In 2004, producer Tucker Martine recorded an instrumental cover of Tom T. Hall's 1968 country classic "That's How I Got to Memphis." He asked the mercurial -- and prolific -- Karl Blau if he would sing on it. Martine, the husband of Laura Veirs, had been taken with Blau's work with her, and impressed with the results of the song, he released it as a Mount Analog single and the pair vowed to work on a covers album. It would take a decade to realize. Introducing Karl Blau includes that song as its opener, and reveals another side to the quirky, restless, D.I.Y. musician. It brings his honeyed baritone singing to the fore in a set of classic songs from the '60s and '70s. Most come with country bona fides. (Even the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" was cut by the Flying Burrito Brothers.) Often, great country performances of that era were collaborations between artists and producers: Jerry Kennedy made classic records with Hall, as did Bobby Bare (including his hit version of "That's How I Got to Memphis" covered here). That work may be the model for the brilliantly arranged and orchestrated Introducing Karl Blau.
Link Wray's 1971 ballad "Fallin' Rain," from his self-titled Polydor album, is introduced with pillowy, folky psychedelic trimmings -- shimmering piano, fingerpicked Telecasters, congas, and organ. But when Blau starts singing, the song's tragic lyric transports the listener into the heart of bewildered melancholy and it becomes an elegy for the lost. Don Gibson's "Woman (Sensuous Woman)" is a honky tonk waltz, melding bright, acoustic, twangy electric and pedal steel guitars. A layered female backing chorus colors Blau's soulful plea just enough to give it poignancy. The singer employs different timbres for the two Waylon Jennings covers here -- a reedy baritone for the grief-laden "Six White Horses" and a deep, bedroom loverman croon for "Dreaming My Dreams." Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" is seldom covered this well. A droning tamboura, Jew's harp, 12-string acoustics, and fuzzy electric and pedal steel guitars are all blended impeccably. Hall's "Homecoming," a tale of awkward estrangement, is beautifully rendered with a rangy fiddle. Arguably, the best moment here is also the most personal: It's a reading of Layng Martine, Jr.'s "Let the World Go By." (He's Tucker's dad, and a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He's written songs for everyone from Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to the Pointer Sisters and Reba McEntire.) This version offers a darker, more rock-oriented Lee Hazlewood-esque take on Glenn Yarbrough's 1968 original that was arranged as a strange, wonderful pop vocal-cum-countrypolitan big-band number.
The past isn't revived on Introducing Karl Blau. Instead, it's recontextualized by Martine as a showcase for a truly gifted song interpreter. Blau places himself completely in the producer's hands, and digs into these lyrics and charts for all he's worth, delivering a gem as timeless as its songs. ~ Thom Jurek