For folk artist Willis Earl Beal, 2014 has been a decidedly messy year: label disputes, canceled tours, slapdash releases for likely incomplete albums. January’s A Place That Doesn’t Exist, a surprise release available to stream from his Soundcloud page, was solid yet unremarkable, an inferior sonic cousin to 2013’s beautiful Nobody knows.. His second release in just over two months, Curious Cool, is far more diverse, bursting with interesting ideas, many of which deserve further development down the road. However, it’s also half-baked at best, showing that Beal may actually need the constraints of a record label to organize his creative intentions.
Though only eight songs long, the record ranges wide and unpredictably. On the meandering opening tracks “Lust” and “Why”, Beal plays the role of folk troubadour. Later, he’s behind the bar blues stomp of “Like a Box II”, the industrial clang of “Stay”, and the Angelo Badalamenti organ balladry of “By the Lake” and “I Know It’s Okay. (Simple) II”. Every track, in some way, possesses the wily, wacky Willis Earl Beal charm that makes his music so fascinating. “Those girls on those movie screens/ They’re taking it up the ass,” he sings on “Lust”, the rough-hewn lyrics juxtaposing strangely and wonderfully with the stone-faced folk melody.
That said, nothing on Curious Cool sounds remotely fleshed out. Even the album cover, a blurry picture of Beal in front of a skyline with his name in cheesy, turquoise lettering, looks haphazardly thrown together. Because you can listen to Curious Cool without spending a dime, the inclination to relish it is obvious. Harebrained Beal is still better than no Beal at all, which is this new release’s most immediate point of forgiveness and understanding.
However, a productive way to view Curious Cool would be to see it as a series of blueprints. For instance, a song like “By the Lake” could be gorgeous and affecting if it had more time to gestate. Perhaps once Beal settles his issues with XL Records, he’ll go back and further expand upon these already promising ideas. Sometimes even those with the freest spirits need some guidance.
Essential Tracks: “By the Lake”, “I Know It’s Okay. (Simple) II”