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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Beulah: When Your Heartstrings Break

BEULAH: WHEN YOUR HEARTSTRINGS BREAK (1999)

1) Score From Augusta; 2) Sunday Under Glass; 3) Matter Vs. Space; 4) Emma Blowgun's Last Stand; 5) Calm Go The Wild Seas; 6) Ballad Of The Lonely Argonaut; 7) Comrade's Twenty-Sixth; 8) The Aristocratic Swells; 9) Silverado Days; 10) Warmer; 11) If We Can Land A Man On The Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart.

The worst thing about this album is its title. Or, wait, maybe the best thing about this album is its title — depending on your brain's first reaction to it. If it strains you into expecting a sensitive, sentimental, depressed, or melancholic set of songs (under the «cure your own heartbreak with our own heartbreak» principle), you will be sorely disappointed. But if it is «when your heart­strings break... try something light and uplifting, like our second album», then that's a different matter. On the other hand, it is still a little difficult to see what exactly this kind of music has to do with «heartstrings» in any sort of traditional understanding.

Glancing at the song titles, you might suspect that Beulah are growing up, and trying to shed at least a little bit of that show-off-ey indie kid aesthetics where it is much more important to put yourself and your music on a different plane of existence than to write good songs. The music, meanwhile, has been aggrandized, with 18 different session musicians used in the recording pro­cess and Bill Evans on keyboards added to the band's «stable» lineup. Nobody, least of all the band leaders themselves, would dream of wasting all that pool of talent on an ordinary «gimmi­cky» record, right? But then the question is: what sort of record is this, then?

My best guess is that both here and on subsequent trys, Beulah's ambition was to create their own version of SMiLE for the raging Nineties. The whimsical attitude, where spiritual yearning and grand emotional tugs peep out every now and then from superficially «fluffy» musical structures, they already had, as well as an absurdist lyrical streak and an experimental mindset. All that was left was to broaden their technical base — and by bringing in all those extra players with their in­struments, they were free to try out a more symphonic approach. There'd be as much ambition as on a Radiohead record, only it would be sunny, poppy, and a tad silly. And if they got too tired of emulating the Beach Boys, they could always go back to emulating the Kinks.

In fact, melody-wise, the rhythmic skeletons of these songs are consistently closer to the Kinks than to the baroque fluctuations of Brian Wilson — but the overall atmosphere of romantic ab­surdity is not something that Ray Davies, who'd always refused to get his head too high up in the clouds, would have appreciated. And it lays open the possibilities for a fruitful, exciting synthesis, which works so well, technically, that with this album, Beulah ensured some serious popularity with seasoned fans of everything Sixties-related (particularly those people who, you know, thought that music died circa 1969, and that it took The Dukes of Stratosphear to revive it).

Like most of these projects, though (and I am not excluding XTC, either), synthesizing various strains of the Sixties in the Nineties still has that smarmy post-modernist ring to it, and ends up being more of a quirky tribute than an album showing off an autonomous and mind-blowing artis­tic vision. The problem is always the same: Kurosky and Swan are so intent on making music «in the same vein as» their idols that they forget to concentrate on the essentials of proper pop songwriting. Something like ʽScore From Augustaʼ has a cool retro sound to it, with a tasteful and energetic mix of live instruments and vocal harmonies, but the whole mix seems to be gallo­ping forward on one note, and the most melodically inventive thing about the song is Swan's trumpet part — which is really very simple, but catchy, but repetitive, but memorable, but could be seriously annoying, should your brain suggest that this mariachi-like style of trumpet playing is incompatible with Sixties retro-pop.

Then ʽSunday Under Glassʼ, all awash in brass, flute, and string overdubs, comes along to drag you away into a psychedelic paradise to the sounds of a nasal vocal melody which somehow reminds me of Mike Love. It is a song that has everything... except for a decent hook, that is. Too much of everything, in fact, quickly floating before your eyes and ears like a multi-colored cloud whose various hues are too dazzling for the senses to leave a lasting impression. Actually, it's one of those songs where there seems to be too much and too little going on at the same time — too much in terms of various overdubs, too little in terms of actual melodic dynamics.

That said, the band seems to fare significantly better, «heartstrings-wise», when they try to evoke tender sentiments rather than tickle our fancies with psycho colors. Already ʽCalm Go The Wild Seasʼ has a properly baroque aura to it, one of sincere gallantry and delicacy; but the album's emotional peak is reached on ʽSilverado Daysʼ, whose mercilessly encoded lyrics seemingly in­voke a nostalgic feel ("I was a kid and you were my hero..."), finely matched with the piano bal­lad melody whose chords remind of McCartney but whose vocals remind more of Lennon. In fact, I think the album gets better as it progresses, reaching its humble peak of sorts on the final num­bers: ʽWarmerʼ shows signs of adorable whimsical tenderness, and ʽIf You Can Land A Man On The Moon...ʼ is redeemed through its little baroque piano passages which could just as well have been played on harpsichord for the sake of extra authenticity.

As difficult as it is for me to «fall in love» with an album like this — it makes too little sense for me to do that — I can easily understand how others would, and also how such records pre­pared the ground for the Beach Boys-inspired indie art-pop explosion of the 21st century in a way that few other bands at the time were capable of. At any rate, the only reason to give it a thumbs down would be active hatred for the band and their «phony», «manneristic» attempts at recreating the form, but not the spirit of pop music's greatest decade. But even if there is something stiff and artificial about the way they are doing it, there is no need to doubt the purity and nobleness of the motive, or the earnestness of the work effort that went into it. One thing that I lack most of all, apart from the lack of hooks, is a more sharply pronounced sense of humor — then I catch myself understanding that if you add hooks and humor to this band, it will turn into Ween, and we already have ourselves a Ween. So just a basic respectful thumbs up as it is would suffice.

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