June 12, 2012
As promised in my earlier album review, an update to my review of Beach House’s new album Bloom, examining the vinyl record release (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). Like any decent record maximized to highlight the audio depth of the format, the 50-minute Bloom has been spread across two platters that turn at 45 rpm. Besides that, as noted in earlier posts, Victoria Legrand, the band’s singer and keyboardist, revealed that Beach House recorded this, it’s fourth album, to tape. An analog source via an analog medium is always the best at capturing the subtleties of any studio recording, i.e. “the warmth” everyone talks about when referring to vinyl.
Bloom certainly rises to the occasion in its vinyl format. The moment Legrand’s voice appears, the effect on a proper sound system will make your heart skip a beat. The clarity on the vinyl is extraordinary, from the complex subtle range of resonance in the clang of the metallic beat that opens “Myth” to the subtle twitter in Legrand’s warble. Where the mp3s had some ambiguity in the mix, on vinyl, the lyrics come across much clearer, as if Legrand is whispering them right into your ear. You can even hear the soft, subtle smack of her lips as she says “people” in “Other People.”
The record also grants the band’s dense instrumentation much more room to breath and reverberate with little distortion. For a band known as a shining example of the dream pop genre, the effect of vinyl favors the dense sound while also not compromising it. When the instruments pile up at the start of “Wild,” the music is almost a new experience compared to the mp3 version, which I spent studying for months before I heard the vinyl. The rhythm track alone is a revelation. It pulses along on a steady, spacious beat featuring a diverse array of sources. It includes a tambourine, a flat canned Casio-like rhythm track and the soft pillowy beat of toms.
“Lazuli” opens with the nice warm hiss of the recording and flows right out from the fade out from “Wild.” Another great thing about vinyl, is you will get no annoying little digital jumps that you must tolerate when stringing mp3s together. Tracks flow organically from one moment to the next. It’s very natural and of essence to the record.
If there is one protest I have about vinyl is the need to get up and switch sides, interrupting the flow of an album. It’s double worse when it comes to double albums. However, all the breaks between the four sides of Bloom actually work. By the time you get to Side 3 and the creeks of the insects start, it makes for a genius moment of starting the music anew after a pause to swap platters. The mp3 version has the chirps of the cicadas at the end of “Troublemaker,” but they clearly work to better effect on the vinyl as they kick off Side 3, just ahead of “New Year:” a bit of nature before fading into the breathy sighs and churning keyboard that open the track.
Finally of note: my favorite track, the closer: “Irene.” The pounding of Daniel Franz on the bass drum as Alex Scally pummels his electric guitar on the way to the song’s epic tangle of guitar lashings and organ drones that grows more ecstatic with each refrain of Legrand’s luscious, patient declaration of “It’s a Strange Paradise” never sounded more dynamic.
Unique to the vinyl, “Irene” ends with a series of looping clicks and surface noise, which probably depends on how clean you keep your needle. The only way to stop it and continue to the next untitled, “hidden” track requires you to physically pick up the needle and put it back down. This marks the seven minutes of silence on the mp3 and CD versions, before the hidden track appears. It’s takes some effort, but again there’s a pay off to working with a proper stereophonic system. It’s the only song on Bloom that features Legrand’s voice bouncing back and forth on your headphones or between your speakers.
There are many special moments to the vinyl, which is pleasantly presented in a wide, embossed cover sleeve (the white dots are raised on the surface). Inside are two heavy insert sleeves with evocative photography on flat-finish cardboard. Inside each of those is another sleeve with lyrics and song titles. It also includes a card with a download code for an MP3 version of the album. The vinyl is thick 180-gram weight for better, lasting sound quality.
A final note on the vinyl version: There are also two limited edition versions to look out for. Some were manufactured on white vinyl. A sticker on the wrap denotes this version as the “Loser” edition, and was available to those who pre-ordered the album on Sub Pop on a first-come, first-served basis. It has since sold out. There is also an even more rare glow-in-the-dark edition. Only 250 of those were released worldwide (300 manufactured, according to Sub Pop’s website). It also has a silver sticker of the wrap that states “Special Edition GLOW vinyl.” Here’s the only picture I found of it opened on-line from Bull City Records:
So, colored vinyl, especially glow-in-the-dark, makes for a nice gimmick to boost the value of the record, but audiophiles are sure to win no matter the color of Bloom‘s vinyl because, once again, Beach House and Sub Pop Records have created a great-sounding record for quality turntables.
Note: Sub Pop Records provided a review copy of this record for the purposes of this review.
