Karl Blau Zebra

[K; 2009]

Styles: lo-fi catch-all, freak folk
Others: D+, Jonathan Richman, Andrew Bird, Vicious Vicious

Most casual indie fans probably only know Karl Blau through The Microphones tune bearing his name (from the classic It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water), and that won't exactly get a crowd of heads nodding in appreciation, or even recognition. But the Anacortes, WA-based songwriter has been dutifully peddling his craft for many years now at a silently astonishing rate of releases, most via his own Kelp Lunacy Advanced Plagiarism Society mail-order service. His career M.O., furious fecundity where you least expect it, has been fittingly shaped by the same intimate, ongoing dialogue with nature that often seems to define his lyrical concerns and omnivorous sense of musicality.

Zebra is ostensibly Blau's "Africa" album, a tribute of sorts to the continent's influence on both the music he loves and makes. That's occasionally apparent in the music itself, like the perky Talking Heads-worthy world pop blender "Tha Ole Moon Smile." But from the soft bedroom bossa nova of opener “Waiting for the Wind” onward, it mostly just sounds like Blau. He has taken a step back from last year’s Nature’s Got Away, his most open, folky, and easy-to-love set of tunes, toward the insular peculiarity of earlier material like 2007's Dance Positive, which was a reworking of songs from his old band D+ with Beat Happening’s Bret Lunsford and Mister Microphones/Mount Eerie himself, Phil Elverum.

Blau writes melodies influenced by the off-kilter Pacific Northwest tradition of weird 80s-into-the-90s indie, in the same way Kurt Cobain did, but channels that spirit very differently (and is more deserving of the K Records merit badge that they both wear/wore so proudly). The most fascinating yet confounding thing about Blau's music, though, is the way he throws in little homemade elements of hip-hop, jazz, blue-eyed soul, Sinatra-style crooning and dance music of all times and cultures (often manning all instruments from sax to bass to sampler and well beyond) to create undanceable sketches and deeply idiosyncratic slow jams penned in the name of someone or something greater.

“Dark Sedan Returns,” Zebra's most upbeat and melodic highlight, boasts horn accompaniments that rise from shirky to triumphant, as if Sufjan Stevens and Steve Reich asked the E Street Band to cool it down and just play these arrangements they'd collaborated on. The song recalls a naive Jonathan Richman melody arranged by Andrew Bird. But that doesn't give you a very reliable idea of how any of the other songs on Zebra sound or any of his other songs period. He's not a bedroom producer, not an acoustically strummy freak folkie, not a lo-fi indie popper like his close associates on the Calvin Johnson axis. Instead, Blau deliberately dodges all those labels and their attendant expectations better than just about any other songwriter making music today.

Indeed, Zebra is a tricky record to find your way into, because none of these songs seem like they should exist. Blau mixes up a lot of genre elements that even savvy 21st-century listeners are unaccustomed to, though certain extra-curious fans of new jacks like Wild Beasts or even Vampire Weekend could hear at least a similar attitudinal disregard for easily boxed-in listener expectations in these tunes. Honestly, not all of this stuff is great. But even if Nature's Got A Way is a better first listen and a better album all around, Blau's quiet voice and melodic sensibility are so sweetly and mysteriously intriguing that Zebra is hard to deny.

1. Waiting for the Wind
2. Crucial Contact
3. Apology to Pollinateurs
4. All Over the Town
5. Free the Bird
6. Goodbye Little Song
7. Dark Sedan
8. Welcome in NW
9. Tha’ Ole Moon Smile
10. MT Handed
11. Nothing New
12. Gnos LeVohs

Most Read