In Brief: A disappontingly average record that could benefit from more variation. Yet it’s one I keep coming back to, because Beach House has a unique and compelling sound overall.
Every now and then, one of those bands comes along that makes you wonder if you’re just plain listening to the music wrong. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be possible, because we all have ears that work pretty much the same way (loss of hearing over time due to attending too many rock concerts notwithstanding), and we’re all hearing more or less the same soundwaves as we listen to our copies of the same songs (audiophiles who treasure their vinyl records might beg to differ, but I don’t feel like going there today). The issue seems to be more about what elements you’re listening for, or whether you’re even paying attention beyond the superficial level of which song has a good hook or a chorus that you can sing along to after hearing it once. That sort of thing interests me as one who reviews music just for kicks, because I tend to delight in the kinds of albums that reward close listening. The ones that the general public seems to write off as not hit-single-worthy enough or fast enough or loud enough, but that have a lot of interesting melodies and textures that sink in slowly. This curiosity has driven me further down the indie rock rabbit hole over the years, to the point where I get bands like Beach House recommended to me because the genre term “dream pop” seems like it would describe something that is right up my alley, and because folks who know my musical tastes figure I’ll listen intently enough to get to the point where an album’s “slow burn” qualities finally start to sizzle.
But every now and then I come across an album like Beach House’s Bloom, where the harder I try to give it my full attention, the more it seems to keep me at a distance. It’s a frustrating paradox, because it makes it difficult to describe my reasons for liking or disliking certain aspects of their sound. Here you have a band who, at their core, has a certain ethos to their music that I admire – just two band members, one on keyboard and vocals, the other on guitar/bass/additional keyboards as needed, but generally trying to avoid cluttering up their sound with guest musicians or out-of-genre experiments or what have you. Their drums are almost all programmed – they just set that sucker on infinite loop and set about creating a mood over however many minutes they feel is appropriate. It’s the kind of music that you can easily get lost in, but if you’re like me and you have this insatiable urge to dig for the complexity beneath the simple surface, then well, you might be looking for the exact thing that this band is trying to avoid getting caught up in. I tend to get really bored with repetition – unless of course you’re repeating something that I found immediately appealing – so this is the kind of band that can drive me bonkers with a seemingly interminable song one minute and then win me over by letting the very next song linger in the exact same way. It doesn’t make sense to me. I want to be one of those simple people who, if he hears something he likes at the beginning of an album, won’t mind hearing a band continue to do that very same thing for the next ten songs. But I’m pretty sure that Beach House isn’t trying to dumb anything down or aim their music at an audience that they consider to be anything less than intelligent and sophisticated. I can only assume that the problem is me – at least, until I put my feelers out there and discover that not everyone else who likes Beach House’s overall style is necessarily enamored with their ability to stick to the same mostly languid tempos and textures for nearly an hour.
I suppose I should back up a step and explain the group’s overall style. Beach House is a duo from Maryland consisting of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally. Legrand handles all of the lead vocals, a fact which is not always evident to newcomers unless they’re seeing the band perform live, because she’s got one of those androgynous voices that is ambiguous in the same way that a lot of male indie rock singers tend to be. (Seriously, go listen to some Deas Vail after you listen to this album. It will mess you up.) Scally seems to be a bit of an underrated guitarist, probably because he’s not going for anything flashy or show-offy – he knows how to lay down a good lick or a warm, engulfing layer of tremolo-induced haze when a song calls for it, but it can be easy to lose that aspect of Beach House’s music in the overall mix. Between these elements and the drums (which on this album seem to get the occasional boost from a real live drum kit, but which remain mostly sequenced and almost never the focal point of a song), Beach House has a distinctive sound where, once you’ve heard them, you will always know it’s them when you hear a new song from the group, but where you’ll never really be all that surprised by it again. I don’t want to call them “the middle of the road”, since I certainly don’t listen to anyone else who sounds a whole lot like them. But at times it does feel like they’ve carved out their own road, and they stubbornly stick to the middle of it. True to their name, their music can be as relaxing as a day spent at the beach – but not a sunny, Southern California beach where there are barbecues and volleyball games aplenty. It’s more like the greyness of a north Atlantic beach on a day where you have to wear a sweater and you definitely don’t want to go swimming, but there aren’t throngs of people around and you can walk peacefully for miles without encountering another soul. Clouds loom in the distance, threatening rain, but it never happens. If that sounds appealing to you – even when sustained with little variance throughout an entire album – then Bloom might be for you. For me, it’s one of those albums that I have to give credit to for continually pulling me back in despite my mixed reaction to it, and for even managing to land two songs on my “Best of 2012” list despite my initial insistence that “it all sounds the same”. Obviously it doesn’t, but first impressions can be deceiving. Let’s take a closer look… I would say farther look, but um, that makes no sense.