Too often, lately, I have heard lush, layered records only to feel dizzy and nauseous by the end. So-called chill wave has often been a culprit. The redundancies and piercing electronics of bands like Washed Out and Neon Indian annoy more than sooth these ears. Then you have cutesy retro bands like Cults: more high-pitched convolutedness. I found myself hard-pressed to find a decent record last year due to all the self-indulgent, shallow noise hyped by the taste-makers.
Then, this year, a brilliant, refreshing aural experience came along in the form of Bloom by Baltimore-based Beach House. The band has long been recognized for its do-no-wrong dream pop, a genre of music that emerged in the late eighties thanks to bands as divergent as the ethereal Cocteau Twins to the noisy My Bloody Valentine. But even those pioneering bands’ records often felt difficult to endure all the way through. Beach House’s fourth album further proves it has the know-how to balance layered, driving sounds with stark, spare musical moments with a delicate touch.
Over two months ago, the band released “Myth” as a free stream and download on the Internet as a teaser to the new album. Singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand called it a “gateway,” as it also opens the new album. A scratchy beat and the flat ding of a bell offers a deceptively simple opening for a few seconds until the trill of high-ranged keys on an organ, accompanied by Alex Scally’s equally athletic vibrato harmony on a steady-handed electric guitar, somersaults in to overtake the lead. Legrand’s voice joins in as the steady thud of Daniel Franz’ drums grow restless, pounding on in double time. With a booming, patient voice Legrand sings, “Drifting in and out/You see the road you’re on.” The second she sings the first note, a deep hum from the other end of an organ rumbles in accompaniment. Halfway through the song, Scally heralds a change in tone with the lethargic, resonant strum of his instrument like a wave blowing apart on the rocks of a craggy shore. Legrand sings strong and large with a slight echo effect decorating her voice turning the words only slightly unintelligible. Certain words are not completely clear, especially during the chorus. But that is the abstract charm of this record, begging the listener to fill in the gaps with his or her own hearing and interpretation. A few strums later, and the song returns to its driving form for a moment before closing out on ecstatic tremolo guitar work.
“Wild” seems to have a similar construct, but the distinctions are in the details. It opens with a mysterious hiss and hum that could be the processed howl of an organ or the wind across the surface of the ocean. A stuffy, tinny beat appears before a swell of cymbals heralds Scally’s guitar, driving along in cascading licks that chime with a brilliance many might have heard in a song by the Cure. Legrand’s singing is more obscured, which rolls along like the shimmer of pulsing, undulating waves on the surface of the sea. It ends once again with Scally’s tremolo on the higher-end of the fret board. Legrand’s organ offers more of an ambient, drone effect— humming and shimmering chords below the ecstatic work of Scally and the pounding, deep, relentless beat by Franz.
The third track, which already saw release as a 7-inch single for Record Store Day 2012, also arrives with a distinct, spare intro only to be coated in layers of luscious sounds. As a processed electronic pulse and melody is overtaken by swelling organ chords and the boom of Franz’ drum kit, Legrand’s voice finally does not even pretend to sing in English, just pulsing, soft sighs of “huhs.” It makes for another luscious moment, but this time missing Scally’s guitar for the first half of the song. However, his licks return as the song strips back its wall of organs, to bring back the canned electro opening, providing Scally space to offer a beautiful, if subdued gem of a moment on rolling, sliding guitar. “Like no other, you can’t be replaced,” Legrand sings repeatedly, as the song calmly heads towards its fade out.
Three songs in, and the album has only offered a dynamism and familiarity that brings comfort instead of inducing nausea. Beach House crafts songs with a patience and deliberation that highlights and celebrates the players’ talents without sacrificing the entirety of the experience. Bloom never seems to falter, offering one aural treat after another. “The Hours” features a standout hook: a duel between Legrand’s pulsing organ and Scally’s patient slide guitar. Thrown in here and there throughout the album are subtle field recordings. The distant sound of kids on the beach and whispers of “something” or nothing at all open “the Hours.” The sound of cicadas often heard in exterior scenes of Japanese movies appears to cap off “Troublemaker” before disappearing with an odd whistle to make way for the chiming guitar and sighing voices of “New Year.” These are genius little moments that break up the coldness of the interior of a studio or, worse, the zeros and ones of a computer file. Bloom is the sound of nature and the musicians clearly understand their humble roles as channels to the sublime power of music.
