Thursday, January 28, 2010

Beach House- Teen Dream

The cover to Beach House's Devotion has the duo sitting at a fancy dining room table, an orangey red glow given off by candles. Immaculately arranged in front of them are almost perfectly symmetrical objects, right down to the way their hands are positioned. At the very center is a delicious looking cake with the album title on it, flanked by the band's name in wooden letters. It's one of the most memorable album covers in recent memory, but it also captures the dreamy atmosphere of their music almost perfectly. At its warmest moments, Beach House's style has been like an aural approximation of how a room feels during a birthday party with only the candles for light.

However, Beach House's debut and Devotion had their share of coldness and emotional distance, too. This gave the aforementioned 'warm', melodic moments a distinctly memorable contrasting quality that is rare in music. Wha I mean is, a tonal/atmospheric contrast instead of the usual loud/quiet/loud or fast/slow/fast ones. The self titled debut was mostly drowsy and cold, but memorable for songs like 'Auburn And Ivory.' In many ways this track felt like the blueprint for the sophomore release, Devotion: it subsists on chilly keyboards and detached vocals until that astounding moment after the 3:00 mark when singer Victoria Legrand, spurred by a guitar, rises out of her torpor to declare "she says,: 'I'll wait for you, I'll wait for once'" before retreating immediately. Devotion, then, nudged the band progressively toward less atmosphere and a more direct, emotional style of songwriting, and was an excellent album for it. But Teen Dream takes this trend even further, while at the same time focusing ever more on the commanding vocal performances of Legrand.

I'll just come out and say that I've only been listening to Teen Dream for less than 24 hours and it's already going to be on my list for album of the year. It isn't so much a quantum leap over Devotion as it is a perfection and progression of it. The songwriting alone is at that level where, as you listen to the album for the first couple times, you keep thinking to yourself "oh, this is probably going to be my favorite song"...and you keep thinking it...and you keep thinking it, over and over again. I make no exaggeration when I say that there isn't a bad song here. It starts so strongly with 'Zebra', heavenly "ahhh" backing vocals and all, that you're worried the album can't sustain this level of quality...but then it does, and does....and does...and does, all the way to 'Take Care', which is quite possibly the finest straight up love song the band has ever done. And for an album that has no song under four minutes long, it's impressive how succinct and well paced Teen Dream is.

The biggest and best change on Teen Dream is the increased focus and centering of songs around Legrand's vocals. Going back to the band's debut, it's interesting how reserved she sounds, and how her vocals are often used as part of the overall feel and atmosphere of the songs: one more instrument in the mix, rather than the centerpiece. Well, Teen Dream is unfailingly 'warm' in tone, unabashedly melodic, and unquestionably focused on Legrand. Every essential melody comes from her voice, which is the smartest move the band could've made, since she has become a much more expressive and varied singer since Devotion. Perhaps it was in her all along but it didn't work for the older songs, who knows. I'm tempted to use terms like "powerhouse" for a song like 'Better Times', where she shows more range and imagination in delivery than she did on all of Beach House's debut. The bit at 2:33...well, you'll see.

Uhm, hear.

Teen Dream is the kind of album that a band builds a reputation on. Everything that is good about this band is at its utmost best here, fully revealing not just a duo with a distinctive style, but also one with a surprising amount of diversity within said style. Frankly it's impossible to imagine anyone covering anything from this album and doing it justice. A song like 'Real Love' losing Victoria Legrand's voice would be all but ruined; I can't think of anyone else that could sing "boo, boo, boo" and make you really feel it instead of thinking it was silly. Teen Dream isn't a huge leap from their previous work, but, like Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, it's at least several large steps, leaving the listener in love with what is and impatient to hear what may be.

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