Raven Marching Band Records/Bella Union
It’s one of those ironic “Introducing” titles given that Karl Blau has recorded some 40 albums across the last 20 years, many self-released, hand-cut covers, CD-Rs…so maybe this is also not all that ironic, for Introducing Karl Blau might a) be the first time you’ve heard of him and b) it’s most certainly a new version of him. Here, slickly, beautifully produced by Midas Touch-man Tucker Martine, Blau reworks classic country covers, gives them a hint of 70s Outlaw Country spirit, some of the spit and shine of the sons of those heroes (Dwight Yoakam/Lyle Lovett-styles) and delivers it all in a burr that’s one part Smog, one part Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. You might think too, of The Handsome Family and Matthew E. White. They are all fine touchstones and spiritual cousins. And like them Blau’s reworkings here are both faithfully country and somehow existentially genre-less.
We open with Tom T. Hall’s magical That’s How I Got To Memphis. And from there we go through songs by Waylon Jennings and Link Wray, Townes Van Zandt and the Bee Gees’ standard, To Love Somebody. This album shares with the latest from Dexys not only a cover of the Brothers Gibb but a hand-on-heart promise to do right by the very best songs already written; that there’s enough in the world song-wise and still so much wiggle room within those tunes to find a home of your own.
Like a new Charlie Rich, Blau is remaking standards in his own image, with his own image, he’s also remade his image through the borrowing and bending of these particular tunes.
It’s all just a moment in time for him – 40 records behind and a new one up ahead that’s already been recorded that sounds nothing like this. That just makes Introducing all the more special. He straight-face smirks it up through Don Gibson’s 1972 non-charmer, Woman (Sensuous Woman), he takes Tom T. Hall’s Homecoming out for a stroll past Bobbie Gentry’s Tallahassee Bridge. There’s a bedroom croon one moment (Dreaming My Dreams) and spectral indie washes when needed (Jim James joins for a duet on Fallin’ Rain).
We’re reminded, always, of the old country. But only under the guise – and within the gauzy sound – of this new country, or new version of it.
Beautifully and dutifully played and presented, it’s a little burst of magic. Music that’s almost never quite there – just whistling by, in the trees, living in a space all of its own. You catch it if you can. You dig it if you want. I’m caught in the hypnotic sway of these versions of these songs. I think it’s one of the finest records of this – or possibly any – year. And yeah, I can’t wait to see what Blau does next. But also I can. I’m happy hear. In the new homes within these weird and wonderful old songs.