Grab Willis Earl Beal's new free EP, Principles of a Protagonist

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Yesterday Chicago-reared singer-songwriter Willis Earl Beal teamed up with popular file-sharing service BitTorrent to release a free five-song EP called Principles of a Protagonist. The EP shares its name with a novel Beal struggled to finish; Hot Charity/XL packaged a version of the book with his official debut full-length, Acousmatic Sorcery. The songs on the new EP, which are new versions of cuts from Beal's album, will be used to soundtrack a forthcoming animated film, also called Principles of a Protagonist.

It's been interesting to watch the way critics, fans, and even detractors have struggled to describe Beal's music. I called him an antifolk artist when I wrote my Reader B Side feature about him last summer, and as far as I'm concerned the term is a fine fit for the warm, messy, and heartfelt home recordings on Acousmatic Sorcery; his idiosyncratic sound has evolved since then, but I still think "antifolk" is as good a description as any. He ditched most of Acousmatic Sorcery's lo-fi trappings when he redid the instrumental tracks for Protagonist, resulting in collection of dense-sounding tunes whose style could be succinctly described as "whatever Beal has in mind."

Though Beal has been performing these new versions of his old songs for nearly a year, the new recordings sometimes diverge from the sound of his live set. His onstage persona stands in stark contrast to the introverted artist on Acousmatic Sorcery—he bounces around almost nonstop and belts out his songs as though the words are being cast out of his body by an exorcist. The new recordings strike a balance between these two sides of Beal—he takes the time to create intimate spaces, then lets loose with his golden howl.

I see Beal as the kind of artist who'll attract a fan base that will eagerly collect different versions of his songs. Having caught him live half a dozen times in a little more than a year, I'm pretty confident that no two performances are alike, and even the most subtle change in his singing can make a world of difference. Take his first single, "Evening's Kiss"; on the Acousmatic Sorcery version Beal sings in a hushed whisper, as if he's telling his best friend a secret, but on Principles of a Protagonist he drops entire sets of lyrics and often belts out a verse in an earthy roar. The new recording of "Evening's Kiss" is also different from Beal's scorching performance of it on BBC Two program Later . . . With Jools Holland, which had him choking back tears towards the end. I certainly wouldn't mind owning all those versions.

You can still get the EP from BitTorrent, and on YouTube you can get lost in the many other versions of Beal's songs.

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