Baltimore duo Beach House
Beach House are a dream-weaving alt French-American pop duo, and Bloom is their next tour de force, expected for release 15 May. After reading that Alex Scully, the American half of the band, describes the album as “a huge crystal, spinning in a cave with Star Wars figurines.” I immediately knew I had to find a leak. Had to.
The duo has been a force to reckon with in the indie-alt scene for years. Their first release, a self-titled exploration of chilly, relentless beats from a drum machine, and Victoria Legrand’s incomparable vocals, is the least accessible and most experimental of their albums. The albums to follow, 2008’s Devotion and 2010’s Teen Dream are saturated with radio-play-ability. This sort of pattern begs the question, is the music off Beach House intrinsically what the band intended to create, but fell off their path for the sake of commercialism and the No. 17 spot on Rolling Stone’s 30 Best Albums of 2010? Or have Beach House simply perfected their sound, naturally attracting a fan base including both Jay-Z and Beyoncé? (Remember that time the two of them were spotted at a Grizzly Bear concert?) Relax, there’s no more need to extrapolate! 2012 has marked the release (or, leak) of Bloom, the band’s fourth studio album, and there is much to discuss.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z Tastemakers of Coachella, via Brooklyn Vegan
On 8 March, the band poked and prodded their massive following with a single-track release. I found myself on my daily one-hour commute with this song, “Myth”, constantly on repeat. It is one song amongst many in their repertoire that immediately leaves the listener wondering how merely two individuals can produce such a full sound, and more importantly, how on earth do they pull this off live? It opens with what we would expect- a tinny beat that, in my opinion, is worthy of their first album. Ethereal arpeggios take over, followed by Legrand’s hazy and breathy vocals, and suddenly, the track sounds like Teen Dream! I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Teen Dream. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to Teen Dream (I just opened my itunes, and it seems I’ve listened to Teen Dream a solid 800+ times). However, I would equate this to the sort of filler tracks of Teen Dream, which are few and far between. Let’s just say, it’s no “Zebra”, which begins as a simple riff, paired with introductory sighing from the two, and builds to crashing cymbals and bending vocals. “Myth” is Teen Dream lite. At this point, it seems that Beach House have found their equation for success, and they’re not afraid to use it.
I can remember vividly the first time I listened to the second track, “Wild”, because I felt such a strong sense of disappointment, and almost embarrassment. One of the most unique vocal techniques that Legrand uses is “vocal bending”, mentioned above in reference to “Zebra”. This involves making a half or hole tone step up or downwards extremely obvious, emphasizing all tonal steps in between. Usually, this technique is awesome, and used in unexpected ways. It’s like a welcome shock to the ear, which simultaneously demonstrates vocal prowess. However, as part of the new Beach House equation for success, this technique appears once every two bars of each verse in this track. Bummer! Definitely overdone, definitely obvious, definitely not cool.
Track 3, “Lazuli”, begins with electronic arpeggios, something a little different, which comes as a pleasant surprise. But then, the vocal sighing begins, this time almost identical to that of Teen Dream’s “Norway”, more evidence that Beach House have become accustomed to what works for them. I don’t mind the recycling, but what I do mind is the lyrics to this piece that literally make me cringe. Remember that introductory survey art history course you took? An that lecture, during which you learned about blue pigment coming from Lapis Lazuli, which was mined from a single cave in Afghanistan, thus, the stuff was worth more than gold! I’m pretty sure I told everyone I knew, thinking this was intellectual gold (or Lapis Lazuli? Did I really just go there?). Because, as we all know, “There’s nothing like Lapis Lazuli”. Seriously, Beach House? Pure disappointment here.
On a positive note, “Other People” has the really amazing riff that is reminiscent of something from a John Hughes movie- not Ferris Bueller, but something with Molly Ringwald. Its closest reference in my mind is Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, which is really great. One feels immediately transported to some American prom in the mid-80′s which, come on, is where you want to be.
Following a bunch of filler tracks, including the likes of “The Hours” and “New Year”, comes a single saving-grace, a follower of the success-equation, but different enough to elude that sense of emotion that we’ve been waiting for, “Wishes”. The introduction to this song is so soft and celestial, that upon listening, it always summons an image of oneself, flying. Go on, close your eyes and listen to it. Eventually, the guitar gets a little harder in this song, then soft again, and its this dynamic variety that is unique amongst the other Bloom tracks. Success is followed by another success, “On the Sea”, which begins with a tiresome piano riff that is reminiscent of seasickness and restlessness. This song is like a welcomed sanctuary in its simplicity, a sort of calm before the storm that is the last track, “Irene”. This is the sort of epic outro one would expect from some progressive rock-opera album. The repetition of the phrase “It’s a strange paradise” is not only tiresome, but it comes across as mantra-esque, as if the listener needs a moment to calm down and reflect upon what they have just experienced. But is this really necessary?
The issue with Bloom is what the band have created versus what fans expect from them. I suppose all of the positive feedback they received for Teen Dream must have triggered something, whether consciously or not. To refer once again to Alex Scully’s own description of the album, a huge crystal, spinning in a cave with Star Wars figurines, I suppose I would have to disagree because, not only are there zero Star Wars references, but this is also definitely not worthy of one huge crystal. Maybe several, small crystals. In a desert.
Fear not, Beach House fans! Believe me, as much as I can pick out problems with this album, I’ve still been listening to it regularly. The light at the end of the tunnel is, of course, the duo’s massive tour coming up! Having opened for the likes of Grizzly Bear (there they are again!) and Vampire Weekend, Beach House have honed their live act to perfection. With Scully sitting down, managing his guitar with his hands and pedals with his feet, and Legrand, master organist and vocalist with her massive hair in her face, usually accompanied by some sparkly prisms, followers know that if they cannot rely on their newer tracks to be as innovative and fresh as their previous work, that their live act will be as energetic and moving as it has always been.
L-R: Alex Scully, Sparkly Prism, Victoria Legrand
Beach House will be performing at Village Underground 24 May, and Roundhouse 2 November.2 Comments