Karl Blau Beneath Waves

[K; 2006]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: indie rock, melodic rock, pop
Others: Movietone, Orso, Wolf Colonel, Neutral Milk Hotel

K Records artists fall into one of two camps: they're either deceptively simple, bristling with charm and sincerity, or extremely craft-focused, constantly drawing our attention towards their lavish constructions and deconstructions. Need examples? How ‘bout Lois for the first approach, and The Microphones for the second. If we wanted to set the aesthetics up as two poles on a linear plane and arrange the K catalogue accordingly, Beneath Waves would fall smack dab in the middle, straddling the line between meticulous studio polish and bedroom four-track honesty.

Even when we look at this album outside of its place in the K Records orbit, it's a pretty meat-and-potatoes, middle-of-the-road slab of indie rock. The chord progressions, instrumentation, lyrics, or arrangements won't sound novel to anyone who's ever tuned into a college radio station, and I can imagine that record store clerks will have a hell of a time making the album sound exciting to anyone who isn't immediately sold on it by way of Blau's sessions with The Microphones, Wolf Colonel, and Little Wings.

In all honesty, the few songs ("Notion," "Ode to Ocean," "Slow Down Joe") where Blau lets guitar and drums do the vast majority of the talking could potentially fatigue even the most diehard of guitar-driven indie-pop fans. Where Beneath Waves makes a case for itself is in lovingly pieced-together pop triumphs like "Crashing Waves," "My Johnny," and "Into the Nada," songs in which Blau weaves in a number of sounds, instruments, and sections without letting the composition grow clogged or sluggish. Backwards pianos cartwheel through undulating horns, removed-but-not-detached vocals slice through the midrange, and melodic lines shift lanes with reckless abandon; and the players pull off each of these maneuvers with admirable economy.

It's this sense of restraint in the midst of maximalism that forms the album's molten core. Blau and his bandmates never shift into overdrive: "Crashing Waves" dips and soars for seven minutes, but it could've been longer; the horns at the end of "My Johnny" flicker into a blur like excerpts from In a Silent Way, but they're not as coked-out as a less disciplined artist would've let them become; "The Dark, Magical Sea" suggests a tidal ebb, but it doesn't belabor the point. All stylistic or conceptual flourishes bow in subservience to The Song, an idea Blau cherishes above all others on this outing. Even his lyrical persona seems preoccupied with holding back, framing scenes around absence ("Among the crowd no words could be found/ Yet no one dancing") and celebrating empty spaces ("When it's in nothing that you have so much to give/ When it's in nowhere that you found your place to live/ then vocalize into the nada," sung with a placid inflection atop festive horns). Beneath Waves is the sort of nuanced, carefully wrought work that typically comes only after years of hashing it out with one's muse. In this instance, middle-of-the-road is by no means middling.

1. Crashing Waves
2. My Johnny
3. Dragon Song
4. Slow Down Joe
5. Into the Nada
6. Notion
7. Ode to Ocean
8. Ode to Demons
9. Shadow
10. The Dark, Magical Sea

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