman in space –– but since this is a Janelle Monáe creation, it’s probably another installment in the story of Cindi Mayweather, a far-future booty-shaking android messiah in illicit love with a human being. If that sentence confuses you, I advise you to put it aside and just luxuriate in the ridiculous talent on display. Monáe collaborates with a parade of alt-R&B figures, from Prince and Miguel to Solange Knowles and Erykah Badu, but she needs no help. More accessible and soul-heavy (and much more intimate) than 2010’s excellent The ArchAndroid but still packed with musical references ranging from Morricone to Michael Jackson, The Electric Lady turns out to be worth the three-year wait. /Aidan Morgan
First impressions can be deceiving. After I gave this album an initial listen it seemed like the Toronto-based quartet of Dallas and Travis Good, Sean Dean and Mike Belitsky had veered toward the country side of the “country rock” spectrum that they typically inhabit. Tracks like “So Much Blood” and “Leave This World Behind” certainly fall into that category. But after giving the disc a couple of more spins I realized there’s no shortage of high-energy rock either. Not to mention some tongue-in-cheek songwriting in cuts like “Another Tomorrow Again” and “Another Yesterday Again” and “The Very Beginning” and “The Very Ending”. One highlight for me was album closer “We Are Circling”, which features vocals and mouth bow by Buffy Sainte-Marie. So mark Oct. 17 on your calendars when the Sadies are in town to play the Exchange. /Gregory Beatty
Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor, the dark prince of industrial rock, has gone through huge changes in the past decade. Sobriety. Marriage. Fatherhood. Hollywood plaudits. (He won an Academy Award for co-composing the score for The Social Network.) Fear not, Nine Inch Nails fans: el Rez’s biceps may have gotten bigger but the anxious guy we know and love is still in there. He’s just working through his neuroses with an expanded musical palette.
The new album comes across as both futuristic and self-referential –– a tricky thing to pull off. Overall, there’s less screaming in the choruses and fewer distorted guitars. Musically, it’s cleaner and less cluttered, so you can focus on the individual sounds he’s generating. Imagine the tense minimalism of his soundtrack work paired with Pretty Hate Machine-esque vocal hooks and beats. The only what-the-hell moment is “Everything”, a jaunty track that feels like Trent is auditioning to be in Metric. /Gillian Mahoney
I’ve loved Bill Callahan (A.K.A. Smog in other parts of his music career or, to me, My Billy Smog) for a long time. Lyrically dexterous and baritone voiced, Callahan’s signature has been a minimalist, articulate examination of his romantic psyche. On Dream River, the songs have changed from ambiguous and fretful to patient, indulgent and straight-up sexy. ’70s soul instrumentation –– flutes, bongos, organs –– sends off an almost cheesy vibe, except this is My Billy Smog and sentiments like “all I want to do is make love to you with a careless mind who cares what’s mine” weaken my knees.
Callahan’s production has refined over the past decade, wearing away the underground, lo-fi feel of his early records. I miss the urgency of those albums, but here’s he’s undeniably confident and satisfied. /Amber Goodwyn