[27 February 2008]
Images of sun, surf, and sand are indelibly etched into America’s collective psyche. Many of us have fond memories of the beach, if not from personal experience, from “Surfin’ USA” or The OC. Bikini-clad beach bunnies, boardwalk games of chance, pick-up volleyball, and all-around good, clean fun surround the American shoreline mythos.
Beach House’s eponymous debut’s titular waterfront property sounds like it is situated in New England, where locals associate the beach with dreary cold as much as summer sun. Listening to the album sounds more like a trip to the family beach house in late fall, maybe to winterize the old place. Rake the leaves, lay some caulking down under the door, tape up the windows, a layer of caked sand covering the creaky gray floorboards, dust clinging to blueish crystal. A tight-chested sadness tugs at the record, perhaps resulting from the death of a child or bitter divorce. The sepia-toned memories of ruddy-cheeked children jumping off the dock out front, normally happy recollections, haunt in this context.
Devotion comes around a year (figuratively and literally) after Beach House. The album retains a hint of its predecessor’s sadness, but sounds more like an attempt to come to terms with whatever tragedy inspired Beach House‘s anguish. There’s an inner strength here, a defiance in the face of tragedy that evokes a determination to get on with life. Devotion blows some of the sonic dust off the duo’s recording style and, most notably, brings Victoria Legrand’s vocals to the front of the mix. Here she sounds more like a Motown diva than Nico, to whom she was widely compared due to her ghostly performance on Beach House. This time, her breathy yet commanding vocals recall no one so much as a sultry Leslie Gore.
The album begins with “Wedding Bell”, a Roy Rogers TV cowboy crooner driven by a clippedy-clop beat and the band’s ubiquitous synthesized organ. After this first track, the last record’s Napoleon Dynamite percussion returns with childish Casio presets keeping metronomic time. Once again, Beach House manage to bring these inorganic, clipped beats to life with a heartfelt warmth. “You Came to Me” follows with Ronettes drumming. Gila” and “Turtle Island” feature feel-good melodies which belie the lyrical melancholy, following in the footsteps of Beach House‘s soulful “Master of None”. Nico comparisons should be dead and buried at the album’s middle, by which time Victoria belts out pleading verses with the apocalyptic desperation of “Be My Baby”.
The album’s thematic high point comes with the album’s sole guitar-driven song, “Heart of Chambers”. With each verse, Legrand’s pleas become increasingly distressed. Her cries of “I’d like to / Be someone / You could finally learn to / Love again” reach dizzying heights, remarkable due to the subdued nature of the album’s sonic landscape. The level of emotion conveyed is a testament to Legrand’s voice, the power of which we didn’t know existed until now. An unimaginative (and graciously abridged) cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last a Long Time” opens the album’s second half, followed by several songs further evoking the ‘60s girl-group sound—“D.A.R.L.I.N.G.” most distinctly. Devotion closes with a brilliant use of otherworldly slide guitar, snapped fingers, and shrugged shoulders.
Beach House’s revamped sound may disappoint shoegazers upon first listen, but the band’s newfound command of melody, fuller instrumentation, and excellent pacing make Devotion a better record altogether. If a criticism is to be leveled at Beach House, it’s that their sleepy sound keeps their recordings from transcending background music. When Devotion goes for the throat, it’s euphoric, but too much of the album is simply a beautiful mood piece.
Beach House has an uncanny knack for releasing their albums at conceptually appropriate times. If their debut was an autumn trip to the family summer home, Devotion is an overnight springtime visit to open up some windows and let the place air out. We still feel sad, but after a year of aural catharsis, it’s time to move on.