Album of the Month

Album of the Month: ‘Introducing Karl Blau’ by Karl Blau

Introducing Karl Blau
Karl Blau
(Raven Marching Band)

Given the title of his new album, you may be surprised to learn that Karl Blau is no rookie or upstart but rather a fixture of the Northwest indie-music community. In that ever-underdog, anti-commercial niche, Blau is something like royalty—instigator and organizer of the all-ages and experimental music scenes of Anacortes, collaborating with dozens of area musicians and, for many years, running his own subscription-based label as an outlet for his prolific recordings. You may be surprised to learn that Introducing is Blau’s 40-somethingth album.

If none of this surprises you, you savvy knower of DIY lore, then Blau’s new music will.

All 10 songs here are covers, mostly of 1980s Nashville classics, plus a few vintage outliers. The feel is unrepentant, full-bore urban Americana, with baroque strings and horns supporting Blau’s voice, which has become a gorgeous, burnished instrument in its own right. In its deviation from his 20-year M.O.—lo-fi rock and pop, goofy folk ditties, pious ragas and shards of prayers, all leavened by humility and self-deprecation—the album is an entirely new look, a new sound. An introduction.

Producer Tucker Martine inspired at least part of Blau’s transformation: In 2008 Blau and the Portland-based Martine recorded a cover of “That’s How I Got to Memphis” by Tom T. Hall and struck upon a full, lustrous, woebegone tone for the single that carried them to this full-length. “Memphis” kicks off Introducing, Blau’s robust voice amplifying the song’s innate wistfulness into downright regret. Together, Blau and Martine are a powerful force.

Consider their version of “Fallin’ Rain” by Link Wray. Wray recorded the original for his 1971 eponymous album, the one that turned him from surf-guitar god to backwoods blues shaman, and there it’s a haunted, fleeting lament of man’s damnable humanity. Blau and Martine had the vision to unravel its gentle groove, stretch it to almost three times its length and make “Fallin’ Rain” this album’s centerpiece. They added piano and bells and woooh-ooohs and birthed an ingenious interpretation of immense and profound sadness. Ten minutes blink by like tears.

Elsewhere Blau takes on Waylon Jennings’ upbeat “Six White Horses” and dejected “Dreaming My Dreams” and, improbably but effectively, the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” replacing its disco-ballad schmaltz with country-soul grandeur. “Let the World Go By,” originally by Martine’s dad, Layng Martine, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, offers wry emotional respite. Closer “No Regrets” splits the difference between Tom Rush’s stripped-down original and the Walker Brothers’ 1975 hit, Blau’s voice conflicted and Martine’s production radio-ready in its richness.

As heard here, these songs are Blau’s songs, resonant with his cultivated patience and a sense of invigorated reinvention. They also send the curious listener searching for the originals, encouraging further discovery. In that way this album is an introduction—and a gift—twice over.