Photo: Shawn Brackbill via Sub Pop

Beach House: B-Sides and Rarities

This collection adds further definition to our understanding of a band too often reduced by oversimplified interpretations.
Beach House
B-Sides and Rarities
Sub Pop

Critical interpretations of Baltimore dream pop outfit Beach House tend to classify their music into two categories. There is the grand, pristine, sweeping pop of Teen Dream, Bloom, and Depression Cherry, compared with the brittle, dusty, rickety dirges of Beach House, Devotion, and most recently, Thank Your Lucky Stars. It’s an appealing dichotomy, so appealing in fact that it is bound to oversimplify their music and overlook certain nuances within these polar extremes. While many Beach House songs feature a relatively predictable arrangement of Alex Scally’s drum machines and breezy guitar with Victoria Legrand’s dense organs and yearning vocals, the band makes the most of subtle, poignant variations in sound and texture, from the burnt distortion of tracks like “Sparks” to the synthpop radiance of “Lazuli”.

For a time the two-pronged theory of Beach House was primarily a chronological one, as it seemed until a few years ago that the band had permanently graduated from their darker, more insular style toward a broader and denser sound. This interpretation collapsed when they more or less surprise-released Thank Your Lucky Stars two months after Depression Cherry in 2015. Stars was an intriguing, oft-overlooked album that complicated our understanding of who Beach House were, particularly in the way that it combined ghostly, even macabre songs with some of the grandest and most ambitious material of their career. It demonstrated above all that the band had not lost touch with the more mischievous and idiosyncratic aspects of their music, and had, in fact, found ways to refine this approach over the years.

The release of their B-Sides and Rarities collection is more appropriate and necessary than ever, then. The compilation, which also features two previously unreleased tracks, traces a parallel history of the band over the past decade of their career. “Chariot”, recorded in between the Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars sessions, will be the biggest draw for many listeners. Using similar keyboards as “Wildflower” and pining, near-spoken vocals along the lines of “PPP”, the track showcases everything Beach House does well in their dramatic, riding-off-into-the-sunset modality. Along with “Equal Mind”, a B-side from the “Lazuli” single that had previously only seen a vinyl release, these are poppy and relatively extroverted tracks could easily have stood alongside their album counterparts.

“Baseball Diamond”, the other previously unreleased track, is a subtle, more languorous number that flits ambiguously between smitten and sinister. While its melodies have a way of worming their way into your ear with repeated listens, it is not necessarily the most memorable song in Beach House’s catalogue. Though “Chariot” may be the instant standout, however, most of B-Sides and Rarities adheres more closely to the cloistered mood of “Baseball Diamond”. “Baby”, a Teen Dream-era B-side, is as close as Beach House have ever gotten to a James Bond theme song — which is to say, still not all that close, but Legrand’s insistence that “He’ll go down with the rest of them” nonetheless conveys a palpable sense of doom.

A significant chunk of the collection comes from the Teen Dream era of 2010, in fact, but despite the hallowed place that album holds in Beach House’s history, cuts from this period are fairly mixed in quality. Two songs from that year’s iTunes Sessions EP are included here, though besides the spritely “White Moon”, not much good came out of those recordings. The borderline-sacrilegious reworking of “Norway” is a case in point here, transforming the original’s bleak desolation into a jazzy easy listening tune. For a band often accused of adhering too closely to their core sound, Beach House certainly tried something different here, though it did not exactly pay off.

The Cough Syrup Remix of “10 Mile Stereo”, meanwhile, slows the original down to a glacial pace, providing an interesting listening exercise if not holding a candle to the album version. On the other hand, “I Do Not Care For the Winter Sun” from the same year is a strong, jangly guitar-pop song sporting one of the most quintessentially Beach House song titles ever. The 2008 version of “Used to Be”, which would eventually appear in a more polished format on Teen Dream two years later, is essential listening for fans of the band, particularly for its variant second part which includes especially personal and relational songwriting like, “It’s always good to see you again / Even if it’s coming to an end”.

Both 2006’s Beach House and 2012’s Bloom concluded with hidden tracks, featured here as “Rain in Numbers” and “Wherever You Go”, respectively. Both are among the strongest inclusions in this collection. The former is produced to sound like a surreptitious recording that has since been damaged and later recovered, the piano arpeggios and LeGrande’s mournful vocals barely coming through the glitch and static. The drifting, twilit melancholy of “Wherever You Go”, meanwhile, might not have made much of an impression when it was first released, especially compared to the high-definition drama of the rest of Bloom. With its slow drawl and abstracted ache, however, it has aged surprisingly well over the past several years. When Beach House began featuring it more prominently in their live setlists starting with the Depression Cherry tour, it stood confidently alongside the album cuts. It serves as a fitting conclusion to this collection of Beach House at their most shadowy, elusive, and simultaneously emotive.

Few artists have back catalogues of B-sides that are comparable to their album-based material, and it is unfair to expect B-Sides and Rarities to have the same impact as Beach House’s six impressive LPs. So often with Beach House, the experience lies in the emotional arc of listening to an album from beginning to end, accompanying the music along the ebb and flow of ache and longing. It is impossible, and not so much the point, to do so with this compilation, scattered as it is over a decade’s worth of material rather than adhering to a distinct aesthetic singularity. Uneven though the offerings may be, there are some serious gems to be found here, and the collection adds further definition to our understanding of a band too often reduced by oversimplified interpretations.

RATING 7 / 10