The crowning achievement arrives during the trio (or quartet?) of tracks that cap off the album. “Wishes” opens on a soft, spare beat, like many of Bloom’s tracks. The band layers on the melodies with patience: the swell of a high-pitched organ chord, the patter of a canned rhythm track, the noodle of keys, the loop of a guitar line. Chords from sighing organs build as the voices pile up and overlap. Even a masculine voice appears to harmonize for a bit. Scally’s guitar detours into a driving, Gothic hook, pauses a moment to allow Legrand space to sing the chorus and returns with a high-pitched tremolo. The song turns back to its driving layers of melody, and there is a distinct pause for silence after the fade out.
“On the Sea” takes the album into a maintained, spare melody unheard of in quality until now. It fades in like a light gradually illuminating the darkness. Only a ringing guitar and sprightly piano melody bound along as Legrand sings, “Out on the sea we’d be forgiven…” Franz offers a persistent thump on the bass drum like the click of a metronome. The only intricate rhythm is the persistent melody of piano and guitar. A minute in and Scally’s tremolo work breaks it down and another shimmering hum emerges subtly from the depths. The song becomes steadily ecstatic as the twirls of minimal, airy organs build like the persistent repetition of the music of Philip Glass. Legrand’s voice is almost operatic as the music swells and then eases back to the same, spare opening. It fades to give way to the rumble of what again sounds like the wind slicing across the surface of the sea.
The hiss continues as “Irene” starts forming on the swelling hum of what sounds like the deep rumble of a Farfisa or Harmonium organ. An old, canned scratchy beat appears as the minimalist pulse of a guitar persists in a dynamic pull and tug, as if waiting to explode only to recede again. There is a little climb to bright melody before a detour back to the minor-key tug-of-war of dynamics. “Irene” seems to expand and reduce in dynamics until the layers of melodies pause, allowing Scally to explore every stroke of his electric guitar. He repeats and repeats and repeats each stroke. Every lash is a growing mark of anticipation toward the edge of climax. “It’s a strange paradise,” sighs Legrand, as other layers of equally repetitive melodies emerge and coat each other, unfolding in a patient, droney jam session of swelling organs, intricate guitar lines and splashing crashes of cymbals. As the sound expands on each refrain with Scally’s vicious tremolo, Legrand slowly and rhythmically repeats: “It’s a strange paradise.” The band seems to delight in exploring a simple groove that grows more entrancing with each refrain. It grows over the final two-and-a-half minutes of the six-and-a-half minute song to peter off suddenly in one last quiver of tremolo that echoes away into a fade out.
The finale of “Irene” is so ecstatic that the band grants the listener seven minutes of silence before a little tape hiss arrives to apply the bandage after the aural gutting from such a din of ecstasy. A steady tap of a drum beat fades in, and the quiet quaver of guitar accompanied by the high-pitched pulse of an organ emerge. Legrand’s voice bounces rapidly from speaker to speaker in an enhanced stereophonic effect distinctive from the other songs on Bloom. This hidden track is spare but seems to come from another dimension. It offers a quiet moment of relief at the end of one of Beach House’s grandest accomplishments. It has been a couple of years since this listener has heard an album that offered as complete a listening experience as Bloom.
Finally, on the vinyl format of this album, I have yet to hear it, but Legrand mentioned recording a lot of the album to tape, and of course, the band did enter a proper studio (Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas) to spend seven weeks recording Bloom. Audiophiles agree analog tape is the best source for analog vinyl. Sub Pop have promised to send a copy of the double vinyl soon, so expect this post to see an up-date after a spin on the home hi-fi. Edit: the up-date has been posted: Vinyl review: Beach House – ‘Bloom’
Miami area tie-in: Local Miami-based indie record shop Sweat Records will host “The Bloom Happy Hour Release Party,” on the album’s official release date, this Tuesday, May 15, from 5 to 7 p.m. They will offer complimentary drinks for those 21 and over whilst playing the CD in its entirety. Attendees can also expect special prizes from Sub Pop Records. (Note: Sub Pop supplied an advance copy of Bloom in early April for the purpose of this review and the linked interviews with Legrand).
Not many indie artists or labels know how to do vinyl right. When they do, it is worth noting. Prepare for Beach House to release its new album via Sub Pop Records on May 15. Bloom, the dream pop duo’s fourth album, will see release in the usual CD and MP3 formats. But, as the members of Beach House recorded on tape, it is the vinyl that will do their luscious brand of music the most justice.
