Some recording artists guard their craft as closely as Fort Knox, waiting until the last bit of postproduction is done on an album to unleash new material. Only later, when they get booked on VH1 Storytellers, do fans get a glimpse into the inner workings of the artist's muse. (And, honestly, what could improve "White Wedding" more than hearing it performed on acoustic guitar—except Billy Idol explaining how he wrote it?)
Karl Blau is not one of these people.
For the past two years, the Anacortes-based multi-instrumentalist has operated Kelp! Monthly, a subscriber-only label dedicated to documenting Blau's love of music, and his ongoing journey of discovery. Field recordings, collaborations with colleagues like Laura Veirs (Blau plays in her touring band) and Phil Elverum (the Microphones/Mt. Eerie), a split EP with P:ano, other artists he produces—anything is fair game, and the Kelp! series offers a fascinating window into the creative process of one individual.
On Tuesday, January 24, Karl issued his latest opus, Beneath Waves. Like many of his records, it utilizes a vast palette of sonic colors: melancholy folk rock, ensemble vocals by the Noceans (Veirs, Nate Ashley, and Dave Matthies), passages of dissonant horns and brass. Fans of Sufjan Stevens's flights of orchestral fancy should be particularly enticed by the majestic Beneath Waves selection "My Johnny."
Yet unlike much of his catalog, this disc is being issued via another label, specifically Olympia indie-rock bastion K Records. "I've wanted to make a record for them for a long time," Blau explains. And since he knew that a K release would receive wider distribution than his subscriber-only titles, he put extra care into it. In fact, Beneath Waves has been recorded and rerecorded, and made available to the public, twice—allowing even closer insight into Blau's creative process.
First, there's the Kelp! edition of Beneath Waves issued last year: "There are several songs that were on that version that didn't make it to the K one." In their stead, stellar songs like "Shadow," "Into the Nada," and the epic "The Dark, Magical Sea" were added to the program.
But before either version of Waves, there was also The Dark, Magic Sea, the very first Kelp! release. This four-track recording of 14 songs included rough-hewn versions of much of the same material; the original "My Johnny" sounds almost more like a primitive Magnetic Fields demo than the song it has matured into by the K version of Beneath Waves. (Curiosity seekers can compare renditions of a couple songs by visiting www.kelpmonthly.com, clicking through the splash page to the mainframe, and then choosing "1" from the Select-a-Kelp option to bring up clips from The Dark, Magic Sea.)
Next up, Blau wants to start an instrumental dance band, albeit one with a distinct political agenda. Given his rate of productivity, expect to hear music from the as-yet-unnamed project sooner rather than later. "It seems like every time I turn around, I put something new out," he admits. "It keeps me on my toes."