2010 Art Times: BEACH HOUSE

Beach House's album cover is a very light beige Zebra print; I decided to just show you some Zebras in love.

I am taking a break from telling you about my favorite things from 2009 to tell you about my new favorite thing from 2010.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote music reviews for my college newspaper. I had the honor of reviewing Beach House’s Devotion, way back before I even knew or cared about them. Here is what I said. I am only posting it to give you an idea of why this band is great:

“Hopelessly Devoted”

Beach House’s 2006 debut found a loyal fan base among fans of low-key, off-tune, ambient imitations of White Light/White Heat-era Velvet Underground. Critics, however, were less eager to embrace the monotonous, long, and messy first album.

Devotion, the newest release by the Baltimore duo, refines the bands original formula of fuzz and shimmery clutter, creating a happy marriage of atmosphere and melody.

Channeling Yo La Tengo or the Cocteau Twins, Victoria Legrand (singer/organist) and Alex Scally (everything else-ist) create a dreamy soundscape that is at once comforting and alien. It takes more than a few listens to break through the album’s shadowy reverb world; but a patient listener will discovery the many virtues of Devotion.

Victoria Legrand’s resonant alto recalls the deep world-weariness of Nico. But Nico comes from some cold Scandinavian future where feelings are no longer required; Legrand still has a heart to be broken. Her pathos opens like a wound in the pleading chorus of “Gila,” or the lovelorn la la la’s of “You Came to Me.”

Alex Scally jangles tambourines that were pop instruments in a former, happier life. When guitars appear, they’re sliding down into minor keys as mournful additions to the low-tempo blues of songs like “All the Year.” Elsewhere, harpsichords, wind chimes, organ, and a soft tap-tap of the bass drum all undergo the dust-wash of Beach House’s production style, lending the album the feel of a fresh discovery sitting in musty box of your parents’ 60’s vinyl.

And therein lies the genius of the album: all the songs possess a 60’s pop sensibility, and would be radio-ready if only they traded organ for guitar, low tempo for fast. A perfect example of this is the deceptively brilliant and understated, “D.A.R.L.I.N.G.” in which Legrand busts out an old pop staple by spelling the chorus, and takes the listener on a soaring, pulsating journey with an optimistic organ and twangy guitar.

As Legrand tells one of her ghosts on the album-opener, “You came to me/in a dream,” so too comes the estranged, beautiful, and mysterious cousin of pop music Beach House offer on Devotion.

Grade: A-

More like, GRADE A+ FOREVER!!!

Now, Beach House has bequeathed to the world Teen Dream, a perfectly-titled, perfectly written, perfectly beautiful album. It is saving my life, it is making me believe what music is for again.

Nigel already did a great post on this album, and likened the experience of listening to the album to falling in love. And I think he was dead on–it seems pedestrian and rude (rude like uncouth) to talk about this album in regular music review terms.

We can agree, perhaps, that it is the duty of the critic and of the writer to articulate why something is great. But is there a time when something is so great that words don’t really do it justice? Is it a fucking cop-out to say that? Well, yeah, I’d say normally it is. Whenever a sentence starts with “Words fail to describe…” (here’s lookin’ at you, Stephanie Meyer!) you know that the writer is just too dumb to think of the right words. But music and its mystical qualities seem especially poised to evade capture by words.

Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called “The Task of the Translator.” It’s pretty crazy, and he talks a bit about forests and trees in a belabored metaphor that probably only he really understood… But the point is, he discusses the choices and analysis of translating a text from one language to another. Exact equivalencies between two languages don’t really exist, so the translation becomes some further evolution of the original work.

Writing about music is like translation. The writing is a separate entity than the music it is describing, and it takes on a life of its own in words. In the case of translating Teen Dream to words, I might have written a short story about loss in the winter time, or maybe typed out a scene from Anna Karenina (perhaps the one where Levin is looking at Kitty ice-skating–it’s full of hope, longing, joy and sadness, all at the same time!), or maybe I would have written a poem about my little wooden cabin, or something. The point is, a music review wasn’t gonna cut it when discussing this album.

Let me know if this makes sense, I had two glasses of wine while writing this.




One thought on “2010 Art Times: BEACH HOUSE

  1. So I’ve been trying hard to mangle some more words together in praise of this album but keep coming up short. It’s frustrating, but I wonder if reporting my own speechlessness is the best way of talking about it. I wonder if tossing my head into the air and putting my hands over my heart while exhaling is the best gesture of praise. I also wonder if this disqualifies me from the project of music criticism.
    Either way, I’m grateful for this album. Maybe writing a short story isn’t so off base. It’s better than trying to dissect a thing of beauty for the sake of criticality. So I’ll keep my hands over my heart and sway a little for now.
    Until someone starts hating, then it’s punching time.

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