January 22, 2010
Album review: Beach House - Teen Dream (Bella Union)
Dreampop duo come of age and steal our hearts with a wide-eyed, lovestruck third
9 / 10
Rather than cutting them through the middle and counting the rings, it’s far easier to pinpoint when someone was a teenager by the places where they used to while away the hours – the diner, a roller-disco, a drive-in movie. Of course, living in Blighty, the prospects would have been far less Hollywood-coloured: a splintered park bench and a greying youth centre if you were lucky. But the beach is one youthful haunt both sides of the pond have in common; that timeless archetype of young summers. And my, how it’s changed – from fresh-faced Beach Boys preppiness to the dead-behind-the-eyes comedown of chillwave (or whatever we’re calling it this week) artists such as Washed Out, Neon Indian and Memory Tapes. All that’s consistent with those clean-cut images of yore is the sepia tint of the photographs, borrowed nostalgia for an ideal that never existed in the first place.
That’s where ‘Teen Dream’ comes in. Far brighter than we’ve previously known Baltimore dreampop duo Beach House to be, the break with the spidery, sparse sound of their first two albums affords them far fewer places to hide. It shares that same nostalgia, but unlike some of their woozy brethren, it manages to paint a tremendously authentic portrait of youth and young love. The vague lyrical code of diary entries designed for no-one else to be able to crack, the topographical details that transport them back to lovelorn landscapes and the sense that Victoria Legrand’s heart could burst with immeasurable longing from her chest at any second – they all ring true to anyone who’s ever felt they might die of lovesickness.
Alex Scally, the other half of the band (though as they’re at pains to stress, not romantically) said recently that they wanted to write a “make-out and hard grinding” record. Their past two records already conveyed an intense level of intimacy, but they were prickly and awkwardly pretty, like teenagers hiding behind shaggy fringes bashing braced teeth while kissing. From the opening notes of ‘Zebra’, it’s clear that ‘Teen Dream’ is an altogether different beast, still timid and unsure, but with new resolve. Whereas previously they’ve shuffled in with spindly shakers, there’s a delicate pride when Scally’s waltzing guitar leads the way for Legrand’s heavenly “Aaahs” and the emboldened, lolloping sound that curves and swoops, as if exploring the contours of another’s body with slow, febrile urgency, before galloping away in shimmering cymbals.
Stepping away from the precipice of dodgy amateur erotica, Victoria’s voice has a new force to it, exercising the control of her classical training for the end of each line to flare like a freshly struck match. On ‘Norway’ she stretches the words long beyond their natural conclusion, inviting us to hibernate in the myriad syllables. It glows with a languid power that almost sounds as if she sang in slow motion and producer Chris Coady sped it up to make sure its intensity was concentrated at the highest possible parts per molecule. Although the lyrics aren’t always clear – her intonation is often more textural than words – the important messages burn through. ‘Zebra’’s soothing reassurance that “you don’t gotta worry now” along with ‘Take Care’, bookends the record with what seem like promises to her younger self, and the listener: “I’ll take care of you” she sings, nightingale-like.
Much like their good friends Grizzly Bear, Beach House have made testy, breathy cooing and harmonising into an artform scant seen since the days of the Gregorian chant. Also, like Ed Droste and his boys, they’ve now refined their beauty to a point where greater exposure must surely be theirs for the taking. Despite recording in a church in upstate New York, they’ve resisted the urge to inflict highfalutin arrangements on their humble songs, which instead breathe within an instantly definable space similar in nature to that created by The xx for their debut. Where grandiose church organs could have moved in, Victoria’s collection of battered keys remain, anchoring the songs from floating off into the ether. Whether they’re blooming in soft cymbals and emotional crescendos at the end of ‘Walk In The Park’ or avoiding the raw cracks in Victoria’s voice and a ghostly piano on ‘Real Love’, Beach House have finally pinned down their own peculiar brand of perennially festive, secular reverence by stepping out of the shadows.
It’d be almost guilt-free to call this a perfect record – of all the bands who put an ear up to the chest and channel heartbreak, no-one coats it in gold and jewels like Beach House do. They’re a band who triumph in subtleties rather than innovation, making ‘Teen Dream’ a gorgeously comfortable listen. Some might say it’s too cosy, but that’d be as churlish as complaining that a masseuse’s hands were too soft while reclining on a goosedown quilt. No, much as Animal Collective defined 2009 from a similarly early vantage point, Beach House will deservedly do the same this year, but one of the most spellbinding things about this record is its imperfections; those occasional moments where the balance isn’t quite struck and swathes of beauty shift slightly out of focus hint that there’s still room for them to grow next time around. Although they fit with the oft over-dramatic nature of young love, the odd lyrical cliché remains – as on ‘Better Times’, where Victoria questions, “How much longer can you play with fire/Before you turn into liar?” a tad gratingly. But it’s a tiny niggle. They’ve made an absolutely magical record – the jagged edges of their past have been smoothed by the sea, making ‘Teen Dream’ a soft shore gem in the crown of the great chronicles of youth.
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