Does anyone know if Beulah is breaking up? Seriously, help me out here. There was talk earlier this year that the Bay Area sextet was calling it quits after Yoko, their follow-up to 2001’s The Coast Is Never Clear, and the subsequent tour, was completed. Then, they’re not breaking up. Beulah frontman Miles Kurosky will only say, “These things don’t last forever.” Meanwhile, guitarist Bill Swan is a little less cryptic, but no more definitive: “We decided that if this record goes gold Beulah will definitely not be breaking up any time soon. In hindsight it was probably a mistake to even mention breaking up on the website. I mean, we’ve made what we think is our best record to date, and we think it would be a shame if the record was overshadowed by the news of an impending breakup.” Yoko dropped in early September, and for all the world it sounds like a swan song. If it is, then Beulah is going out on top; if not, then Yoko is another step forward for a band that has grown with each album release.
Regardless of whether Yoko refers to a certain notorious band disintegrater or is an acronym for one of the album’s tracks (“You’re Only King Once”), and regardless of whether or not Yoko is Blue’s final chapter, the album is a change of pace from their sunny, horn-drenched earlier offerings (Handsome Western States, When Your Heartstrings Break, and The Coast Is Never Clear). Yoko is much darker, and nearly bereft of horns; it sounds as if Kurosky spent his downtime after Coast listening to and internalizing Wilco’s Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And while Kurosky is too much of a pop craftsman at heart to gleefully destruct a song the way Jeff Tweedy & Co. do, a Wilco-esque vibe permeates Yoko‘s piano-led opener, “A Man Like Me”. Elsewhere, Kurosky’s voice is a dead ringer for that of Tweedy: “Smile, please smile / I just want to see you happy” he implores on the quasi-title track, while cello, violin and pedal steel guitar swirl around him.
“You’re Only King Once” and “Don’t Forget to Breathe” are heartbreaking and beautiful the way the best Beulah songs always are, but Yoko isn’t all downbeat. The snarling chronicle-of-a-dying relationship “Landslide Baby” (which fortunately has nothing to do with Fleetwood Mac) finds Kurosky spitting out “You’re scared and you’re weak / And you don’t give a fuck about me” while Swan tosses in a vaguely Stonesy solo.
When Yoko isn’t channeling Wilco, it calls to mind another giant on the American indie rock scene: Spoon. Spurred by the removal of Swan’s trumpet (there’s still a few flourishes here and there, though), Beulah further stripped their sound to the bare essentials, à la Spoon. “My Side of the City” and “Your Mother Loves You Son” are two of Beulah’s garagiest tracks ever, and they sound as at home on Yoko as the gentle “Hovering” and the folksy, half-whispered “Fooled With the Wrong Guy”.
Yoko‘s first nine tracks sure sound like a career ender—confident, yet dark and resigned (lines like “You fooled with the wrong guy / When you fooled with me” and “In my dreams I’m dying”, from “Don’t Forget to Breathe” are par for Yoko‘s course). But after hearing album closer “Wipe Those Prints and Run”, I’ll be damned if they record another album. From the opening line “So it’s time for us to run” to Kurosky’s off-mic shout “I don’t believe in anything / Except you, my friends”, “Wipe Those Prints” screams farewell. Danny Sullivan’s deliberate drums don’t quite match up with the xylophone and Swan’s horns, while an otherworldly guitar solo turns to feedback that threatens to bury Pat Abernathy’s piano. It’s the sound of a band closing up shop. And when Kurosky sighs “I sold my sold my soul for rock ‘n’ roll and a case of beer”, all I can think is “thank you”.