Saturday, May 12, 2012

Willis Earl Beal and the Frying Tenor Sax

Although the crowded gallery was buzzing with anticipation, I was standing with my arms resolutely folded in defiant objection. The visiting artist was going to deep-fry a saxophone, arguably to reveal to the crowd the unique beauty of the sounds it made as it met a distinctively Texan demise. It was a bust. The like-new tenor sizzled in pretty much the same way that anything does when coated in batter and lamb casings and immersed in boiling oil.  Sticking a microphone in the pot didn’t really make the experience any more interesting. The general tone of the crowd was one of confused disappointment.  I am not above destructive musical practices, but I was offended.  I couldn't tell if we had been suckered or if we had witnessed an overintellectualized delusion, but in any case I felt that the whole event was vacuous as an aesthetic experience.

Now, before I continue, let me be clear - Willis Earl Beal was not the artist who fried the saxophone, and I do not in any way think that his debut is as artistically vapid as that spectacle. Not even close - Acousmatic Sorcery is impressively creative in a multitude of ways, but I also think it is flawed.  Beal talks a big game, however, and his indie rags-to-riches tale of isolation, catharsis, and perseverance has set expectations around the album incredibly high.  After quite a bit of simmering, I can attest that Acousmatic Sorcery is good, but also I feel a little confused - perhaps even a little disappointed.  So now I wonder: is Beal an undiscovered genius in the rough, as his tale might suggest, or have I been bamboozled by a clever performance artist who has created more interest through his social context than his musical content?  Methinks it is the former.

On disc, Beal is a passable songwriter. There are moments of fine storytelling on Acousmatic Sorcery, and some strong melodies. Several tracks, however, seem like the spontaneous inventions of a clever wordsmith, and recordings unfortunately favor the craftsman over the performer. Beal's true creativity, at least on record, lies in his ability to create mood and texture. His Tom Waits – inspired “junkyard techno” approach to found percussion and guitar technique is so lo-fi that it borders on the industrial, and it casts a shroud of pallor isolation across his surreal and sometimes haunting narratives.

Swing On Low by Willis Earl Beal on Grooveshark

Live footage of Beal reveals an entirely different artist. He seems to thrive in the spontaneous nuance of live audience/artist interaction. Additionally, he explicitly understands that people will forgive a lot if you have style, so, using sharpie markers, white t-shirts, and the power of nothingness, he has constructed an identity that teeters on a fine line between charisma and eccentricity.

Despite its flaws, the tension between genius and insanity that Beal cultivates makes Acousmatic Sorcery more compelling than it might initially seem. If he is to be believed, his intent with this album was catharsis over accessibility.  When he recorded it in his lonely apartment on home equipment a couple of years ago, it was never intended for the masses. Strategically, this is a strong position for his blossoming career, because it deflects criticism while focusing on the potential brilliance of his future work. Potential is only worth something if it is realized, but considering the depth of his influences and the intensity of his beliefs, in my gut I sense that following Beal as he develops his artistic path will have a pay off.

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