Karl Blau Out Her Space

[Bella Union; 2017]

Styles: indie, country, Afropop, soul
Others: Paul Simon, Beck, Sandro Perri

We’ve been “woke” for what feels like a million years, but global justice remains almost entirely out of sight. Karl Blau sets this paradox to music on his latest full-length, Out Her Space. By Blau’s own characterization, the album title is a virtue signal: “out her space” is a reminder to other men that they need to be better about giving women room. But resistance to masculine appropriation of resources is not a radical stance — in New York City, even municipal PSAs plead against manspreading — and the album as a whole, though beautiful, conveys a political ethos of dilution.

Out Her Space is a good example of what writer Ayesha Siddiqi has called “Bush-era redux,” a widespread return to aesthetics of the turn of the millennium. For example, Blau himself describes the song “Poor the War Away” — including its “rigid truth chorus” and “free association” verses — as emerging from the era of George W. Bush. It was a time when many of us became aware of ways we’re implicated in global problems, but nobody knew what to do about it; the internet still seemed like a fun idea. Blau’s nonsensical messages in the song are presumably critiques of the War on Terror and calls for peace: “Why is there this war today/ Poor the war away.” But the words never move beyond impressionism; they make no connections to contemporary problems, nor to networks, algorithms, or AI. In fact, the song is best when Blau stops singing, ceding the sonic space to eruptions of shimmery distortion, and in this way, the form maybe proves his broader point. That’s my generous hearing, anyway. If Blau’s intention is to mold his fellow men into moral shape, I can’t help but wonder if some well-worded personal emails might be more productive than this record.

As for the music itself, Out Her Space feels buoyant and free, so maybe it would’ve been better without its paratext and metadata, without the press release drawing ambitious connections between the album and “Stax and Motown,” and certainly without the phrase “languid and hook-infested gumbo” being applied to music coming from inside the evergreen paradise of the Pacific Northwest. To be sincere, I’m not sure what gumbo is like in Washington state, and I’m not sure what, if anything, it has to do with the history of soul or Motown music, but this melange of vague references to black music is typical of writing about American music, expressing — in Blau’s case — an appetite for borrowing that extends beyond regional music of the United States to “world” music genres, too.

The appropriation announces itself: the titles of “Dub the War Away” and “I Got the Sounds Like You Got the Blues” overtly admit the songs’ borrowed elements, leaving no doubt as to which genres have been taken and taken apart. That said, beyond rhetoric, the recordings do not sound much like old Stax and Motown hits; they possess little of the warmth that makes those old analog recordings so distinctive. By contrast, this album is spacious, gleaming, reverberant. Likewise, Blau does not sing in the broad, melismatic style of legends like Otis Redding or Sam Cooke; his voice and its melodies more often fall into familiar folk patterns, sometimes similar to the modern country stars Blau channeled on his excellent 2016 set of country covers, Introducing Karl Blau.

It’s clear from the ultra-clean, fluid, scalar guitar riffs on tracks like “Beckon” that Blau and his band have likely been spinning a strain of phenomenal Afro-pop recordings by artists like Prince Morocco Maduka and Fatoumata Diawara. But more than any other source, it’s the chameleonic style of Beck, on albums like 1998’s Mutations, that seems most relevant. Beck, like Blau, announces his worldly borrowings in his track titles themselves, like “Tropicalia” and “Bottle of Blues.” Out Her Space feels like a lower-fi, lower-budget version of Beck’s amalgamatic creations, sending us back to this moment in the late 1990s when white men, though obviously referencing black music, were no longer working so hard not to be white.

On this new release, Blau’s work is best when it doesn’t sound like it’s trying at all. The strongest track is “Blue as My Name,” which is, not incidentally, the one that consolidates Blau’s own distinctive style most vividly: momentous surf country guitar, surprising changes in harmony, laidback horn punches, bold hooks, and kind refrains: “I see her take the time to mend.” So while Out Her Space may not be Blau’s best work, it’s a pleasant piece of art. As social commentary, it feels ineffectual and dated, its tone resembling someone’s morally mediocre guy friend who is eager to reconcile his own shortcomings by engaging a willing interlocutor. As music, though, the album glistens. Unfortunately, these two registers can’t be unwound, and so the listener is left liking the music despite, not for, its paratextual inflations.

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