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Willis Earl Beal’s latest album ins called Nobody knows. (Ben Pobjoy)
Willis Earl Beal’s latest album ins called Nobody knows. (Ben Pobjoy)

Willis Earl Beal is the new voice of avant-blues Add to ...

  • Title Nobody knows.
  • Artist Willis Earl Beal
  • Label HXC
  • Rating 3.5/4

Chicago’s Willis Earl Beal is like some sweet-singing philosopher and dog – all muscle, truth and half-mast eyes. The music of the blues’ new performance artist and chest-bursting preacher is desperate. Tears from him? Beal is “too dry to cry,” as he tells it and sings it in a chain-gang drone. Nobody knows. is the refinement of the crude schizophrenia of 2010’s Acousmatic Sorcery, and it is not a shy happening.

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“I don’t call it wisdom or luck or even God,” reads a poem that comes with the disc. “I don’t call it at all. It’s already here.” Such a cocky philosophy should not go unrewarded.

The opening track Wavering Lines is mostly a cappella soul, summoning a Bizarro-world Ben E. King. A string section rises from the floor, as does the song’s tension. “I got the Tupperware bowl with the turkey neck stew. Another couple of brews, and a cookie or two.” Input for output.

Beal is part Memphis-city croon, part fearsome gospel and part cotton-country blues. White noise occurs, as does queer psychedelia. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was bowing a two-string guitar with a catfish carcass on Too Dry to Cry. (I really don’t know any better.)

Is that the melodic influence and swamp-water splash of Chan Marshall (a.k.a Cat Power) on Burning Bridges? It’s a strong and haunting piece – a torment gracefully emoted. Marshall isn’t credited on that song, but she does sing on Coming Through, a feel-good piece of retro pop-soul with a Motown bounce.

Nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell, but nobody writes them like Willis Earl Beal, a grungy poet with a “gas burn soul like an oven hiss, a cackle and a whisper and a poisonous kiss.” We hear that cackle on the odd, charming and slow-boiling Ain’t Got No Love.

He laughs, but nothing is funny. Beal is the beautifully disturbing new voice of avant-blues, and Nobody knows. is the finest shaman album released this year.

The week in music

Top-selling albums in Canada for the week ending Sept. 8: Industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails nailed it with the comeback album Hesitation Marks, which made its debut at No. 1. Next in line is the big-voiced Ariana Grande, who sends a ’90s pop message with Yours Truly. Filling out the Top 5 are Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail to the King, Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party and Imagine Dragons’ Night Visions.

 

Top-selling single: Roar is not going to go away quietly. The Katy Perry song, which is anything but dull, stays atop the Billboard charts for a second week. Other tracks making noise include Lorde’s Royals, Jay Z’s Holy Grail, Lana Del Rey’s Summertime Sadness and Drake’s Hold On, We’re Going Home.

 

Albums out this week: Arctic Monkeys’ AM, Janelle Monáe’s Electric Lady, Madonna’s MDNA Live, Sheryl Crow’s Feels Like Home, Trombone Shorty’s Say That To Say This.

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