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Tender Forever: The Soft and the Hardcore

Tender Forever: The Soft and the Hardcore

Release Date:2006

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 2/8/2006

Follow the output of K Records long enough, and two archetypes emerge: the Pied Piper-like “uncle” figure (Little Wings’ Kyle Field, label founder Calvin Johnson, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum) and the fragile-yet-prickly “auntie” figure (Khaela “the Blow” Maricich, Kimya Dawson, Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn). Both types collaborate and appear on each other’s albums, but while the uncles tend toward an eclectic drollery, both musically and lyrically, the aunties hew to political and nakedly personal statements.

If you don’t recognize Karl Blau’s name, it might be because this Dave Matthews sound-alike isn’t as recklessly prolific as his peers; Beneath Waves is only his third full-length in nine years. This particular uncle has always been hard to slot. Johnson’s the creepy abyss-voiced romantic; Field is the sly community-minded hippie-guru; Elverum perpetually stares wide-eyed into the chasm of his own self-regard. But Blau’s only discernable urge is to shuffle—chameleonlike, unrockingly mellow, and brief—through different styles: folk, tropicalia-lite, watered-down reggae, and ’60s pop.

Waves is unusually rock-centric and gradual for Blau. “Slow Down Joe” trots along heavily under Blau’s lulling, multitracked harmonies and fake British accent, dotted with scorching guitar solos. “Dragon Song” breaks down with militaristic drumming and flute. “The Dark Magical Sea” is a rustling psychedelic thicket, tuneless woodwinds poking out from John Fahey-esque guitar and mysterious bursts of percussion.

Newly recruited K auntie Melanie Valera makes her home in Bordeaux, France, and her slippery cadence immediately sets Tender Forever apart from its stateside counterparts. The Soft and the Hardcore fiercely adheres to a single narrative—the fallout of a woman’s lesbian awakening, and the jealousy and heartache that comes with physical distance from the newfound object of her affections.

Breathlessly anxious vocally and tentative musically, Valera invites us to consider her desires and confusion on her strummed, spartan songs. “Take It Off” describes the moment of erotic liftoff, synthesized beat clusters looping under ascending, glistening keyboards. The particulars of Valera’s circumstance are most affecting when she’s working on small canvases. “Happy Birthday” revolves its simple melody around a handful of jumping-bean organ notes as Valera sends wishes overseas, somewhere between longing sigh and a cresting orgasm before dropping the clincher: “I’m just floating on my bed/ Pretending you’re my girlfriend.”

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