Devotion

Review: Beach House – Depression Cherry

As pleasurable as it is to listen to the soothing strains of a Beach House record, it is equally frustrating to assess their work in a critical manner.  In their eleven years together, the band has created a signature dreampop aesthetic built on a handful of recognizable fundamental elements, and has rarely deviated from that blueprint over the course of their five albums: Victoria Legrand’s smoky vocals float above Alex Scally’s delicate guitar lines, and their combined melodies are layered atop minimalist keyboards and bare-bones drum beats.  But it is a fool’s errand to spend much time deconstructing the music when the results are this beautiful.

It is extremely difficult to draw out the differences between Beach House albums, except to note how the production quality has improved over time with better equipment and a bigger budget.  Aside from a few standout singles, audiences at a Beach House show would be hard-pressed to determine if a specific song came from the Devotion or Bloom era.  To the band’s credit, however, they manage to hit upon the perfect melodic combination for three songs per album, and those moments can be as close to transcendence as indie rock can get.  Any musician would kill for that kind of ratio.

Though Depression Cherry offers many of the usual delights that one has come to expect from Beach House, the album’s best moments are found in the few instances when the band subtly tweaks their standard formula.  Lead single “Sparks” is a prime example, with its use of a rougher guitar tone that gives a nice edge to the melody and complements Legrand’s breathy voice.  The same can be said with the album’s other highlights, the gorgeous “PPP” and the sublime “Days of Candy”–epic ballads that not only show that the band is still capable of inducing goosebumps, but also hint at subsequent new musical directions for the future.  The changes are modest (exploring different keyboard tones and chord structures, the addition of choral voices, and playing with the underlying compositional structure a bit), but they at least indicate a willingness to break from the usual template a bit.

Longtime fans will find that Desperation Cherry has its own particular charms, and they grow with each subsequent listen.  For the neophyte, the album is an excellent showcase for the band’s trademark melancholic synthpop, and features plenty of hooks that will draw in listeners.  In either case, the record is likely to inspire a trip into the band’s sparkling back catalog, so as to enjoy the duo’s ability to capture that beautifully melancholic spirit so well.

Covered: “Some Things Last a Long Time”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

Beach House first came across my radar back in 2010, when their album Teen Dream was released amid heavy buzz and to great acclaim.  I instantly became a fan of their gorgeous melodies and lush music; the band chose a perfect album title, as “dream” truly encapsulated their style.  Beach House’s delicate guitar lines and luscious synths, topped off by Victoria Legrand’s dusky vocals, provided the ideal soundtrack for a beautiful, carefree day on the coast.  I soon worked my way back through their discography, and grew to love those albums as well, including the splendid Devotion, which included all the elements essential to the success Teen Dream but with the added charm of more intimate production.

Devotion has some of my favorite Beach House tunes, including “Wedding Bell” and “Gila”, but there was a track near the end of the album that often stuck with me.  There was something about this song that got stuck in my head, but it was not just the catchy melody; I had the feeling that I had heard the song before, but I could not place it anywhere.  It was not until months later that I realized what spurred that reaction.

While I have long been a fan of Built to Spill, I usually skip over their early work when it comes up on shuffle, preferring to stick in the post-Perfect From Now On sweet spot.  Therefore it makes sense that it took me a few months to realize that I heard the Beach House song in question first as a Built to Spill track; it also did not help that Beach House had shortened the title to “Some Things Last” from the original “Some Things Last A Long Time”, making the process of connecting the two versions in my mind more difficult.  Built to Spill’s version pops up in a few places, though I think it is more likely that I was listening to the “Car” single than the compilation The Normal Years when I pieced the mystery together.  I thought it was pretty remarkable that Beach House would cover a Built to Spill song, considering the vast differences in their styles.  This spurred me to do some research, and it turns out that I had missed a crucial step in the process.

It turns out that both Beach House and Built to Spill were performing covers, and that the original “Some Things Last a Long Time” was a Daniel Johnston song.  I had only a passing familiarity with Johnston, mainly due to reading reviews about the documentary that was made that covered his struggle with mental illness, The Devil and Daniel Johnston; I knew that several of my favorite musicians had held him in high esteem and respected his work, but had never heard his music for myself.

Both Beach House and Built to Spill put their own personal stamp on their versions, so it is easy for the listener to assume that they are the original versions. Beach House emphasizes the deceptively simple melody and gives the song a dreamlike atmosphere, though unfortunately they decided to shorten the song by cutting off a few verses, while Built to Spill’s take adds a buzzsaw-edged guitar that doubles the basic melody and throws in a few intriguing sound effects to the proceedings that makes the song sound like a product of its times, namely the early-90’s.  Each version has its merits, but Beach House in their prime wins out over early-period Built to Spill in my mind.

However, neither cover is able to capture the heartbreak of the original.  Johnston’s high-pitched voice recalls that of a child, which gives the vocals a tinge of naivete.  The verses are built on a straightforward four chord progression that the melody echoes, swooping up before resolving down in pitch; this pattern adds a sense of longing to each line.  Not much else happens for the most part, allowing the listener to focus on the lyrics; the simplicity of each statement is what first attracts the attention of the listener, but it obscures the sense of regret behind each verse.  Once you realize how Johnston is able to convey a sense of deep sadness in so few words, it becomes easy to see why he had such an impact on so many musicians.