Beach House - Shore thing for easy listening
Baltimore's dream-pop duo Beach House are confounding classification to gain plaudits from Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and The Strokes. Tim Cooper gets to grips with them and their sound
Friday 15 January 2010
Somewhere in a shiny white building in California, a team of experts have the appealing job of sitting around all day listening to music to categorise the genre of every new track listed on iTunes. They don't always get it right: my own random survey produced random glitches such as T Rex inexplicably labelled as country and The Stylistics' sweet soul music defined as blues, while Princess Superstar is bafflingly branded "booty bass".
However, when it came to appraising the new album by Beach House, a duo usually described as "dream pop", the iTunes team surpassed themselves by instructing listeners to file their new album under "easy listening". "Someone assured us it was a mistake," says Alex Scally, the laid-back male, guitar-playing, half of Beach House. "By someone with a four-inch penis," scoffs Legrand, the feisty female, singing-and-organ-playing, half.
Yet, in a strange way, the i-People are right. With its gorgeous layers of heart-melting melody swirling around the intimate embrace of Victoria Legrand's androgynous voice, Teen Dream is certainly easy on the ear. And it has a whole lot more depth than a Mantovani or Perry Como compilation.
It seems unlikely that a mix-up over classifications will halt the word-of-mouth hype around Teen Dream. Even by the hyperbolic standards of music message-boards, the Beach House buzz is reaching something of a crescendo. Months before its release, one of the stand-out songs, "Norway", was topping the chart on music blog aggregator Hype Machine. And long before the turn of the year, Teen Dream was being talked about as a potential album of the year for 2010.
The acclaim is long overdue for the duo who met five years ago in Baltimore, on America's south-east coast, and count among their fans MGMT and members of Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and The Strokes. Their eponymous first album, in 2006, was a fuzzy lo-fi effort that established their trademark sound: sleepily pulsing rhythms, vintage keyboards and slide guitar enveloping Legrand's sultry, spellbinding vocals, pitched somewhere between the warm embrace of Hope Sandoval and the cool detachment of Nico.
There were more haunting melodies on Devotion, released in 2008, which filtered classic Sixties pop through a gauzy, hazy, woozy web of reverb to create what would have made the perfect David Lynch soundtrack.
Their method is refined further on Teen Dream, on which Legrand once again blurs the boundaries between warm and cool, male and female; indeed, some listeners have found it hard to be sure if it is Legrand or Scally singing the songs.
"Victoria is masculine sometimes and feminine sometimes," says Scally over a pre-gig meal on a fleeting promotional visit to London. "I try to find the balance between both worlds," agrees Legrand. "I think androgyny is an incredibly powerful thing."
"Annie Lennox," says Legrand. "David Bowie," counters Scally. Legrand smiles: "I'm pink and you're blue."
Contradiction is at the core of Beach House: from the name that conjures warm sunny days at the beach to the music that is more likely to evoke cold winter nights on a deserted seashore.
"This is a record at once accessible and relatable," says the duo's label-mate and fan Robin Pecknold, from Fleet Foxes, "but also mysterious and unknowable and sometimes sad. But never melodramatic."
Legrand, whose uncle is the triple-Oscar-winning film composer and jazz pianist Michel Legrand, spent her first six years in Paris before her family moved to Baltimore, best known as the home of gritty urban TV series The Wire, and of cult film director John Waters. The contradiction is not lost on Beach House. "I really like those two references," grins Scally, contemplating the dichotomy of high camp and social realism. "Dramatic-slash-gritty," nods Legrand with a satisfied smile.
Scally met Legrand on a mutual friend's doorstep, soon after she had returned to Baltimore from university in Paris, where she studied theatre until she "decided school was stupid – what's the point of school when you're doing art? You should just MAKE art". Their connection was immediate, with the pair becoming virtually inseparable – yet intent on emphasising that they are not lovers. "As soon as we started making music we had this thing," says Scally. "We made these sounds. It was super-natural."
They construct those super-natural – or possibly supernatural – sounds from vintage instruments, which they pick up in thrift stores and flea markets and yard sales. "Or even people throwing them away," says Scally. "We never stop collecting instruments. But none of what we have would be worth even $100." Their sound has evolved substantially with each new record. "Each tour kind of pushes us forward," adds Scally. "We get sick of what we've done, and produce new songs, new sounds"... "It's like a snake shedding skin," says Legrand. "And the snake gets bigger each time it sheds its skin."
