BEULAH: HANDSOME WESTERN STATES (1998)
1) Maroon Bible; 2) Lay Low For The Letdown; 3) Disco: The Secretaries Blues; 4) The Rise And Fall Or Our Hero's Reward; 5) I Love John, She Loves Paul; 6) Slo-Mo For The Masses; 7) I've Been Broken (I've Been Fixed); 8) Queen Of The Populists; 9) Shotgun Dedication; 10) Rust With Me; 11) Delta; 12) Dig The Subatomic Holdout #2.
Miles Kurosky and Bill Swan worked together in an office in a San Francisco security firm. Then they decided that they would start a band, because they both loved music. Then they wrote some songs, caught the attention of Rob Schneider from The Apples In Stereo, and got signed to The Elephant 6. Then they released an EP, and then they released an LP. Sounds simple enough when you look at this sequence of events, but look how many things had to turn out right for it — the office. The partnership. The audacity. The Schneider interest. (The elbow grease?). From this heap of accidents and incidents rose Beulah and smote the world.
Well, actually, their first LP smote no one. In relation to what would come afterwards, it feels like their Please Please Me — a record full of «beginner's spirit»: lively, energetic, exuberant, but showing no particular depth of insight or breadth of coverage, and only the first signs of a burgeoning songwriting talent. Of course, when the Beatles did it in 1963, it was only natural; when Beulah did it in the Nineties, a decade when artists were generally expected to blow the roof off with their first album, it threatened to put a «shallow» tag on them once and for all, no matter how many gimmicky titles they would assign to their songs.
The best thing about early Beulah is their sound, and even that is not all that unique — just a regular «Elephant 6» kind of sound, that is, sunny pop music with loud, but colorful, distorted guitars; vocal harmonies that owe it all to the Beach Boys; and a tight, upbeat rhythm section that keeps the band from going mushy. Well, The Apples In Stereo themselves sound that way, and many others, too. Maybe Beulah are a little more hard-rocking. Or maybe they position themselves as a «wittier» counterpart of their protectors — with even crazier song titles and stuffier lyrics: the very first track already mentions Gideon's Bible, Ecclesiastes, astronauts on TV, and Jack the Ripper over the span of two verses and a bridge.
And they do come across as a bit too smart for their own good, because the songs have no clear purpose — yet they do not come across as dazzling musical enigmas, either. The means at the band's disposal are fairly well known and traditional, but it is not well understood what exactly do they use them for. Tenderness and romance emerge only occasionally (like on ʽDeltaʼ, which shifts from McCartney-like acoustic ballad mode to fiddle-driven roots-rock and back), but usually they just hide around the corner, as the band tends to sing about relationships from a more cynical point of view.
A quintessential early Beulah song would be something like ʽI Love John, She Loves Paulʼ — the title uses the two-headed image of a long-gone pop band to illustrate why the singer is good and why his love interest is bad; the distorted, but still melodic rhythm guitar and the vocals, masked with some reverb for extra hip-cool effect, suggest the usual nostalgic throwback to sunny, irreverent 1966; the lyrics are full of smartypants references to various idols, some of which I get ("hey, oh, let's go" clearly invokes the Ramones, and the sneery, drawn-out "so long, so long" may be invoking the Pixies' ʽHere Comes Your Manʼ) and most of which I probably don't. No guitar solo, because guitar solos aren't cool for indie kids (who spend too much time soaking in their cultural legacy to learn how to play guitar anyway), but some moody army trumpet accompaniment throughout from Bill Swan (who likes this instrument about as much as the late John Entwistle used to like the French horn, but seems to have spent even less time practising). If it weren't for the mild catchiness of the chorus and, most importantly, the band's sense of light humor and irony, I'd probably hate the song — and the album.
But this sense of light humor and irony, coupled with the tastefulness of the unprofessional arrangements, is what makes Handsome Western States, in the end, so handsome. When the music is too slow, it tends to drag, but when they pick up a cheery tempo, as in ʽI've Been Brokenʼ or the album closer ʽDig The Subatomic Holdout #2ʼ, everything is forgiven, including the unintentional toe-tapping and air guitar playing, simplistic as these rhythms and chords may be. In addition, one aspect they really paid serious attention to is the vocal harmonies — some are three-part, amounting to a lightly head-spinning psychedelic effect (ʽShotgun Dedicationʼ). So «unprofessional», in this understanding, does not necessarily mean «not hard-working».
Still, despite all of its positive qualities, I do not think the album is worth an active «thumbs up» — it is way too «manneristic» and emotionally empty, or, if you wish, «emotionally masked» (which, to me, is pretty much the same thing) for me to click with on a sensory level, and too derivative and half-baked to be admired from a technical point of view. Reasonably well made, sure, but definitely not one of those amazing debuts that immediately justifies the sponsor's trust in the sponsored. Let's just say that, at this point in time, they were still «finding themselves», with occasional glimpses of the findings to come.
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