Monthly Archives: March 2014
My Spin on Masterworks: 5 of 25
Sub Pop / Bella Union, 2010
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.”
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