Back in early March, i went to see Beach House play at The EARL, based on the strength of a few songs i had heard online. The stuff i had heard was generally dreampoppish, with light female vocals, slow echoed guitar, and prominent organ drones. From some site or another i had downloaded a great song called Gila, which moves at an epic pace and soars to great heights of distorted, mellow goodness in the middle.
Beach House put on a stunning show, so i picked up Devotion, their latest and second record, from them. Here is a short review: this comes across better live.
What i mean is this: there is a certain sameness to the music here. Each song starts with the organ, then the guitar comes in, and some percussion. Percussion is the wildcard here -- will it be a simple drum machine beat, some lightly shaken rattling thing, or maybe some tapped drums? Who knows, but it is always the third element in a Beach House song. Then the voice will come in.
Now, Ms. Victoria LeGrand has a lovely voice that is rich and slightly husky, and she does a fine job with her vocals. But every song has a similar vocal pacing, and she never branches out or really pushes her voice. She always sings with the same tone, never really arching up to a higher range, or deepening her voice. Sorry, but I am not a singer, so I do not know the terminology. Basically, she uses her voice as is, without any histrionics.
It all sounds too samey -- the songs on this record are so similar that after a while, it all just blends together. It becomes hard to tell where one song begins and the other ends. In fact, when I put this on and am doing anything else I will lose track of time, so that the album seems over after just a few songs. I know that in these cases I have listened to the entire thing, but the sameness makes it all into a blurry mess of soft-focus echo, voice, and organ. Only rarely does anything stand out.
So let's just say that i am a little disappointed. Their songs did not sound samey during their live set, but perhaps the live interaction with the crowd added a dynamic that is lacking on this record. I wonder if they recorded these songs live, or if they recorded many takes of each instrument and then later mixed them all together, building the songs in a sort of inorganic manner?
Well, that said, each individual song on the record sounds lovely. This is nice, dreamy music that moves along at a swaying, half-asleep-but-pleasantly-dozing sort of way. Each song is nice by itself, and i find that i like Beach House a lot if i just put on one side of one record. You see, i bought this on double vinyl. It didnít really need to be two records, but i find that the spacing works great. Two or three songs max, then out and on to something different, so this format really works in their favor. Playing all four sides in a row gets tedious. I end up double checking to make sure that i did, in fact, flip the disc over. This is a very curious effect, and one that i have not seen often, if at all, before, and i listen to droning ambient dub records!
So, individual songs, or even two or three of them in a row, is a very enjoyable listening experience, while any more becomes a sort of sonic blur. That said, let me mention the real standout tracks here, the few tunes that stand out above the dreamy miasma of Beach House's music.
Gila is the real winner. This song is positively epic, with cascading layers of chiming guitar and a nice upswell that takes it to great heights, before gently allowing it to settle down into a slow fade out. I think it also helps that this song ends side A of the disc, so that after the song fades there is a brief meditative silence, then the suddenly clacking of the needle returning to it's cradle.
D.A.R.L.I.N.G., which kicks off the fourth and final side of the album, in another winner. LeGrand's organ chimes along in a cheesey synth drone over a percussion loop that sounds like a preset from an old keyboard. It sounds as if she had her keyboard set on "samba" and used that as the percussion. Now, this song also features a nice bass beat and some additional floor tom drumming from Ben Andler. The rhythms are happy and slightly silly (can anyone really take those old keyboard presets seriously?) and the song fades out slowly. Nicely done.
On Home Again, guitarist Alex Scally really shines. He plays slowly, the guitar distorted by some light overdrive, making a real grinding guitar riff.
Actually, when you focus on any one song, there is something interesting going on, and the songs themselves are enjoyable. It is only en masse that they get tedious. So this is a mixed bag. I enjoy the music, i just find it to be too much to listen to all at once. Your interpretation may differ, of course, but it is best to be forewarned. Still, if you are a fan of slow, dreamy pop, then Devotion is a good purchase. There are lots of good songs here.