Karl Blau

Shell Collection

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This may be one of the more obscure CDs to come out under the lo-fi banner in the 1990s, but it's also one of the more interesting ones. Shell Collection is an appropriate title, as it's something like the musical equivalent of a box of seashells: no two alike, combining similar parts but in unique and irreproducible fashions. Blau's facility with numerous modes of rock and pop is impressive, and also makes for a slippery listen. You're never sure where the music's going to lead you next: spacy stuff with distant echoes of acid-folkies like Skip Spence, the incredibly thin-sounding Burt Bacharach-type horn arrangements of "Heaven," the Bee Gees falsetto White boy soul harmonies of "Crayon Session" (backed by recorders that sound worth all of 99 cents), detours into bits of dub reggae and rock-steady that sound almost as authentic as an early-1970s Jamaican 45, the a cappella gospel-soul of "The Big Light (Is Goin' Down)" and interjections of weedy flutes or pipes that sound like lo-fi takes on Herbie Hancock's Headhunters era. A lot, perhaps most, of the people engaging in such genre cross-dressing come off as smart-asses biting off more than they can chew. Blau, remarkably, does not. He's likable, in large part for his humble boyish vocals and good melodies, and also because of a goofball fragmented lyricism conveying a man at odds with the world's absurdities, but willing enough to go along with their flow. He's probably capable of better things as he matures, but it's quite a coup to get as much mileage out of matchbox guitars, boxy percussion, and four-track recording as he does on this album.

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