[7 March 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Fans bring their own perspective and bias to hearing a new work from musicians they admire. When it comes to the defunct indie-pop/rock band Beulah, my take is that they released four excellent albums, each slightly different in tone, but that the best of those remains their third, 2001’s The Coast Is Never Clear. That album has a big, lush sound that’s also focused. The songs seem bright and sunny on the surface but are raw, direct, and often heartbreaking, filled with tragedy.
Six years after the band’s break-up, its frontman has returned with his first album under his own name, The Desert of Shallow Effects. While clearly a personal work, the album finds him surrounded with 27 musicians playing a gaggle of instruments, including Yoko-era Beulah member Eli Crews, credited with 11 different instruments, and singer-songwriter Nik Freitas, credited with 10. Kurosky, writing in the liner notes about the album’s two-year genesis, gives the impression that instruments were continually being added to get the sound he wanted. He writes, “Still not satisfied with the record…we added some Fela Kuti-style brass, dub-like guitar, and… 9 overdubs of wind chimes.”
The sound Kurosky and gang came up with sounds remarkably like Beulah circa 2001. The stripped-down approach of the final Beulah album, 2003’s Yoko, has been foregone for a more-is-more approach that ends up sounding a lot like The Coast Is Clear if it were less streamlined, more frantic in the arrangements.
That frantic side jibes with the album’s themes. The first lyric of the first song, “My limbs have failed me again”, hints at the health problems Kurosky struggled with during the album’s making. Struggle is the chief subject of the album’s lyrics. Kurosky employs war metaphors for personal struggle (“Notes from the Polish Underground”, “The World Won’t Last the Night”), describes a society tackling the outbreak of a virus (“An Apple for an Apple”), and ponders the creative struggles of artists (“She Was My Dresden”). The Desert of Shallow Effects overall seems preoccupied with trying to make it through tough times, with marching forward even when everything seems pointless. Kurosky’s take on the world is a generally bleak one, but there’s also always some sense of at least survival here, if not always conquering. “It’s so hard to say if nature has more than a sick sense of humor”, he sings during “Dead Language Blues”. There has always been a tragicomic tone to his writing, and that seems especially true here.
Some of the best moments here musically represent calm within the chaos, like the beginning of “She Was My Dresden”. Others are the times when the album feels completely familiar, when you could close your eyes and imagine that Beulah is back. There actually are a lot of moments like that, but many are fleeting. The balance of mood and melody that Kurosky, Bill Swan, and the other members of Beulah managed to strike seems to be what Kurosky is striving for here, but each time he seems to get there, it’ll be interrupted mid-song by a rush of additional instruments or an unexpected change of direction. Those intrusions give the sense that the album is a little on the overloaded side. The chief offender there, “Dog in the Burning Building”, might also be the most ambitious song. It’s bold but messy. Ambition itself doesn’t make the chorus of vocals, the dog whistle, and one strange, deliberately ‘trippy’ vocal part add up to something clear. A faux-soul section of “Pink Lips, Black Lungs” feels simply awkward, as does one groan-inducing lyric within “West Memphis Skyline”, a surprise from a generally sharp lyric-writer: “I was born Ernest / But they call me sincere”. Listen after listen that line lingers with me, unfortunately.
The places where the album feels awkward or overdone do not erase the general sense that Kurosky has returned with a sense of determination. As an album, The Desert of Shallow Effects feels not like a lark, but like a mission. The soldier metaphors carry through as a signifier of the way people trudge through the hardships of their daily lives, and how Kurosky has used his own chaotic times to craft a headstrong step back into the light. The last lyric on the album is miles from the first, a setting-aside of pain in favor of feeling: “Nothing in this world really matters / Except the sound of my own heart’s patter”.