Chicago outsider Willis Earl Beal's back-story is a blogger's delight, full of the kind of outlandish bullet points that make it easy to caricature new artists. He lives at his grandma's house. He wrote all these songs when he was working as a hotel night porter. He was "discovered" by Found Magazine through one of the hand-drawn flyers he distributed, much like ones he posted throughout Chicago that said "Give me a call, I'll sing you a song." All true, and all very much factors in the progression of events leading up to Acousmatic Sorcery, Beal's much-hyped 11-song debut. Without a doubt, Beal is a weirdo. His songs run a jagged gambit from updated blues to oblivious bedroom raps about being a heartbroken robot. His live shows see him accompanied only by a reel-to-reel backing up his soulful wails, wavering between tuneful and tortured. He casually mentions oatmeal in more songs than Weird Al. All of his eccentricities could point to another sensationalized drop in the bucket, but such is not the case. With or without the press release, Acousmatic Sorcery is a gorgeously raw collection of genuinely unique sounds. Beal's songs paint a picture of an artist untouched by the world around him while paradoxically devouring every part of it, folding his experiences back into his music through his own fractured lens. Recorded at home between 2007 and 2009, the songs are lo-fi out of necessity rather than design. Much like Daniel Johnston's early recordings made on answering machines, Beal crafted these sounds with the dodgy analog recording gear he had access to, and the sonics take on the muted hues of a black-and-white photograph. The guttural blues howl of "Take Me Away" gives way to stream-of-consciousness proto-rap and soul croons on "Swing on Low" and late-night loner lounge on "Sambo Joe from the Rainbow." The songs are raucous and otherworldly, fantastic in a comic book way while retaining a very human feel. Beal's solemnly hushed tunes offer a soft counterpoint to the wild-sided numbers. "Evening's Kiss" is an anthem of lonely teenaged blues as strong as any of Elliott Smith or Modest Mouse's despair-filled weepers in the same vein. It's a flagship of rainy-day sentiments that soar silently, dodging any emo trappings with nakedly beautiful lyrics like "Ask me who I'm with and I'll tell you I'm without." By the middle of destroyed ballad "Away My Silent Lover," Beal sounds like he's barely holding it together, choking back tears in a way that rarely makes it to tape. Instead of an emotional manipulative move that's clearly phony (like, say, MJ's perfectly placed silent weeping at the end of his Disney-esque tearjerker "Childhood"), it's actually uncomfortably real. Like strangers arguing in public or a weary couple who went out to dinner just to break up loudly in the restaurant, Acousmatic Sorcery offers a similar, sometimes unbearably honest look into a very personal world.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas