Monthly Archives: March 2014

25 Masterworks: Beach House – Teen Dream

My Spin on Masterworks: 5 of 25

Beach House

Teen Dream

Sub Pop / Bella Union, 2010

1 Teen Dream

All great music thrives on magic in some form or another, which can take shape through an unending range of characteristics. The albums I’ve already venerated in this series draw with varying degrees on powers of telepathic performativity, transcendent lyricism, studio trickery, and occasionally, classic impulsive nuttiness. With this blog, I’m making attempts to unpack and articulate the je ne sais quoi of 25 particularly magical albums, but some mysteries are harder to unravel than others. When considering Baltimore duo Beach House, however, pinpointing such splendour isn’t particularly difficult. Nevertheless, the simplicity of their music doesn’t reduce its quality one jot.

While Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have tended to build their songs atop familiar themes and foundations, they always thread their content with a sense of otherworldly magnificence. Peering into their back catalogue offers a glimpse into the world that they’ve constructed around themselves with their songwriting; a universe inhabited by Tokyo witches, islands of turtles, and quietly vivid landmarks, such as lonely hilltop houses and vistas of endless green. As summarised on ‘Irene’, it’s a strange paradise indeed. And it’s music which has sparkled from their very first outing, although their original two albums maintained a lo-fi aesthetic which swathed their melodies in mystery. 2006’s self-titled debut was shrouded in a hazy, intoxicating fug, whereas 2008’s Devotion allowed the melodies a little more room to push through the shade and into the light.

Yet it was with Teen Dream that the lushness and poetry of Beach House’s music was finally harnessed to its full potential, culminating in their most entrancing album to date. The widescreen aesthetic it purveys was catalysed by a number of technical alterations following their second album. The duo shifted from Carpark Records to the more established Sub Pop label, and recorded the entirety of Teen Dream in a converted church in New York City, with Chris Coady taking production duties. Their attachment to Sub Pop prodded them closer into the alt-scene spotlight, and the church setting coaxed their hymnal sensibilities into grander forms. It’s partly this increased lucidity that allows an air of magic to drift through Teen Dream, wafting from every pore and texture like steam.

And perhaps more crucially, the music is refreshingly direct. The pleasant, unwinding guitar pattern of opener ‘Zebra’ is warm and memorable, but there’s no secret in its edifice: it’s a rather basic framework, with Scally shying away from fretboard heroics in favour of tender warmth. His silky guitar lines form a strong alloy with Legrand’s undulating keys, and there’s little need for additional flavours in their template beyond the leisurely thump of a drum machine. No secrets; just an honest ability to weave together childlike wonder and seasoned vulnerability. See the song ‘Real Love’, which blends earnest adventure with fear: “I met you somewhere / In a hell beneath the stairs.”

1 Beach House

Beach House: Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally (photo: le-minimalist.blogspot.co.uk)

The heartbreak in Teen Dream is expressed through beguilingly simple means. Legrand’s lyrics are grounded in sweeping ideas, but granted a worldly knowledge via her smoky, dramatic voice, which hangs heavy with sadness, tenderness, and resilience. Her presence invests the whole record with sincerity, and thus, her language is in need of few frills in order to sound full of conviction. The album’s final words are repeated throughout a coda which takes three minutes to fade out completely. “I’ll take care of you, that’s true,” Legrand promises, as what is possibly the pair’s loveliest lullaby dances into the distance. The repetition of that single sentiment, combined with the music’s gradual evaporation, reflects a promise made to last forever. It’s delivered with such aching intimacy that by the time the song – and the album – is over, you believe her.

Still, these dreams are not without darkness, and the line between bliss and pain is frequently hard to trace. ‘10 Mile Stereo’ is a hauntingly beautiful creation, as cinematic as anything on 2012’s Bloom, revolving around a disquieting image of two companions, “legs on the edge and […] feet on the horizon”. This notion of endings – of dreams, love, or perhaps life – shades the edges of each song, chafing against the prettiness of the music with a bittersweet melancholy. ‘Silver Soul’ channels the band’s wooziest abilities, enveloping its queasy guitar line in a perfumed miasma of droning organs and cooing vocals. There’s something especially ceremonial about Legrand’s voice during the chorus, which teeters on the brink of some ambiguous ecstasy as she repeatedly cries “it is happening again”, elongating her pronunciation of that final word until it becomes a ritualistic chant.

As their discography grows, some will find Beach House a little too set in their ways to evolve satisfactorily, but the pair have made their own intentions clear. “I hate it when bands change between records,” Scally admitted to Pitchfork in 2012. “They’re thinking before they make music. […] That’s not the way we work.” Those in search of constant games of musical hopscotch are out of luck then, but ultimately, Beach House have refined their formula to near-perfection already. All ten songs on Teen Dream are of such a high calibre that they remain astonishing even after countless replays, shining ever brighter with each new listen. I could happily pen something complimentary on each of them; ten jewels in a single gleaming pendant. But suffice to say that there is nothing superfluous about what has been recorded here: its purity and personality is disarming, direct, and intimate. Pain, heartbreak, unrequited desire, and amazement, packaged into dream-pop at its most enchanting. Pure magic.

Teen Dream
1 – Zebra
2 – Silver Soul
3 – Norway
4 – Walk in the Park
5 – Used to Be
6 – Lover of Mine
7 – Better Times
8 – 10 Mile Stereo
9 – Real Love
10 – Take Care

31/03/2014

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25 Masterworks: TV on the Radio – Dear Science

My Spin on Masterworks: 4 of 25

TV on the Radio

Dear Science

4AD, 2008

TV on the Radio - Dear Science

I’ve got absolutely no idea why the members of TV on the Radio chose to christen themselves with that particular name, but whatever the original reason(s), it’s a title perfectly suited to the characteristics of the group. Among other things, the phrase “TV on the Radio” brings hybridity to mind: the merging of distinct but not altogether incompatible materials, and how such a synthesis can spawn bold, bizarre, and fascinating outcomes.

These notions carry straight through to the heart of the band’s output thus far: nothing quite fits within the contours of a single expectation. The quartet (formerly a quintet, prior to the sad passing of Gerald Smith in 2011) seem to work with a thrilling telepathy, constantly swapping instrumental duties and writing credits, while keeping the fruits of their labour taut and focused. At the band’s best, every component gels so perfectly that each shift and movement sounds totally organic; the product of a singular consciousness rather than as a composite of several individual minds.

It’s this concept of making the familiar seem fresh and invigorating which is most pertinent when considering Dear Science. TV on the Radio have always dealt with purposeful subject matter, demonstrating proficiency for serving up apocalyptic showcases, which somehow sidestep pomposity and instead emerge spiky, sharp, and sexy. The technique was mastered for 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, but where that record cloaked itself in a raw scuzziness, Dear Science is scrubbed up; its equally weighty topics polished to a clean sheen. And even though the group’s rougher edges are now smoothed-out, the heart and soul of the project continues to push its way to the fore, exhibited in every croon, caterwaul, and gasp of dual vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone.

And there’s a lot of gutsiness to be found in these 50 minutes, as the lofty themes of life, death, war, love and loss are refracted through a 21st Century lens. In a sense, Dear Science offers an aural interpretation of the Book of Revelation, shaken awake to witness the era of the Bush administration, post-9/11 anxiety, and destructively compulsive consumerism. These quasi-religious touches echo through the parable-esque songwriting which peppers the album, with near-Biblical references even creeping into song titles. The dusky allegory of ‘Stork & Owl’ is particularly significant and breathtaking, with Malone’s wrenching examination of death caressed by tiptoeing keyboard figures and strings which sigh like branches in a breeze. Then there’s the chorus of the punchy ‘Red Dress’, which namechecks white robes and the whore of Babylon, while directing a furious gaze at a backdrop of war and slavery.

What develops is a tension between traditional faith and scientific fact, channelled into a sense of exasperation at failing to find solutions in such a dislocated age. It’s typified in the album’s title, which was taken from a note scribbled by Dave Sitek in the studio:

“Dear Science, please start curing people and solving problems or shut the fuck up.”

TV on the Radio, circa 2008 (l-r: Tunde Adebimpe, Dave Sitek, Kyp Malone, Gerald Smith, Jaleel Bunton)

TV on the Radio, circa 2008 (l-r: Tunde Adebimpe, Dave Sitek, Kyp Malone, Gerald Smith, Jaleel Bunton)

The band’s music meets this tension head-on, entrenching hybridity once more by heightening their genre-mashing tendencies, drawing on alt-rock, hip-hop, soul and funk, and throwing in euphoric fanfares of horns, strings, and synths for good measure. ‘Dancing Choose’ slaloms with élan through a rapid-fire barrage of 21st Century snapshots (personal favourite: “angry young mannequin – American apparently”), its furious glee perhaps the noughties’ best response to R.E.M.’s ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine)’.

And while they might not feel entirely “fine”, TV on the Radio are still able to hold onto hope in the face of overbearing hardships. Most revealing is ‘Shout Me Out’, which deals with despondency but refuses to be defeatist, instead kicking into high gear with surging positivity. Such fist-pumping releases can be found throughout Dear Science: ‘Crying’ bounces from one sprightly hook to the next, grounded in a guitar line which could make anyone shit holy balls of funk. Then there’s the fizzing, anthemic ‘Golden Age’, and the grand finale ‘Lover’s Day’, which closes the whole opus with a tribute to the redemptive power of mind-blowingly good sex.

Consequently, Dear Science is just as fun as it is timely, thanks in large part to the band’s renewed sonic template. While Adebimpe and Malone ooze warm charisma, it’s their bandmate and producer Dave Sitek who keeps everything in check. He ensures the bulky themes of Dear Science don’t capsize the music itself, and as such, Sitek is this album’s ace in the hole, ensuring that every single second gleams with crispness and colour, thus allowing the whole thing to glide by with effortless poise.

This resultant palatability is integral to the central appeal of Dear Science; the fact that amid all the fear and confusion which its authors dissect, it revels in the joy of life itself, and the exaltation beyond the hardships. By crisscrossing between faith and disillusionment, TV on the Radio attempt to navigate contemporary angst, while firmly reassuring us that a golden age will come around again, someday. And even though this portent might not prove correct (something the band themselves are more than aware of), it at least provides us with a glimmer of hope that we should try to cling onto – at least until science can get its shit together.

Dear Science
1 – Halfway Home
2 – Crying
3 – Dancing Choose
4 – Stork & Owl
5 – Golden Age
6 – Family Tree
7 – Red Dress
8 – Love Dog
9 – Shout Me Out
10 – DLZ
11 – Lover’s Day
 

24/03/2014