Willis Earl Beal - Acousmatic Sorcery
Record Label - XL
Release Date - April 3, 2012
If you haven't noticed, I've taken a couple pot shots at Willis Earl Beal (first here, then here) and you know, frankly, I've been pulling my punches by lobbing passive aggressive one-offs, dismissive opinions, and basically being a blogger. And, I guess, that the discouragement (if I'm being my own therapist here, which I must be doing as I'm blogging in the first place) is that I want this album to succeed. I was intrigued by "Evening's Kiss." Bob Dylan staring down from the cover seems a bit pretentious, but okay. Then, you spin the record or click the button, whichever you prefer.
Acousmatic Sorcery is a meandering, semi-charmless album which should, I suppose, hold together because of Beal's eccentricity. Stitched into every review of his album is a biographical sketch of Beal's flyer which promised a song or drawing for a phone call. Not unsurprisingly, one of Beal's drawings graced the cover of Found Magazine. The collection of songs on Acousmatic Sorcery feels like it was culled from the pages of Found -- disjointed, broken down, gruff, and seemingly left on the sides of the road. As an avowed fan of Found Magazine, I can see how the marriage was made in heaven. The aesthetics match -- Beal's quirkiness and sincerity seems ripped from Found's mantra. Both look at the garbage and take it sincerely. Which works perfectly well on "Evening's Kiss":
The slow, understated roll emerges aching and yearning from your speakers. It's a reflective jewel which shows Beal's real talent for a playfully sublime rendering. The melody, never creeping too far from the guitar line carves the tune nostalgically, sweetly, and innocently. It's the undoubted highlight of the album and the song by which all other tracks fail to meet.
You get the distinct impression when listening all the way through the record that Beal is wandering around his house with a tape player on, then picking up instruments and doing things with them. Hence its "found" album status. It's about the only thing that can explain "Nepenenoyka," a track which takes its title from a lap harp that Beal seems to have picked up and plucked for a minute to no discernable pattern, rhythm, or melodic focus. "Ghost Robot" has Beal try his hand at rapping. "Angel Chorus" is hardly angelic. "Take Me Away" rips a whole section away from Tom Waits' notebook. "Swing on Low" shows Beal trying his hand at rapping, again. It's really difficult to listen to the whole thing at once. Beal seems hell bent on musical alienation.
A record, particularly one as sprawlingly lo-fi as this one, needs to have something charming to make it work. The title of the records suggests some sort of nostalgic magical spell. Listening back to the early work of the Mountain Goats, Smog, and Lou Barlow are cases in point. Beal's acceptance of the genre here conjures a distinctive throw-back sound which appears to only be there out of necessity or for its own sake. Not to belabor the point, but "Evening's Kiss" and "Sambo Joe from the Rainbow" exact the requisite charm from Beal's song writing. Both are well crafted, exquisitely sung, and poetically haunting. Outside of these tracks, it's a very mixed bag.
While albums don't need thematic or melodic focus, nor perfectly wrought production, they do need something upon which we can latch our ears. This is why album reviewers should delight in our subjectivity. We're not all going to follow the same thing. As you can tell, Beale's lost me with this one. If there was magic going on, it didn't work on me.