Willis Earl Beal – Acousmatic Sorcery

What a third rail of a record – it’s hard to weigh in on Acousmatic Sorcery without venturing onto thin ice. The indie music world has grown accustomed to the eccentric bedroom artist, but Willis Earl Beal’s spirit seems more akin to the self-taught outsiders of the visual art community. This 27-year-old African-American’s babe in the woods persona leaves me wondering how many of his “fans” are more interested in smirking at a sideshow spectacle. It’s not only for name similarities that he recalls the sadder tale of another more troubled oddball Chicagoan, the late Wesley Willis.

Acousmatic Sorcery’s ten tracks, while ridiculously raw, showcase an undeniable germ of true talent. What Beal lacks in equipment and technique he offsets with an impressively deep musical vocabulary. His avowed love of Tom Waits is audible, but I also hear nods to obscurities like avant-garde street composer Moondog (check out instrumental opener “Nepenenoyka,” named for a style of Belarus lap harp).

At its most realized, Sorcery warrants the hype. On “Take Me Away” Beal unleashes a blues holler so compelling one could be fooled into thinking this was a nugget from Alan Lomax’s newly online field recordings. And “Evening’s Kiss” exhibits an affecting tenderness, packaged as conventional lo-fi guitar ballad.

The problem is, the list of highlights pretty much ends there. Shards of other good ideas – like the promising vocal melodies that speckle “Monotony” and the soulful “Away My Silent Lover” – are mere juvenilia, insufficient to carry four-minute songs and undermined by overly simplistic, repetitive strumming. And too many lyrics are downright embarrassing – like ad libs from a scraggly busker camped outside a train station that might coax an awkward smile.

I recall when Radiohead released a pedestrian debut album even as buzz grew about “a band to watch.” Clearly their label had inside info about the pipeline – we can only hope that XL has similar cause to believe Beal’s occasional flashes represent the tip of an iceberg. On one level I’m queasy about Beal embarking on a national tour to be gawked at by indie rock dilettantes, but it’s not like legions of deluded white boys haven’t piled into vans for years with visions of grandeur.

A capsule version of his story: adrift since leaving the military, Beal lived for a time in his grandmother’s basement, recorded these songs at night while employed as a hotel porter, and began leaving tapes around town. An earlier cousin of Sorcery was issued by Found magazine. If I happened upon these mysterious tracks at a garage sale or abandoned on a subway platform, I’d be transfixed. As an artifact of detritus curated by Found, it’d hold interest. But a true album release should be held to a higher standard, and Acousmatic Sorcery falls woefully short of that mark.

Willis Earl Beal
Acousmatic Sorcery
[Hot Charity/XL]