By Jason Motz
Willis Earl Beal
Rating 9 out of 10 stars
Like Robert Johnson crossed with Tom Waits, Willis Earl Beal‘s sophomore album is a rustic set of hobo blues. Nobody Knows is by no means derivative; it throbs with an aching soul and glistens with the moisture that comes from long solo meandering. (Oh, and it’s as bawdy as a cathouse on the first long weekend of the summer.)
A firm 13-song set, Nobody Knows. is the breakout album of the year. For all of the talk about Yeezus and Reflektor, this scrappy,low-fi David slays all the giants. (Sorry David Bowie, but I might have prematurely bestowed album of the year honours to you). The junkhouse funk and roadhouse ragga of Nobody Knows. is the closest we’ll ever get to a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins album produced by Jamie XX.
“Lot of people think that the lives they lead are the truth,” he sings on ‘Coming Through,’ a stunning track with harmony vocals by Chan Marshall of Cat Power. “They think that what they believe it’s the truth /Think that what they see is the truth/Well, I’m your boy William Earl Beal and I don’t believe that.” The bulk of Nobody Knows. follows this thread of thought through an album built on dreamlike melodies and infused with hard-worn soulfulness.
Beal’s voice is king. Beal has a voice wizened like razor wire, cool and ominous like an Atlantic squall. He could have the soul of a 1,000-year old man inside his 29-year old body. Like Dylan, Beal seems to come out of a mythic swamp, pooled out of all the right influences: carnies, hoboes, railway men, Civil War veterans, pub stool keepers, cotton field workers. Then there are the elements of Robert Johnson, Little Milton and Sam Cooke, Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael and Tom Waits. He sounds at times both Christ-like and Devil-possessed. The duality makes for surprisingly cohesive listening.
Sonically, the minimalist production favours finger snaps and muted beatbox for percussion, echo-laden piano and the rusty ache of strings for a chilling effect.
“Now I’m dancing in the alley/With rust in my soul/Facing all the dumpsters/With no particular goal/The train is just a memory/The road may be kind/As everything unwinds,” he sings philosophically on ‘Everything Unwinds.’
There’s a lot to Beal, an interesting backstory, a philosophy behind Nobody Knows. and even a movement known as The Church of Nobody. I hesitate to go into all of that for fear of putting people off; honestly, it isn’t as pretentious as it would seem. But don’t take my word for it: listen to Willis Earl Beal on your terms. He is the real deal.
Sometimes Too Much Ain’t Enough
Rating 7 out of 10 stars
Let’s assume that every soul band in Detroit has been uncovered. And let’s say that every club from Austin to New York, Toronto to Manchester has run dry of virgin soul bands. Fret not, soul sistas and brothas. Barcelona might be the new mecca for soul. And it there is anything else comparable to The Excitements, then we are in good hands. Sometimes Too Much Ain’t Enough is the groups second album, and it is a slippery, salacious pleasure. If your bumpin’ and grindin’ has grown stale, throw on this disc and re-discover your groove.
Fronted by by vocalist Koko-Jean Davis, Barcelona’s answer to Tina Turner, The Excitements serve up ladles of salsa-infused R&B. There’s nothing unique about the formula: the white-hot heat of guitars, bone-snapping thwak of bass and drums and a horn section that would make Gabriel turn in fright.
The formula isn’t all that different from the millions of other soul bands that have come before them.
If the album left me parched and physically spent, I wonder if their live performance will be lethal? Anecdotal evidence suggests that they are killer live.
If the line-up and presentation fails to diverge from the tired R&B format there is one thing that separates The Excitements from the pack: the music is drenched in sex. Davis has a voice that radiates physical hunger and lust, a very primal aura not unlike Ms. Turner crossed with Iggy Pop. And the band takes no prisoners. There’s not one meat and potato player in the bunch – more like Cuchifritos and Fideua. Tangy with furious heat, Sometimes … offers bold flavours and sinewy rhythms sure thaw out all of your inhibitions. Isn’t that what soul music was meant to do anyway?
WATCH THE EXCITEMENTS PERFORM ‘I’M A GOOD WOMAN’