Written by 4:51 am Audiophile Music

On The Beach House

Mark Smotroff takes a swim down by the sea…

I hate it when I have to rely on cliché.  But stuff happens, y’know, Dear Readers?

AR-DepressionCherryCOVER225.jpgIn the case of this fine band called Beach House, there is a musical parallel which by now I’m sure the band is tired of  hearing (so apologies up front!). 

But… I will resort to it because said cliché paints a very immediate picture — at least it might for many of you in the 30-55 year-old range who are probably familiar with said band I will soon name, and compare Beach House to… 

In fact…  I am going to fall back on them a whole bunch throughout this review: The Cocteau Twins.

Mea culpa.

Musical influences are a funny thing… Some of us care a whole lot about it. Others could care less. To that, none of my friends seemed to even blink when I brought up the comparison that Beach House sounds like a modern day twist on The Cocteau Twins. ‘Yeah, right…  but… their songs are just so pretty,’ dismissively replied my music buddy John, when he was first playing me their album Bloom several years ago, my initiation to the group. 

And its true, their songs are in fact so pretty

After re-listening to my fave Cocteau’s albums back-to-back with Beach House, I realized that while there are similarities, they are no doubt different bands. 

For starters, Beach House has been singing in English right from the start as far as I know… while The Cocteaus invented their own “language” for many of their early albums…There are lots of subtle differences in the Beach House approach to this sort of ethereal space pop music. In some ways Beach House has a more direct (if you will) sound …  

Whatever… 

Most people I have met who enjoy this band are really just very happy to have new music like pouring out of their speakers — lovely ambient pop music with loosely psychedelic guitar textures, driving bass lines, sometimes eerie keyboards and angelic otherworldly vocals.

Sort of like The Coct…. oh… never mind… 

AR-ThankYourLuckyStarsCover225.jpgAnyhow, a couple of years back I started working on this review of Beach House’s then-new albums Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars  but somehow my article fell through the cracks between my computer and my editor’s desktop. And while preparing a review of the brand “new” Beach House B-sides and Rarities compilation, I discovered the error, so we thought this would be good to catch up on all three releases. 

To borrow a phrase from Frank Zappa: “let me take you to the beach…”  

B-Sides to Seasides…

Reviewing a new album by Beach House is a little like reviewing a flower in a field. They all tend to look fanciful, some smell real nice and are generally good for our spirit, mind and body.  But to try and tell you the specific details on what makes said flower unique and different, well that is a whole other bucket of bees.

So I will say up front that the new Bech House album, titled bluntly B-Sides and Rarities, is a fine collection that stands up well to any of their other recordings. The sound is uniformly quite good and the LP disc pressing very nice, on quiet, clear and well pressed standard weight vinyl. The accompanying download also sounds real nice too.

But what does it sound like, you ask? 

Well… 

It sounds like… Beach House!

I mean, unless you are the hardest of hardcore fans of a group like this, its hard to name a specific song.   I mean, can you name any one specific Cocteau Twins song from a specific album?  Off the top of my head, I can from one album which I played incessantly back in the 80s when I first discovered them via Treasure.  Tracks like “Ivo” and “Donimo” come to mind …  

AR-DepressionCherryplaying225.jpgBut with Beach House, I can only say at this stage that I like their albums as whole-disc-listening experiences, something I encourage you to do (not just cherry picking key tracks). There is too much thoughtful goodness going on here to break it apart from the others contextually.  And this factor  makes this new album of B-sides from their entire career all the more wonderful as there is remarkable consistency of sound between the recordings.  Its good stuff, no doubt. 

I’ve previously reviewed Bloom which remains a fave. But just don’t ask me to name a specific song! Maybe in a few more years …

Anyhow, we’ll get more to their “sound” in a few moments…

Yesterday & Today…

When I first set out to review Beach House’s Depression Cherry album in 2015, I was all excited as I got one of the last copies at Amoeba Music of the “Loser” editions on colored vinyl. This came complete in a nifty red velvet album sleeve — visual echoes of The Bee Gees’ Odessa album, for those of you who remember that tactile spin…

]]>When word came out that the band was issuing a SECOND album hot on the heels of Depression Cherry, I scurried back to Amoeba where I nabbed one of the spiffy green vinyl copies of Thank Your Lucky Stars. Both albums were written and recorded back to back, so they kind of go hand-in-hand, quite literally.  From what I read online, there were hints via the band’s website the tracks on Depression Cherry sort of correspond to those on Thank Your Lucky Stars.  If you look in the dead wax on Depression Cherry you’ll even see “Thank Your Lucky Stars” etched there in the run out groove.  Frank Zappa used to call this sort of thing “conceptual continuity.”

