The back story of Willis Earl Beal is fascinating enough to make for a great film. A Chicago guy, he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a few years in 2007 simply because he heard it was a very desolate and beautiful environment in which a creative person could pursue art without distraction. Without much in the way of a job or friends, Beal created a flyer that contained a hand-drawn self-portrait, a little bit about his background and personality, and a phone number people could call. He hoped to make some friends this way, and even said he’d play a song for you if you called him. Such an odd flyer eventually caught the eye of a few like-minded creative people who were interested in helping Beal further his art. Found Magazine got wind of him and wrote a feature story on him. They also released a limited edition box set called The Willis Earl Beal Special Collection, complete with his poetry, illustrations and music. Things were looking up for Beal, yet he quickly left Albuquerque in 2010 and returned to Chicago with only the clothes on his back despite having live shows and recording studio time booked. He moved in with his grandmother and brother and once again without a job began distributing flyers with his story and his phone number on them. He wasn’t on the internet and things like email and social media were largely foreign to him. Yet he was still tracked down by the people at XL offshoot label Hot Sorcery, likely after doing well on the reality talent competition The X Factor. Their first release with Beal’s name on it is Acousmatic Sorcery, an 11-track collection of home recordings pieced together over the last few years. The quality is, understandably, nowhere near top notch. Most, if not all of these songs were originally recorded to cassette using a karaoke machine with a busted speaker and a Radio Shack microphone. It winds up sharing many of the same qualities as tUnE-yArDs’ laptop-recorded debut BiRd-BrAiNs, in that it’s messy but gets the point across. That point is Beal’s voice. “Take Me Away” is the official introduction to it on the record, and the song is an excellent showcase demonstrating the power and emotional intensity at which he operates. The track starts a capella before he’s joined by some homemade percussion that sounds like banging on the bottom of a plastic garbage can. Those are all the elements in the song, and essentially they’re all you need. Beal howls and hums with the intensity of a great blues singer, crossing somewhere between Tom Waits and Buddy Guy. By contrast, “Evening’s Kiss” sounds like a completely different artist, where Beal’s voice is so calm and precious it’s somehow less muscular than the sparsely plucked acoustic guitar accompanying it. That and “Sambo Joe From the Rainbow” are very traditional folk singer-songwriter style, also something Beal does quite well. Where he’s a little off though are on the more hip hop flavored tracks. “Ghost Robot” and “Swing on Low” are both based around beats and rhymes, though the former is quite a bit heavier on those elements. Both sound nothing like modern-day hip hop, and instead flounder closer to cheesy 80’s style rap but with more off-putting or weird time signatures. There are a few cringe-worthy lines in there (and other songs) as well, furthering the thought that while Beal is an exceptional singer, he’s not always the greatest songwriter. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bunch of well-written material on this record, because there is. For every handful of inspired lines, there’s usually one that doesn’t quite match it. Nevertheless, Acousmatic Sorcery is very much a great introduction to the world that is Willis Earl Beal. It is very much the world of an outsider artist, one who lives in the shadows rather than the spotlight, and who in spite of his outgoing personality seems to have a lot of the same reclusive qualities as a Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis or Jandek. On that same idea we’re left wondering exactly what Beal is going to do next and when he’s going to do it. With some touring under his belt and an actual recording studio to work in, it will most definitely be interesting to see if he can capitalize on the very promising start he’s shown here.
Willis Earl Beal – Evening’s Kiss