The opening track is a perfect introduction to the ingredients typically at Beach House’s disposal. In this case, though it took me a while to realize it, they congeal together into a great song. You’ve got your deliberately outdated rhythm track – which here sounds like the MIDI equivalent of hi-hats and cymbals played slowly and evenly on the quarter notes. You’ve got a cascading piano melody that adds grace and humanity to the song, despite being as robotic and evenly measured as the beat. You’ve got Alex’s guitars, which have that perfect sort of “dream state” tone to them as they strum throughout the song and later tremble along with the verse melody in a simple but captivating instrumental bridge. You’ve got live percussion, which is heavy on the toms and bass drum though not particularly loud, complementing the basic rhythm of the song, and wisely changing up the feel of it from verse to chorus, giving an otherwise static song a feeling of movement. And finally, you’ve got Victoria’s icy yet beautiful voice, standing at a distance from a person’s emotional breakdown as she calmly advises them to let go of a past that they loved, or perhaps a mental image of the world that was never actually true. Struggling to put feelings into words seems to be the central idea behind her repeated refrain of “Help me to name it”, and when the rhythm shifts and the song reaches its chorus, her ghostly high notes have completely won me over. Many of these ingredients will be reused in different permutations throughout the album, but as far as its mid-tempo songs go, none of them seem to strike as powerfully as this one does.
The one track on this album that might actually pass for “up-tempo” turns out to be my favorite… though not just for that superficial reason. It’s true that the rhythm – which seems danceable due to its compelling use of syncopation and its emphasis on the “electronic hi-hat” sound – was the first element of any song on Bloom to get itself stuck in my head. It feels a bit like watching a rave happen at half speed or something – it’s fast enough to stand out, but slow enough to still blend into the album well. Alex’s chimey guitar riff here is certainly an addictive feature – it’s the way that its rhythm interplays with the programmed and live drums that makes it so easy for me to get swept up in the whirpool of sounds. Layer Victoria’s hazy keyboards on top of that, along with a sad lyric about someone’s father leaving home, which is sung to a hauntingly catchy melody, and it’s not hard to see why I find this one so compelling. There’s an aspect to the lyrics that makes me feel like it’s being viewed through the eyes of child – he’s explaining his need to go out and experience the wildness of the world to her, and she’s sad yet trying to understand, ultimately deciding that “You go on pretending”, as if the child’s got more of an adult grasp on the real world than the adult does. So far, despite the dreamy sound, we’re two for two on songs about disillusionment.
I always think of candy when I hear the keyboard intro to this song. The bright notes running up and down the scale remind me of some vintage video game where the colors are all pink and purple and the landscape is made of edible things. It lets a little sunlight into the band’s core sound without straying too far from it – the main instruments in play here are still the gloomy guitar and Victoria’s wispy vocals. This might be one of the more carefree songs on the album, depending on your interpretation. Lyrics are few in favor of repetition, but what few verse lyrics we have seem to be setting up a comparison between a precious stone that glows bright blue (lapis lazuli, which gives the song its name) and a person whose presence has a unique and calming effect on Victoria’s life. “Like no other, you can’t be replaced”, she pines over and over in the song’s long but relaxing coda. It’s the overlapping of a few different vocals lines and the contrasting sound of the keyboards, guitar, and the icy, unchanging drum loop that demonstrate how Beach House can be compelling even when they’re coasting on a musical riff of fragment of a melodic idea rather than working their way through a fully structured song with a beginning an end. It works here, but from here on out, this sort of thing tends to get less and less convincing as the album goes on.
