Release Date: Apr 3, 2012
Record label: XL
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Chicago outsider Willis Earl Beal's back-story is a blogger's delight, full of the kind of outlandish bullet points that make it easy to caricature new artists. He lives at his grandma's house. He wrote all these songs when he was working as a hotel night porter. He was "discovered" by Found Magazine through one of the hand-drawn flyers he distributed, much like ones he posted throughout Chicago that said "Give me a call, I'll sing you a song." All true, and all very much factors in the progression of events leading up to Acousmatic Sorcery, Beal's much-hyped 11-song debut.
Anybody with the necessary number of orifices, receptive organs and keyboard manipulating fingers will have at least heard a whisper of the name. Maybe some can conjure spurious speculation as to his whereabouts; have seen the sketches and animations online or you may even have his Grandmother’s telephone number and address? Weird, huh? It will seem ridiculous to suggest in a year or maybe even a week following the record's release, but Willis Earl Beal, despite his renown, is actually quite an elusive character. A few months ago he himself was just a rumour.
It's hard to stand out in the world of independent music. "College Grad Moves to Fashionable Urban Enclave and Starts a Garage Rock Band" isn't the most compelling headline, regardless of whether the music is any good. How do you get people to pay attention? One common method in the last couple of years has been to swaddle your music in the gauze of "mystery": no bio, no photos, a cryptic name that puts the artist one step ahead of the engineers writing Google's search algorithms.
‘Outsider music’ feels like an old-fashioned concept these days. It still serves as a descriptor for lots of extraordinary artists, though: people who either didn’t fit the record industry’s specifications, or just ignored it entirely and released their bizarro burble into a world that generally didn’t care, like Daniel Johnston and R Stevie Moore. But things done changed.
I took my mum to see Willis Earl Beal recently. Part way through his set, as he chugged on a bottle of Jack Daniels, I caught her looking at him with the very same look that she’s supposed to save for me, her only daughter. It’s her ‘I do worry about you drinking too much’ look. The look that never dies.
The term outsider music supposes that its creator is a lone wolf that chafes at the thought of musical conformity or lyrical conventions, or any traditional trappings associated with the commercial music industry. Chicago singer-songwriter Willis Earl Beal may fall under the umbrella of outsider musician, but the story of how he got signed to XL's Hot Charity indie imprint shows a man that desires to be heard by as many people as possible. A profile in the Chicago Reader from July of 2011 cast a light on a 27-year-old African-American man who grew up on Chicago's South Side, saw a stint in the Army, lived with his grandmother, and bummed around Albuquerque.
“I had never seen someone grasp the attention of a crowd so quickly before ever singing one note,” said Chris Robles of the Town Hall Pub about Willis Earl Beal‘s first club show at this local watering hole in Chicago. Beal has undergone somewhat of a meteoric rise with his signing to XL Recordings, opening tour slots for indie rockers WU-LYF and London DJ SBTRKT, and even some high-profile slots during this summer’s festival season. It leaves one pondering: Who is Willis Earl Beal? The question is never fully answered on his debut album, Acousmatic Sorcery, but what is clear is that we are witness to a unique talent being born.
Willis Earl BealAcousmatic Sorcery[Hot Charity / XL; 2012]By Zak Padmore; March 21, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGChances are you’ll have heard Willis Earl Beal’s early single, "Evening’s Kiss." A pretty acoustic ditty backed by a fairly dull hand-drawn video; it’s been pushed hard online. However, Beal’s backstory is stealing all the hype. He appears to be one of the first truly ‘interactive’ musicians, a young guy who will draw you a picture or sing you a song if you contact him (using the address and phone number helpfully posted on his website).
Part performance artist, part old-school busker, part in-your-face sidewalk preacher, Willis Earl Beal has become more myth than man. Creating an aura of mystery surrounding his identity and his art, Beal first garnered attention thanks to cryptic flyers scattered around Chicago that prompted unsuspecting bystanders to call him for a chat and a song. Beal’s is the ultimate pomo rags-to-riches story, as a sometimes homeless outsider artist apparently without a computer to his name becomes the toast of the blogosphere, ultimately parlaying word-of-mouth buzz into a multi-album deal on one of the most forward-thinking labels going today.
Willis Earl Beal has been homeless, he's been depressed, and through it all he made a series of CD demos that he left in public places, with his phone number attached. Now they've been gathered into an album and given a major release, with buzz to match. But, goodness, what a trial Acoustmatic Sorcery is. At its absolute, top-dollar best – Take Me Away, for example – it's reminiscent of Old Time Relijun, the K Records also-rans who offered a similarly melody-free take on the blues; Evening Kiss sounds like Sebadoh or Guided by Voices recast as a black street musician.
I have to say at the outset that whatever expectations you might formulate for this record through reading this review, forget about them now. It's impossible to put into words how this Chicago native was able to make such a strange and beautiful album with just a cassette karaoke machine, $20 microphone and a few toy instruments. If there is such a concept as a modern field recording, Acousmatic Sorcery is it.
Those of you who were paying attention last year may have noticed a curious debate open up around notions of authenticity in music, mainly in response to scorn poured on both Lana Del Rey and Kreayshawn. It seemed that great swathes of music aficionados required ‘soul’ from artists, some genuine representation of their beliefs and experiences, hopes and dreams, all wrapped up in an honesty devoid of commercial considerations – a test that LDR was often deemed to have failed. It’s an interesting debate, not least because it shifts discussion away from any actual music and onto disingenuous concepts like identity, taste, and subjectivity, all of which are useful to bear in mind when considering Willis Earl Beal.
Seemingly pulled out of an antique china case after years of shelf life, Willis Earl Beal dusts the shelves off and emerges with a poignant yet simple batch of tunes with his debut anthem, Acousmatic Sorcery. Throughout the album a few characteristics stand out, but out of its many blues like qualities the one that I see potentially defining the album as a whole is its rawness. This is as raw and unrefined as they come.
A striking debut from a wandering soul promising lo-fi blues and poetic dramas. Mike Diver 2012 A young man with an old soul, Willis Earl Beal has little place in 2012. He isn’t one for travelling without moving. Social media exchanges are an alien concept; his stories are born from first-hand encounters spread across the United States.
Chicago's Willis Earl Beal is a weirdo. A broken voice in a sprightly young body, he croaks over cobbled, DIY beats, yet sounds relentlessly old-fashioned. He was happy to live homeless, but he also went on X-Factor. It's a strange path to notoriety, but debut Acousmatic Sorcery arrives with a legacy.