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They're All Above Average 

by Courtney Harding & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & efore we commence with a discussion of Karl Blau, let's do a little free association. The term is "hip music hotspots."

And, go!

Brooklyn. Austin. Portland. The local bar with cheap drinks, a killer jukebox, and bartender whose haircut cost a week's wages. Berlin. Paris ... Uh, a converted firehouse in Anacortes, Washington.

Wait, what?

Yes, kids, the newest and coolest sounds are coming out of a tiny town in western Washington better known for logging and fishing than sunny indie artists. In the last five years, Anacortes has become something of a new Olympia crossed with an indie-rock Yaddo. It's a place for Northwest artists to escape, decompress and be part of a community, all centered around a converted firehouse called the Department of Safety that acts as both a living and music space. The "Anacortes sound" is defined by Phil Elverum of the Microphones and the Charming Tedious record label, and it's generally shambling, twee, and relentlessly positive. It's a breath of fresh air after years of miserable music about miserable people, and its principled social and political stands come across as genuine rather than preachy.

All this brings us to the place that spawned Karl Blau, the latest star of the Puget Sound. Although his name makes him sound like a German techno DJ, Blau is a lifelong Washingtonian who just released his second album, Beneath Waves, on K Records.

The child of musical parents, Blau started forming bands in middle school and continued to play with one of his first bands, Captain Fathom, through college. After graduating from Western Washington University, he headed south to the indie-pop Mecca of Olympia, and formed the band D+ with Bret Lunsford and Phil Elverum, both mainstays of the Sound scene. Blau also found time to record with Mirah, Wolf Colonel, the Microphones, Little Wings and Laura Veirs, as well as founding an "album-a-month" club, KELP. The KELP albums are a series of collaborations between Blau and other artists and friends, and over the course of the series, the listener can witness his progression as a lyricist and composer.

Blau most often sounds like Nick Drake, if Drake had spent his time eating vegan ice cream on the streets of Olympia and not taking pills and dying on the streets of London. On Beneath Waves, he sings in a high, sometimes trembling voice over an impressive mix of instruments, including horns and electronic glitches. "Into the Nada" is Blau's surprisingly successful attempt at a reggae song, while "Ode to Demons" works in a slide solo. "Slow Down Joe" is simple indie-pop song, and the opening track, "Crashing Waves," incorporates a charging piano line that gives it a classic-rock feel. A spoken-word piece seems a little out of place, but overall the album's quirkiness seems natural. Blau has stated in previous interviews that he wants to keep pushing boundaries, and this record shows he is keeping that promise.

Staying true to your word seems to be a hallmark of the Anacortes aesthetic, and the impression given by residents paints the community as a cool, West Coast version of Lake Wobegon, where all the boys are long-haired, all the women sing cracked freak-folk ditties and everyone gathers for locally grown vegan brunches at the Department of Safety. While no town can ever sustain a utopian ideal for too long, a dispatch from a hipster Oneida can remind us that some communities come close to perfection, if only on the records of artists like Karl Blau.

Karl Blau at the Shop with Johanna Kunin and the Gift Machine on Sunday, April 30, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $5. Visit or call 534-1647.
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