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Willis Earl Beal is the new voice of avant-blues

Willis Earl Beal’s latest album ins called Nobody knows.

Ben Pobjoy

3.5 out of 4 stars

Nobody knows.
Willis Earl Beal

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.

"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.

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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.

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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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