Beach House grows into its own with Depression Cherry – a music review

August 25, 2015

beachhouse-depressioncherry-900If you want to hear a band that refuses to compromise its sound and instead chooses to evolve on its own terms, transcending their influences, you should check out Beach House. The duo of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally have endured comparisons ranging from Nico-era Velvet Underground to Dream Pop. Sometimes they have been even more egregiously lumped in with the chill wave movement. But really, they’ve turned an affection for vintage organs, exercises in looping guitar lines and echo effects to encapsulate their personal experiences with a deep-seated connection to their instruments and the crafting of melodies. When I spoke to Legrand a few years ago (Beach House’s Victoria Legrand talks recording upcoming new album: ‘Bloom’), she revealed just how intimately she feels about Beach House’s music, bristling and the chill wave comparisons and explaining an almost spiritual connection to the creation of music when I asked her who the song title “Irene” refers to. She told me:

It’s not a specific person. It’s the name that describes the entity of that song, which is, in itself, a person. The song for me is a spirit, so it’s no different when I say, yeah, it is somebody. It’s this character, this song. It’s this kind of mystery of:  What is in that? What is in that room? Why am I compelled toward this? And that’s for me, one of those songs where it feels like sort of a question and answer within itself. It’s like, why am I drawn towards this, but I can’t help it?

With Depression Cherry, the Baltimore duo take both a step forward in their song-craft while glancing behind. Gone are the live drums that made their latest albums sound more organic. Instead, the duo brings back the electronic precision of the drum machine, a key element to their early sound. The strength of their last album, 2012’s Bloom, could be found in the raw moments where the members gelled and ran with a song. The tension between the musicians playing together and the song leading them on a journey felt palpable in these blissful moments of chemistry. These instances are few on Depression Cherry, due to a lack of a live drummer. However, the control of the songwriting and a sense of experimentation with the Beach House formula makes this album one of the duo’s most intriguing records in its history, standing up heartily to repeat listens.

It opens with a slow burn. “Levitation” is at first just skittering drum machine and twinkling keyboards. As the keyboards swell, Legrand sings in a higher pitch than usual, beachhouse-2015-promo-01-shawnbrackbill-1500x2248-300enjoying the end of her breath, as she says, “You and me…” The song slowly builds with spare notes of added keyboards, hushed harmonizing vocals and even an additional programmed rhythm. After some potent, yet unobtrusive synthesized stings, Scally breaks out a rumbling, soaring guitar line where Legrand sings, “There’s a place I want to take you…” and her voice layers up, tangling in a helix of vocals, as a shimmering drone emerges and overtakes all the instruments, which swell in layers of harmony before they fade off and meld into space as a sparkling drone swells and overtakes the song. It’s as if the band has slipped away into the darkness. It’s a charming opener that highlights how the duo can play with so many of layers of sound for a simple yet immersive mood.

The layers of unintelligible voices and harsh guitar work, topped off with massive organ chords that open “Sparks,” feels like a harsh follow-up to the majestic opener. “Sparks” was released on July 1, as the first single to hype the release of Depression Cherry. It certainly hinted at the experimental spirit of the new album, albeit a bit heavy handedly. It’s a dense track that feels a little over-whelming for its own good. The best bit arrives when Scally shifts to screeching laser like loops from his guitar at the song’s center. Beach House has an instinctual sense of dynamics that even keep their weaker tracks interesting and compelling.

On the other end, the highlight of the album has to be “PPP.” It was released as the album’s second teaser single last week via Spotify. Scally kicks the song off with a sort of bright, circular guitar line that will remind some of “Lazuli” (ironically, the second single off the previous album). Legrand plays around with some speak-singing at the start before going into her usual dreamy voice. “Did you see it coming? It happened so fast.” But this is really Scally’s track. He has an amazing moment at the center of the song, repeating a line he kicks off as he climbs down his fret board, repeating it in a kind of loop, but each time exploring its subtle possibilities with an extra note here or a different emphasis on the notes there. Each time the loop grows more thrilling and entrancing. It’s a brilliant moment as grand and as the epic finale of “Irene,” from Bloom. I dare say “PPP” makes the album, casting a pall across the tracks that follow it. Still, close listens grant payoffs.

“Days of Candy” closes the record, and it seems like a deceptive snooze at the start, sounding like some unformed, skimpy Cocteau Twins song. Legrand sings in an uncharacteristically higher octave as the song churns along on a slower beat, propelled by a monotone piano and some cheesy zaps of a synthesizer. But a turn in the song redeems it, reaching a surprisingly charming climax propelled by the sudden appearance Scally’s churning guitar as Legrand sings, “I know Beach House Band Photoit comes too soon, the universe is riding off with you … I want to know you there, the universe is riding off with you.” It’s a beautiful line that captures the fleeting moments that define one person to another by also proving definitive to a life joined in intimacy that is a universe unto itself. It’s the perfect closer to an album that lives up to its title, sounding a bit sad … in its own sweet way while celebrating the remarkable chemistry of Beach House. With Depression Cherry, Beach House shows an incredible maturity in its songwriting, dropping the more gimmicky elements of their early years, like the vintage-inspired sound, and shows a blossoming, a coming into its own where there’s an assured exploration of a sound that stands on its own merits.

Our vinyl is in the mail, so I cannot comment on its sound quality (the album sees official release this Friday, Aug. 28). I will offer this one tidbit:  The album was recorded last November at Studio in the Country in Louisiana. The press materials have not said what equipment was used, but the studio does have the capability of recording to analog tape. When I spoke to Legrand about recording Bloom, she noted the band had recorded to two-inch tape, and that was important to them. I can only imagine it still is, so we have some high hopes for re-experiencing this album as a vinyl record. It’s also worth noting, the album cover has a distinct fuzzy quality (see close-up in the gallery below), adding another tactile layer to the experience of listening to a record. Also, of the posting of this review, the limited “loser edition” clear vinyl was still available at the Sub Pop shop. Click here to order direct from them. If you want to support this blog with a little commission, click here to order it from Amazon, where it is currently on sale for the super crazy price of $8.99 (yes, cheaper than the mp3s and CD!).

Hans Morgenstern

We got a streaming link to the entire album back on Aug. 11 after pre-ordering the vinyl from Sub Pop. All images above provided by Sub Pop.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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