4. Other People
Here begins the albums long slump of mid-tempo dirges, each one only barely doing its part to stand out from the rest. It starts with a song that I probably wouldn’t be so hard on if it were the only song of its kind on the album – one which seems to describe the sad disillusion of friendships in a way that I can tell is going to resonate with a lot of listeners in a very real way, but that for me, seems too hung up on its static rhythm and its dull surprise of a chorus to really hit home. It starts off well enough – Victoria’s melody is captivatingly sad as she describes the act of bidding farewell to someone she realizes she’s already grown apart from. She doesn’t know where the person’s headed or how to look them up, but admittedly, a part of her doesn’t really care any more. And maybe it’s not even because that person did anything wrong – maybe she’s just not really into Facebook and the other person rarely makes phone calls, and now they’re living in a different state, so they’re not going to casually cross paths in the virtual or physical realms. (I’m making all of this up, but having had these things happen does lend a compelling context to the song.) So the band has scored a lot of sympathy with this one until they get to the chorus, which almost completely deflates it with its flat summary of the situations – “Other people want to keep in touch/Something happens and its not enough/Never thought that it would mean so much/Other people want to keep in touch”. It’s frustratingly vague at best, and irritatingly insistent on never changing its melody through all four of those anvilicious rhymes at worst. What could have been a heartbreaking tale of two people reaching out but missing each other due to not knowing how to communicate, instead comes across as an unsympathetic tale of apathetic laziness. And I’m pretty sure that’s not what it’s trying to convey – but it’s hard to get past such a poorly-written chorus.
5. The Hours
A temp almost identical to the previous song and another melody that feels stuck in a loop seem to torpedo this song from the get-go. It’s never stood out to me despite my best attempts – the more closely I pay attention to it, the more I seem to single it out for not doing anything distinctive. It just sort of clunks on by on that same old combination of pleasantly buzzing guitars, atmospheric keyboards, and Victoria’s flat, unwavering tone of voice, which is once again pretty, but there’s no aspect of her performance that seems to adequately capture the tragedy of waiting endless hours for the return of someone who doesn’t even seem to care about her. That turns a lyric which seems to hint at some sort of unarticulated darkness beneath into a typical “woe is me” diary entry, and there just aren’t many circumstances under which I have the patience for this sort of thing if the music can’t at least rise to the level of melodrama hinted at by the lyrics.
Victoria seems to be a big fan of vintage organ sounds – it adds a certain air of creepy otherworldliness to keyboard melodies that might otherwise seem commonplace. This song opens with that sound, so while it’s still doing nothing to differentiate itself from its predecessors tempo-wise, at least I’ve got that difference to hang on to. (I need these sorts of things as signposts so that I don’t lose my place in the album entirely – and I realize that by saying that, I may be resisting the precise effect that Beach House is trying to create.) Alex manages to be compelling despite being incredibly economical – his main riff on this song is all of two notes, swooping down from one to the other, but it depicts the sort of headlong dive into foolish tragedy that the lyrics seem to be describing. Despite hitting some of her most beautiful high notes – the kind of thing that might fool you into considering this a song of fondness and affection if you weren’t paying attention – she seems to be chastising someone who is now watching his life unravel as a result of his apparent addiction to drama. I’m sure you know people like this – the kind who seem to be magnets for personal crisis even though they strike you as harmless and well-intentioned at first. It’s these sorts of sad but savvy character studies that can help a song like this to rise above the similar-sounding din – this one still doesn’t get me all that excited, but it’s just interesting enough to be enjoyable.
7. New Year
I keep wanting to call this song “Promises”, because the theme of keeping promises is more prominent in the song’s refrain than the bit about waiting for a new year to come. But none of that really matters as much as the fact that I struggle to remember what happens in this song, period. It always just sort of breezes right by me, not making much of an impression despite being the one tune on the back half of the album that tries to climb out of the mid-tempo doldrums. (We’re talking like, “Lazuli” speed here, so don’t get too excited.) Faster bpm’s don’t do much to help another uninspired and unchanging rhythm track, one which seems to get only mere whispers of sound from the keyboard and guitar at times for accompaniment, resulting in a lot of dead space where you might expect a particular instrument to be in the spotlight. It’s just plain boring, though no element of it crosses the line into obvious badness.
I think it was only just the other day that I started to notice enough elements of this song that helped to elevate it above the normal shoegazing. It’s still not great – especially considering it has the sort of rhythmic cadence that reminds me of “Myth” but fails to live up to the level of quality established by that song – but there are fleeting moments where I feel compelled by it. Once again, themes of fleeting memories and someone’s vain attempts to hang on to momentary pleasures seem to be resurfacing. The lyrics are more short snippets of thought than fully-fleshed out expressions of feeling, which I suppose suits Victoria’s delivery since she likes the linger on every word and mine it for the sadness that it contains. There’s enough of a “lift” to the melody as it transitions from the verse to her odd chorus about “Wishes on a wheel” that I feel like the song’s going somewhere and not just treading water. Alex also has a guitar solo in the middle of the song – there’s nothing spectacular about it since he seems to intentionally go for subtlety o0n most songs – but it’s a pleasant continuation of the vocal melody. This is still an average song, but it gave me a few things worth noticing, so for that I’ll give it a few pity points.
