BEULAH: THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR (2001)
1) Hello Resolven; 2) A Good Man Is Easy To Kill; 3) What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?; 4) Gene Autry; 5) Silver Lining; 6) Popular Mechanics For Lovers; 7) Gravity's Bringing Us Down; 8) Hey Brother; 9) I'll Be Your Lampshade; 10) Cruel Minor Change; 11) Burned By The Sun; 12) Night Is The Day Turned Inside Out.
If this line of thinking applies to a band as intellectually twisted as Beulah at all, then this album should probably count as their masterpiece. You can almost feel their brain cells writhe, sizzle, and burn up in flames, as they attempt to come up with «the perfect pop formula». Instrumentation, production, hooks, moods, vocal modulations that reflect careful study of what there was before with a pinch of trying to look into what will come after — the Amazing Songwriting Laboratory of Dr. Kurosky at its functional peak, colored smoke rising out of the chimneys and bizarre fragrance smelled for miles around.
But the more they try, the more they baffle listeners such as myself (and I have also encountered the same reaction among quite a few music lovers on the Web). Every single song on The Coast sounds lovely, classy, and inspiring... while it's on. No sooner than the album is over, nothing remains in my brain — not a single goddamn note of it. And subsequent listens do not rectify the situation. This is their best album, clearly and expressly filled with pop hooks almost to the brim, but at the end of the day, they just skedaddle. Vamoose. Melt in the air like a mirage. Every single song on here has more «intelligence» and «depth» to it than ʽLucy In The Sky With Diamondsʼ, but Lucy is still here with us, and Beulah are not. What the hell?..
Let us take one single song and scrutinize it, to try and understand what's so wrong here. After the brief mood-setting intro, the first complete, self-sufficient, and technically impeccable number is ʽA Good Man Is Easy To Killʼ, whose lyrics deal with a car crash that involved Kurosky's father and prompted him to explore the proverbial father/son relationship in his art — so put this up as a plus (personal matter, adds to the song's level of sincerity and emotional involvement, etc.). The song begins with a loud, nasty fuzz riff, then expands with an agitated, Tull-style flute part and vocal harmonies, then calms down and slows down to the «baroque» verse section with strings, brass, and a pop vocal part straight out of the Beatles textbook. Short sparkling piano bridge to the chorus — a humble plea of "give up, give up your love / I promise it's not gonna kill ya" — and then back to the fuzz riff / flute / vocal harmony trio again. Repeat a couple of times, then cut to the fadeout where the brass and flutes get a little crazier and start threatening to punch each other out before the fadeout washes them all away.
Seems like a clever, sensible song, but something's just not fuckin' right about it. Maybe it is the disparity between the vocal and instrumental parts — the tenderness of the verse/chorus is in sharp conflict with the agitated nature of the fuzz riff bits, and the two give a «phoney» feel of being spliced for no particular reason whatsoever; there is no sense in the song fluctuating between these two states, nor does the music hint at any transition. Maybe it is the vocals — Kurosky cannot help it, of course, but his singing voice, devoid of solid range or any sort of individual flavor, is bland, and does not do justice to the potential of the vocal melody. Or maybe it is the melody itself — take the fuzz riff, for instance, and try to compare it with a great fuzz riff, like ʽSatisfactionʼ, or, heck, ʽIn-A-Gadda-Da-Vidaʼ. Those ones had a bite and menace to them, but Beulah's riff just sounds thick and dumb to me. Same with the flute — if you are going to evoke Tull associations, why not learn more than just two different phrases on the instrument?
It would be all too simple to say that the song does not work properly just because Beulah are bad songwriters, but that would be wrong. Kurosky is a pretty good songwriter — his mistake is in that he is very far from a genius songwriter, yet he makes music that, want it or not, intrudes directly on the turf of at least half a dozen genius songwriters of the 1960s. Consequently, Beulah's masterpiece is their completion of the «triumph of form over substance» attitude — all the more ironic considering that the songs have their meanings, and reveal them to anybody who is willing to look for them. But there are meanings and meanings, and The Coast Is Clear, being full of «literal» meanings (as in, «ʽA Good Manʼ reflects the complex feelings that the author experienced while his father was battling death...», etc.), has never once managed to hit me in my soft emotional spots — from which I conclude that it has no «musical» meaning, as such, as subjective as that harsh judgement may sound.
Still, due admiration must be expressed for all the doggone hard work that went into making the record so diverse and inventive. As long as I am writing this at the same time as the sweet sounds flow out from the speakers, ʽGene Autryʼ is a dang fine pop-rocker about the disparity between fantasy and reality (good hook — the pessimistic conclusion of "everybody drowns, sad and lonely alright" laid out on the listener in an optimistic manner); ʽPopular Mechanics For Loversʼ bops along with a clever mix of joyfulness and melancholia (and the "just because he loves you too / he would never take a bullet for you" bit might be the catchiest move on the album); ʽI'll Be Your Lampshadeʼ, whose title is probably a subtle reference to ʽI'll Be Your Mirrorʼ, mixes country and vaudeville in a very odd fashion; and they save their most ambitious and anthemic brass riffs for the album closer ʽNight Is The Day Turned Inside Outʼ to provide a suitably loud, mock-heroic, ride-out-in-the-sunset conclusion. It's all good.
But now the album is over, and... how did it go again? Damn, it's really irritating. No wonder, after all, that these guys were never able to find a mass market, or that retro-oriented art-pop in general stays so tightly glued to the indie community. Maybe it's just that the likeliest candidate to write the best Beatles song never written would probably be a person who's never listened to the Beatles in the first place. Or maybe it's all much simpler, and they should have found themselves a better vocalist. In any case, I give the album one of those «intellectually-driven» thumbs up — for inventiveness, imagination, and hard labor. For everything else, please refer yourself to this band's many influences instead.