I spoke to Beach House’s singer and keyboardist, Victoria Legrand, last month before she and her songwriting partner, guitarist Alex Scally, headed out on tour in support of the new album, with Dennis Franz once again providing drums and percussion. Two stories resulting from this interview have already appeared in the “Miami New Times. One was a blog piece that highlighted a snippet of our near 40-minute conversation over the phone: “Beach House’s Victoria Legrand Talks ‘Myth,’ Music on Vinyl, and Rituals.” Read it by clicking on the Crossfade logo below:
The next article was a longer feature piece that appeared as the lead story of the music section in the print edition of the paper, earlier this week. She spoke about the band’s return to a rather large venue in Miami Beach after playing it only as an opening act for Vampire Weekend, just a year-and-a-half ago. That was when I first heard Beach House, and in my opinion, they stole the show (Beach House seal the deal opening for Vampire Weekend). She also gave some insight into some as-yet unheard tracks from the new album. Read it by clicking on the “Miami New Times” logo below:
As usual in my conversations with musicians, I could not use everything we talked about in those two pieces alone. Some highlights included the detail Legrand offered into the recording of Bloom, which resulted from seven weeks of sessions at Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo Texas, during the Fall of 2011. Just as they did with 2010’s Teen Dream, Legrand and Scally once again hired Chris Coady as co-producer. “They make it really easy to just be there and just do your thing,” she said of the studio. “That’s really all an artist can ask for. It’s not how fancy or anything it is. For us, it’s always been about the equipment, the soundboard. We recorded on two-inch tape like we did the last record, so a lot of it’s on tape.”
Audiophiles know that the ideal source for analog vinyl is, of course, analog tape. Legrand recognizes that, as well. “Tape has a certain thing to it,” she noted. “It’s just the way you handle it. The way you treat it, how hard you drive the takes or whatever. It’s just like this amazing material. It can do really awesome things with sounds … There’s still elements of eight track on this album and certain instruments that we use, but it’s always been part of our sound. Everyone uses computers at certain points, but I just feel like … some people say that you can’t tell the difference, but I think you can. I think you can feel something definitely different.”
You can read much more of my conversation with Legrand in the Q&A and story for the “Miami New Times” linked above. One last thing she clarified: Though I note she is the niece of famed film composer Michel Legrand in an earlier post on this blog (New restoration of ‘A Trip to the Moon’ heads to cinemas with score by Air), she said: “I’m related, but I have no relationship with him. We don’t talk,” she added with a laugh. “I think I saw him when I was 4 years old. I think he’s like in his 80s now? Still tours, but he’s had pretty much no influence in my life in terms of music and family. It’s probably just genetic, honestly.”
The band has just begun its tour for Bloom. The remaining tour dates are as follows:
05/05 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
05/06 – Charleston, SC @ Music Farm*
05/08 – Miami Beach, FL @ The Fillmore*
05/09 – Orlando, FL @ Beacham Theater*
05/10 – Jacksonville, FL @ Freebird Live*
05/11 – Birmingham, AL @ The Bottletree*
05/12 – Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre*
05/13 – Asheville, NC @ The Orange Peel*
05/15 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
05/23 – Brighton, UK @ The Haunt
05/24 – London, UK @ Village Underground
05/25 – Belgium, BE @ De Kreun
05/26 – Amsterdam, NL @ Melkweg
05/27 – Berlin, DE @ Volksbuhne
05/29 – Paris, FR @ Maronguinerie
05/31 – Dudingen, CH @ Bad Bonn Kilbi Festival
06/02 – Barcelona, ES @ Primavera Sound
06/03 – Montpellier, FR @ Le Rockstore
06/04 – Bordeaux, FR @ Theatre Barby
06/05 – Nantes, FR @ Stereolux
06/06 – Lyon, FR @ Epicrerie Moderne
06/07 – Blarritz, FR @ L’Atabal
06/08-09 – Porto, PT @ Optimus Primavera Sound
07/01 – San Diego, CA @ House of Blues **
07/03 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theatre **
07/06 – Aspen, CO @ Belly Up Aspen **
07/07 - Albuquerque, NM @ Sunshine Theater **
07/09 – Tulsa, OK @ Cain’s Ballroom **
07/10 – Lawrence, KS @ Liberty Hall **
07/11 – St. Louis, MO @ The Pageant **
07/12 – Memphis, TN @ Minglewood Hall **
07/13 - Louisville, KY @ Forecastle Festival
07/15 – Chicago, IL @ Pitchfork Music Festival
07/17 – Indianapolis, IN @ The Vogue **
07/18 – Pontiac, MI @ The Crofoot Ballroom **
07/19 – Cleveland, OH @ House of Blues **
07/20 – Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall **
07/21 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr. Small’s Theatre **
07/23 – New York, NY @ Central Park Summer Stage
08/31-09/02 – North Dorset, UK @ End of the Road Festival
* w/ Zomes
** w/ Wild Nothing