9. On the Sea
This song turned out to be my reward for listening much more closely to Bloom. Doing my best to soak it in during a neihborhood walk one afternoon, with the backdrop of the setting sun over the autumn trees slowly being stripped bare, this tune really struck me with its welcome change to the musical formula and its absolutely gorgeous melody. For the only time on the entire album, the faux-retro drum programming is entirely absent, and they break out of 4/4 to build a song around a beautiful, bounding piano cadence in 9/8, and it’s the kind of thing that seems like a romantic slow dance, not between two people, but between a lonely sailor’s ship and a goddess who can control the movement of the very ocean he sails on. The lyrics are some of the album’s bleakest, yet the song has a strange calming effect on me, as if to transform one man’s journey into a dark oblivion into a peaceful mantra, a way of accepting the notion that his days on the earth are slowly coming to an end. Alex delivers a trembling guitar solo here that almost sounds operatic, if you can believe that, and Victoria adds an organ loop on top of the piano that just takes the song to whole new levels of surreal. By the time the song gradually fades into the sound of waves crashing in the distance, a sense of total peace has washed over me. Dying sucks for everyone, but if we all have to do it someday, then this is the song that describes the way I’d like to feel about it when my time comes.
After that mesmerizing climax, when we finally reach the opposite shore and find out what eternity has in store for us, it turns out to be a bit of a disappointment. The album’s final song is one which deliberately seeks to lull the listener into a trance, much more so than the majority of the album was trying to do. The guitars seem to have an extra layer of fog added to their usual haze, and they’re playing pretty much the same chord all throughout this seemingly endlessly monstrosity of a song, leaving only the bass and Victoria’s voice to remind you that the chords, still repetitive and simplistic in and of themselves, are actually changing beneath the impenetrable glassy surface of the song. What lyrics we get are short and abstract, the only one that leaves an impression being the repeated mantra “It’s a strange paradise”, which seems to take up well over half of the song. I know that this is supposed to be some sort of a euphoric crescendo, but all I can think throughout those long, dull minutes is how exasperating it is that nothing appears to be changing. There are probably subtle changes in the volume and intensity of the instruments as the band just enjoys the seemingly endless loop they’ve created for themselves. But their bliss doesn’t translate to my own here, because this sounds like the sort of thing that you’d stick in a locked groove at the end of a vinyl record and then leave it up to the listener to figure out that it was never going to change or end. I would have settled for another indistinct midtempo song as the album’s final thought, but instead we get an example of Beach House at their most stubborn and least compelling, completely failing to capture the dynamic elements that can make a long, repetitive coda such a memorable thing at the end of so many other chilled-out indie rock albums.
11. Wherever You Go
An even more laid-back and nondescript song gets tacked on as a hidden track here – it’s one that the band completed during the bloom sessions, and which didn’t sound as evolved to them as the rest of the album, but that they apparently didn’t want to go to waste, so here it is, after a seeming eternity of silence following “Irene”. (The combined track containing the two songs is 16 minutes long – in this day and age where hidden tracks are never truly hidden, I have to ask why they even bothered with the old-school method instead of just offering this one as an iTunes bonus download or at least making it a separate, unlisted track on the disc and dispensing with the excess silence in between. I’m not going to dock the rest of the album points for this one, since it’s clearly an afterthought, but good God, is this one boring. Alex’s guitar slowly wanders about, as if the melody has been recorded and then played back on a warping cassette tape, and Victoria slowly breathes fragments of thoughts in time with this melody – there’s not enough here to serve as a deliberate reprise of any musical idea from the album, nor a call-back to any lyric from the album that sheds an interesting enough light on any of it. And the programmed drums are so slow that they feel like they’ve been enslaved, manipulated into this slow, painful march when the overall mood seems like it would go down better with no percussion at all. Despite not being all that long, this track just drags and drags until it unceremoniously fades out.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Other People $.50
The Hours $0
New Year $0
On the Sea $2
Wherever You Go $0
Victoria Legrand: Lead vocals, keyboards
Alex Scally: Guitar, bass, keyboards, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.