Beach House exists within a popular kind of contemporary rock music that is defined by its inoffensiveness and lack of bombast. Last year, Grizzly Bear’s curious, intricately composed Veckatimest was probably the most visible album of this sort. While the unhurried surface of its songs could appear to some as boring or uninspired, the tasteful arrangements of Veckatimest were the product careful construction. Victoria Legrand, lead singer of Beach House, was a guest chanteuse for Grizzly Bear, and her voice added a vital element to the vocal interplay of the “Still D.R.E”/”Maybe Tomorrow”-riffing single “Two Weeks”.
This strain of music might seem too safe for some, but its consistency is a virtue — around which Beach House has developed a signature sound. Deceptively simple, the approach Legrand and bandmate Alex Scally employed on debut Beach House and the more adventurously textured Devotion consisted of establishing a steady tempo and comfortable melodies as a bedrock for Legrand’s always reverbed, often soaring voice. It was a formula, but the results — well-regarded singles “Apple Orchard” and “Gila” — proved that the approach was more than reliable.
Possibly as a safeguard against their formula becoming too timeworn, Legrand and Scally have made some noticeable changes in both the songwriting and recording of Teen Dream. The album sounds more elaborate, but never fussily so. Legrand’s voice retains its place atop the organ beats, keys, guitars and acoustic drums. The comparison of her singing to Nico and Hope Sandoval is understandable, but Teen Dream uncovers shades of Kristin Hersh and Stevie Nicks, among others. This changeable quality is of a piece with the accompanying music: both incorporate familiar, emotionally engaging tunes and textures into the distinctive Beach House sound.
Lead song “Zebra” establishes a dynamic structure that the band uses more fully on this outing than in the past. Rather than frontloading components that will run dreamily throughout, the elements gradually build to reveal the full power of the song. One of the “Zebra'”s more immediate pleasures comes from a chord progression very similar to Weezer’s “No Other One”. Although “Silver Soul” impedes the energy of the first number, “Norway” picks up the pace with a modulating guitar and keyboard combination, breathy vocals and a chorus that shimmers.
“Used to Be” is a revelation at the album’s halfway point. Legrand sings along to the piano melody, and the mix surrounds the listener with multitracked vocals and percussion. Although the instruments are competing for space, the song does not feel overcrowded. The best development within the song is a drum shuffle that emerges from the quarter notes that have been steadily marking the tempo. The introduction of this simple beat recalls Low’s (also surprisingly brisk) “Just Like Christmas”, and its effect is even more satisfying here. “Lover of Mine”, despite a keyboard line that begs to be sampled, offers too much repetition and not enough variation. As discussed earlier, Beach House is an act that frequently uses constancy to great effect. But on an album that succeeds at fresh new directions, the song (like “Silver Soul”) sticks out as too static.
Returning to the same structural economy of “Used to Be”, “10 Mile Stereo” begins with almost identical quarter notes on the bass drum. Then, through a transition as seamless and invigorating as the major shift in Portishead’s “The Rip”, the song transforms into a galloping bossa nova, with keyboards and Legrand’s voice operating on all cylinders towards a crescendo. The climax arrives in the form of acoustic drums and some aggressive crash cymbals. “Real Love” leaves more space for Legrand’s voice than any other song on the album, and she fills it with a variety of deliveries, at times raw and soulful (think Elyse or Gayle McCormick) and then delicately within her upper register.
The newfound variety in this collection of songs is also present in an accompanying DVD of music videos. Standouts include Sean Pecknold’s clip for “Used to Be”, which would fit nicely amongst the Knife’s video collection, Showbeast’s “Norway”, which should be familiar to anyone who has seen the video for Dan Deacon’s “Woof Woof”, Matt Amato’s found footage piece set to “Real Love”, and the glorious “Take Care”, credited to Kevin Drew & Co.