AR-BeachHouseBSidesCover225.jpgMy overall take away from all of these Beach House records is simply how great they sound, especially the rich vocals of singer Victoria Legrand. From an audiophile perspective Beach House records tend to sound better than The Cocteau Twins records did… 

The bass on Depression Cherry is distinct on a track like “PPP,” which sounds like a lysergic blend of The Mama’s & The Papas and The Crystals by way of Mind Games-era John Lennon. The music on Depression Cherry seems a bit more upbeat and song-oriented — if you will — than Thank Your Lucky Stars, falling a little more on the rock side too, with live drums, distorted electric guitars and organ tones. 

Album closer “Days of Candy” sounds like an imaginary out-take from Brian Wilson’s SMiLE  in which all the Beach Boy vocals are replaced with those of his wife’s old band, The Honeys. Actually, if I am going to go down that path, its really more like a Smiley Smile outtake, with long held low organ notes ala “Little Pad” and gorgeous piano chords before floating off into the sunset. 

Musically, Thank Your Lucky Stars reminds me a bit of the band’s 2012 album Bloom, featuring slow and methodically building mood pieces driven by simple beats, guitar and keyboards as well Legrand’s haunting vocals. The mix is a little less ethereal on this one — less reverb or other effects resulting in a much more upfront vocal blend which one can easily understand. I’m not sure if this is a good thing — don’t get me wrong, I love her voice and it sounds fine, but I also like the notion of an artist making the listener work a bit to figure out what is going on lyrically. 

Curiously, with less special effects on Legrand’s voice, Beach House starts to sound less Cocteau Twins-esque. For example, on side two opener “The Traveller” the organ bits merged with Pink Floyd-y slide guitar signatures in the background are very much the group’s own twist… a twist I really like. 

AR-ThankYourLuckyStarsPlaying225.jpgThe vinyl pressings on these albums are pretty good. The clear vinyl copy of Depression Cherry that I bought is generally pretty quiet but there is some very low level “wooshing” sound that is only apparent between some tracks, and then this is only if you happen to be playing the album at full volume. My copy is a little off center on one side but that doesn’t appear to affect the music (ie. I’m not detecting any ill-sounding “wow” type effect, or wavering, on the longer held notes). The green vinyl copy of Thank Your Lucky Stars is dead quiet and pretty much perfectly centered. 

On both albums, for the most part, the vinyl pretty much disappears from your consciousness as a listener and the performances tend to jump out of the speakers. 

For those of you who prefer it, you can also get a standard black vinyl version via the band’s website; also note that typically, once all the “Loser Edition” colored vinyl versions are sold out, Sub Pop Records tends to switch over to black for the duration. So, worry not, audiophile purists.

Oh, one last interesting thing I need to bring up: the downloads. Thank Your Lucky Stars comes with a download card which enables you to choose between MP3, ALAC and FLAC options.  I was happy that they allowed me to download multiple versions of the album permitting a quick comparison/contrast. 

I’m not going deep or technical here, but the FLAC version was the clear winner from my little non-scientific experiment.  I am not sure if this has something to do with the media players I am using, but the ALAC version (only playable on iTunes) displayed some of the sort of phase-y high end I might expect to find on a lower resolution MP3; indeed the 320 kbps MP3 version also delivered some of that, albeit different, type of sonic artifact. The FLAC version, which I play on a VLC player (as iTunes does not support FLAC natively) gave off none of those audio artifacts — the music sounded clear and full bodied, or at least as clear and full bodied as 44.1 kHz, 16-bit files can sound. 

Depression Cherry only came in one of two formats so I chose FLAC version which sounds fine there.  I didn’t bother with the MP3.  

Still, its really curious to note the differences, an important detail for some of us….

Ok, so there you have it. Fine new music by a fine band carrying the torch of ethereal vocal pop music for a new generation to discover and marvel over.  

Past, present or future, Beach House sounds just fine to these ears…

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