The duo shed their natural habitat for their latest project, leaving Baltimore to record Teen Dream in a remote studio in upstate New York, near Woodstock. "We just wanted to be isolated and away from any distractions, in a fantasy world," says Scally. "It was a time for exploration," adds Legrand. The pair might not be a couple, but they interweave their answers in a way that only those with an intimate connection seem to do; a way that mirrors the dense layers of their music.
They build their songs up in layers, starting usually with a simple keyboard melody from Legrand, who also writes the lyrics. "We start working with melodies and chords and sounds and textures, and we just keep following our instincts," says Scally.
"It's very instinctual at first, and then it's very structural, and then it's very much about belief and faith and gut feeling. We always start with one raw idea, that feels really amazing, usually a melody of Victoria's, then add more instrumentation and more parts and more melody, and sometimes when you get to the end,the thing you had at the beginning has gone so you have to start over. It's always about trying to make the songs amazing without killing the thing that's so amazing about them to begin with."
He adds: "We try try to be very free while we're birthing and then fleshing out the songs." "Birthing" seems the appropriate word for songs that grow out of the duo's artistic (and personal) symbiosis. Says Scally: "It's a very all-consuming obsessive process. It seemed perfect for us to get out of town so there was no possible way to do anything expect work. No distractions. Baltimore is a very familial place and people always want to know what you're doing." "For me, it can be invasive," says Legrand. "No one should have control over me."
Yet the duo decided to relinquish all artistic control over their work once the recording was completed: in a final artistic flourish, they then commissioned films to accompany all the songs on Teen Dream, available as a DVD to accompany the album. Interestingly, they did not impose any agenda on the film-makers, who were drawn from their "creative family" of friends and acquaintances, preferring to let their chosen film-makers generate their own interpretations. "We didn't want to exert any influence," stresses Scally. "Our role was more curatorial. We chose ten artists to make the videos and gave them a modest amount of money and a song to listen to, and said: We need a video."
The results, which are far from conventional music videos, range from animation to comic sketches; if they are linked by a theme, it is a hazy, indistinct visual approach that matches the blurry sounds that the films accompany. "The films are a big part of the album and we're really proud of them," says Scally. "None of them are music videos, they're all interpretations. Some really match the music and some are that style where it's completely independent of the song and you start thinking of the two ideas at once. Some of it is very obvious, some is strange and contrasting to the music."
Legrand shot her own film, featuring ghostly girls with hula hoops, for the song "Silver Soul". "I wanted to try and make something dark and sexual," she says. "I literally had this vision in the song." She adds of the film-curating project: "We wanted to expand our world, not only to entertain others or stoke others' imaginations, but to excite ourselves as well and explore beyond our usual vocabulary; open things up a little."
"It's amazing seeing it back 'cause you get to see literally raw emotions out of the music that we didn't feel at all," remarks Scally. "Like new colours," adds Legrand, who says she sometimes wishes during shows that she could "just walk out of my body and into the audience – experience it from the other side."
Scally starts talking about the connection between music and memory. "All the people I know, when they hear a song, before anything else they start talking about where they were when they got into it, what they were feeling when they got into it," he muses. "I can feel the feeling of being a teenager when I hear a certain album."
For Legrand, those teenage musical memories are inextricably linked to desire, an emotion that runs through their music. "I can remember making out to Portishead... and Bob Marley. Probably on the same day. I was only 14 or 15 years old. I can remember hormones and a crush. Simple, but still intense. I can remember my desire."
While their first two albums evoked an undeniably melancholic mood, there is a blissful euphoria to songs like "Ten Mile Stereo", the folky, hymnal "Zebra" and the trance-like "Norway", from Teen Dream. "There is sadness," acknowledges Legrand, "but there is also sex and the body and blood, all kinds of things." She smiles contentedly as she explains the effect she wishes Teen Dream to have on its listeners. "I'm not gonna lie," smiles Legrand lasciviously. "We want people to have sex to Teen Dream." "If our first album was first base," agrees Scally, "and the second was second base, then this one goes all the way." Legrand nods enthusiastically.
'Teen Dream' is out on Bella Union records on 25 January
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