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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Beach House: 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.

An amazingly accurate title. Brings on associations with Brian Wilson's «teenage symphonies», replaces the «symphony» bit (hardly appropriate for Beach House, whose minimalistic sound is anything but symphonic) with the «dream» of «dream-pop», and looks as innocent and simple as possible without looking silly and vapid.

With this title, Beach House make the inevitable transition to the big time; inevitable, because the sympathy that they bred so carefully among the indie critics should have eventually pushed them up the ladder, and it did. Not only was Teen Dream recorded in a church building (obviously a step up from Scally's bedroom) under the supervision of well-known indie producer Chris Coady, but it was also subsequently released on the Sub Pop label — not exactly Warner Bros. level, but relatively notorious all the same — and hit the Billboard charts. What's most important, though, is that there are REAL DRUMS! REAL DRUMS! Or, at least, decent imitations.

As for the songs and the magic — this is a really tough question. There have been changes, yes, but, just like before, you have to work in order to notice them. Generally, there is more dynamics; if, on their first and second albums, you did not usually need to go beyond the first twenty se­conds or so to find out what it was all about, the songs on Teen Dream frequently rely on build-ups, with additional keyboard and guitar lines rolling in (e. g. '10 Mile Stereo', where Scully eve­ntually starts a series of psychedelic trills similar to Cream's 'Dance The Night Away'), or with pompous codas swelling the melody ('Walk In The Park', 'Take Care').

Beyond that, it is hard to make any generalizations. Cautiously, I would suggest the idea that the guitar sound is more important to the effect of Teen Dream than it used to be; it is hardly coin­cidental that the album's opener, 'Zebra', begins with a minute-long folksy guitar drone, and the keyboards do not join in until later, and even then they form an atmospheric wall carpeting rather than the melodic backbone. This may actually explain the irritation of some long-term fans who complained about Teen Dream sounding like «standard indie»: people who fell in love with the band based on Legrand's ambient synthesizer patterns will definitely feel occasional lack of oxy­gen in these songs. On the other hand, those who mostly viewed Beach House and Devotion as a set of pretty lullabies might want to form another opinion.

As for the tricky issue of «how many meaningful melodies does the record provide?», all I can say is that, on the whole, I feel more pleased by it than Devotion. At the very least, the first five songs all register. 'Zebra' is a paean to zebras — well, not really, but I like to think of it as such, and Legrand's chorus of 'any way you run, you run before us' is very evocative in tandem with Scully's picking. 'Silver Soul' is terrific nerd entertainment if you are hungry for Harry Potter-style magic. The sound of 'Norway' is, perhaps, the duo's biggest original achievement so far: the «wobbly» effect that they get with their guitar and organ processing adds an extra color to the already oversaturated palette of psychedelia, and the Norwegians, completely free of charge, have now received their country's new national anthem (granted, they could always refuse on the ra­tional grounds that the song has nothing whatsoever to do with Norway, but why should they?). 'Walk In The Park' is stately, and I wish I knew what the 'more, you want more...' coda was all about, because it is beautiful.

Finally, the single 'Used To Be' is their simplest, catchiest, and most childish song to date — a re-recording, actually, of an older version that had already appeared in 2008, and, as we now under­stand, heralded the arrival of a moderately updated, livelier, jumpier Beach House («jumpy» is a much better term here than «danceable», because 'Used To Be' must really be a great song to jump to when you are three years old). But oh the frustration! Out of three equally possible op­tions — loving it, ha­ting it, or failing to notice it — I cannot choose a single one. Loving it seems stupid (can you admit to «loving» 'The Itsy Bitsy Spider'?), hating it would be overreacting, and failing to notice it would be impossible, since I am already writing about it.

And, in a way, this is indicative of the entire album. Again, we have these two people inviting us to believe in their magic, and you can choose between faith and skepticism. It is one of those ca­ses where I almost equally sympathize with those fans who are ready to drop their tools and fol­low Legrand and Scully to the end of the world and those haters who would like to see the duo tarred, feathered, and driven out of town for good. Middle ground is useless — there is no reason whatsoever to listen to Beach House if you are not deeply in love with them.

In my case, Teen Dream still has not convinced me of the necessity of this enamouration, but there are enough flashes of beauty, and enough signs of growth (as well as delightful obstinate conservatism, which can also be a good thing), to warrant this from a negative judgement. So let us say that, while the heart still refuses to open its doors wide to these guys, it at least tolerates their serenading on the porch; and, while the brain insists that they still know much less than is ne­cessary to know about weaving your dreams into music (as compared to the Cocteau Twins, for instance), it also admits that they know enough to be treated seriously, and that it will be curious to learn where they will be going to head from here, if anywhere. Oh, and is this the best Beach House album so far? Well, it's definitely the first Beach House album so far where I am able to say five different things about five songs in a row. Maybe that makes it eligible, and maybe it does not. A vague album deserves a vague judgement. But thumbs up, all the same.

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