At no point on Beach House’s last two albums, Teen Dream (2010) and Bloom (2012), do Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally overcomplicate matters – for instance, none of the songs require the services of a symphony orchestra or a guest appearance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
And yet, as their popularity grew with those albums, the Baltimore duo sometimes seemed to struggle to preserve the feeling of intimacy that was so enchanting on their self-titled 2006 debut and its follow-up, 2008’s Devotion. Their beguiling, languid dream-pop, born out of wee-hours bedroom recording, by necessity swelled into something that was large enough to fill concert halls and festival fields; a journey that took Beach House and its music to “a place farther from our natural tendencies”, as the two have collectively admitted.
With fifth album Depression Cherry, then, they head back to square one, stripping away the layers of guitars, keyboards, effects and vocals that made up Bloom’s wall of sound. In their place comes simpler, sparer arrangements and a whole lot more room to breathe. On the album’s most spectral moments, Legrand doesn’t seem to sing the songs so much as exhale them. With its spoken intro and signature coo, the mesmerising “PPP” even evokes the narcoleptic girl-group pop of Phil Spector’s eeriest early hit, the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me”.
Crucially, this simplification process has meant dusting off the drum machines that supplied the rudimentary rhythms on their early works. The songs on Depression Cherry are very much designed to be about everything but the beat, which is a good thing given the skeletal click-track-like template underpinning the songs. It might seem unlikely that this kind of no-frills structural support would be sufficient for something as sumptuous as “Beyond Love”, but it in fact enhances the song’s other parts. And since the percussive and rhythmic components get so much less emphasis than they do on the majority of contemporary music, the boldest songs gain their force from other elements, like Scally’s thicket of fuzz guitar in “Sparks” or the cascading keyboard notes in “Space Song”.
Of course, this sort of well-intentioned return-to-first-principles move is often stymied by the fact that it’s not so easy to forget all the lessons and habits that have been learned in the interim. Thankfully, it’s to Depression Cherry’s great advantage that Legrand and Scally are able to incorporate Bloom’s level of songwriting sophistication and strong understanding of dynamics into their original, sparser template. As a result, by reducing the scope and rediscovering the value of nuance, Beach House end up sounding bigger and better than ever before.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the songs that bookend the album. In “Levitation”, the looping swirls of guitar and endlessly sustained organ notes foster an intoxicating feeling of suspension. Yet whereas some of the duo’s other songs succumb to inertia, this one keeps surging forward. Legrand’s fragmentary lyrics ponder the fleeting nature of even our most ardent passions, yet as forlorn as her voice can sound, she once again emphasises the need to celebrate the moments at hand. “There is no right time,” she sings.
What with that carpe-diem attitude, a less sensitive group may very well have been tempted to enlist a children’s choir for “Days Of Candy”, a ghostly closer that suggests what The Beach Boys’ “Our Prayer” might have sounded like if Cocteau Twins had covered it on Treasure. Again, the canny arrangement of carefully selected elements – multi-tracked voices, plaintive piano notes, a guitar filigree and churchy organ chords – creates an unexpected grandeur. There’s also a feeling of delicacy, something that could have easily been overwhelmed had there been a conventional amount of low-end ballast. However chintzy it may initially seem, the Bontempi-style rhythm track is exactly what’s needed.
And, as Legrand murmurs in the song’s climactic stages, “Just like that, it’s gone.” Together with her Beach House partner, she’s always excelled at holding onto those temporary moments of transcendence and preserving them in amber. But rarely before have the pair achieved that with this much grace and finesse.
Recorded at: Studio In The Country in Bogalusa, Louisiana
Produced by: Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally with Chris Coady
Personnel: Victoria Legrand (vocals, keyboards, organ, piano), Alex Scally (guitars, bass, keyboards, organ, piano)
Why the decision to pare down the Beach House sound and get back to the drum machines?
It was a really natural process for us – it wasn’t necessarily so much about intellectual decisions. We were yearning to put a certain level of communication and depth into the music. Drums make everybody turn up and I think sometimes turning up leads to a certain feeling and that feeling is not necessarily the right feeling. Victoria and I can feel like we can’t be ourselves if there are drums in the room because it makes you sing hard and you don’t hear the subtlety of a guitar part – you have to play something simpler and clearer because there’s all this noise.
Were you also curious about what these rudimentary rhythm tracks would create?
Drums are such a complicated thing so this has been a huge thought for us. I was listening to the Sly And The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Funk and soul have always been rooted in the drums, but he was like, “I don’t want drums – I want this drum machine.” There’s this other thing that’s really mystical that the drum machine creates, and it’s all over that record.
So you weren’t necessarily trying to escape the tyranny of all that is big and beaty in modern music?
I definitely don’t think we are a reaction to anything today. But maybe it is because this weird sound of computer quantisation is so domineering. Everything gets made on this crazy grid so you feel that grid constantly when you hear music on the radio. Then again, I think that’s what people like now. I remember we were at this show a couple years ago and there was this band playing and it was all electronic – you could really feel that grid. The whole crowd was pulsing and excited. Then the next band was this rock band with just guitar and drums and it was all loose and baggy and human and everyone just sat down! I thought, “Damn, these are the times we’re in.”
INTERVIEW: JASON ANDERSON
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