Willis Earl Beal is the male answer to Cold Specks, that young Canadian singer who summons the spirit and sound of the blues with such feverish attention to authenticity you do a double-take when you hear her: is this really a new artist or some lost field recording? That will doubtless happen the first time you listen to Beal. He has the power to make you question the veracity of his backstory and lead you to wonder whether he's just peddling dubiously acquired material from John Lomax's private stash.
It is a good backstory, though, conceivably because it has the ring of fabrication about it. Aged 23, Beal apparently left the south side of Chicago for the New Mexico desert after sliding into depression following his discharge from the US army for medical reasons. He wrote hundreds of songs but refused or failed to promote himself in conventional ways (he isn't on Facebook and has never had a MySpace page, Twitter account or BandCamp), instead leaving CDs lying around randomly and flyers inviting people to get in touch. Until July 2011 he had never performed in public and he has yet to release any music (although there are clips of him on YouTube). And yet he has already featured on the cover of numerous magazines; everyone from James Blake to the increasingly chameleonic (or do we mean vampiric?) Damon Albarn wants to work with him; Mos Def wants to make a film of his life story; and XL, the label currently in the middle of a winning streak not enjoyed by a record company since the golden age of Elektra, has signed him.
And they've signed him on the basis of a series of demos recorded by Beal then working as the night porter at a motel using a cassette-based karaoke machine, a $20 microphone, and a variety of instruments and objects found in Albuquerque's flea markets, thrift stores and alleyways, including a red electric guitar, some acoustic guitars, a lap harp, and a makeshift drum kit created from pots and pans. The results will be available in March and will be called Acousmatic Sorcery, a title that is either hubris on Beal's part (if he chose it), or plain pride (if it was XL's), although to be fair there is no small amount of alchemy going on given the meagreness of the budget and rawness of the materials.
"Raw" is the operative word, of course, for these songs about tedium, fear and death. It's all quite scrupulously untutored, if you catch our drift, strategically unvarnished and rough. (All performances are mannered: discuss.) Beal's gravelly vocals are matched by the messiness of the playing and the voice seems to be at right angles to the music. Sometimes but not always, pleasingly there appears to be an obsession with fidelity to the roots of rock'n'roll, or rather to the pre-rock era of the blues. Some of the songs are so stripped back, they're almost a parody of the idea of music's brute essentials. At times like these the sense of a man in a dark, dank room at the end of his tether and, potentially, a rope, is strong. Sometimes his voice verges on the Beefheartian, only the music lacks the good Cap'n's Daliesque absurdity and cubist invention. But there are more quixotic melodies, such as Cosmic Queries, and throughout is a bric-a-brac approach worthy of Swordfishtrombones-era Tom Waits. Sambo Joe from the Rainbow recalls a late-60s Tim Buckley reverie from just before he left Earth that blue afternoon to become a starsailor. Away My Silent Lover reminds us of an eccentrically gruff musician such as Kevin Coyne while Swing on Low is like David Byrne if he was backed by a jug-band version of Talking Heads. It occurs that Beal sounds like several similar artists rather than an eclectic single one, and we're not sure if the mercurial nature of these early recordings is the sign of a maverick or of someone waiting to be moulded, but there's plenty to be intrigued by here, for sure. - The Gaurdian