Baltimore duo Beach House show Devotion can be a dream
The first thing fans will notice about Beach House's second album, Devotion (Carpark), is that it hews to the same gauzy sonic architecture of their 2006 eponymous debut. An elegant combination of keyboard beats, organ drones, apparitional electric slide guitar, and Victoria Legrand's molasses vocals gave Beach House a golden glow that sent music scribes running to their thesaurus for "autumnal" synonyms. These elements sound thicker on Devotion, though a few spins down the line it becomes apparent that the difference lies more in the compositions themselves than in any studio trickery.
This isn't a small distinction, given our tendency to fetishize certain sounds. Phil Spector productions, Dusty Springfield laments, and Lee Hazelwood bonanzas all have brilliant surfaces, but they also have the depth of classical songwriting, complete with bridges, vamps, and theatrical flourishes. Legrand, the niece of French film composer Michel Legrand, grew up in a musical atmosphere. The two of us have a phone date, but work and a sick dog interfere, leaving her to e-mail me from her Baltimore home about her glam-rocking father ("My papa wore tight purple satin pants, with hair down to 'there'<0x2009>") and her studies at Paris's International Theatre School Jacques Lecoq ("I was trained classically, and I know Alex [Scally, her Beach House bandmate] also has an affinity towards the classical, old-fashioned world, so I think it's a given we'd be into the Zombies and . . . watered-down show-tune buildups").
And so we get a folded gem like Devotion's "Heart of Chambers," in which Legrand breathily asks, "Would you be my longtime baby?" On "Holy Dances," a drowsy, shaker-spurred verse flowers into the sunburst of Scally's arpeggios. The centerpiece chorus of "All the Years" echoes with the same kind of distant regret running through the best of old girl-group records. Still, the purest pleasure on Devotion might be its sole cover, a version of Daniel Johnston's "Some Things Last a Long Time": Beach House distills the song to a plucked melody, lolling drum beat it's like listening to a "Be My Baby" single at 33 rpm and Legrand's barely there inflection. "We felt compelled by the fragile essence of the song and merely wanted to capture it, if only for a brief moment," she writes.
Across Devotion, Legrand's phrasing emerges as a major shaping force. She knows how to pause inserting the breath before the chorus in "Turtle Island" and a delicious lingering note over at the end of "You Came to Me." And her sometimes slumberous drawl gives the 1960s pop orchestrations a European edge Nico comes to mind and from that same era Legrand also seems to have picked up the special knowledge that spelling a word out, as with "D.A.R.L.I.N.G.," always makes it sexier.
"We don't have full rock band power, but that can also be detrimental to songwriting," Legrand writes. "Being a duo enables us to start simply and build from there." It also allows the twosome to maintain a key measure of intimacy. Though their preproduced effects emulate yesteryear's studio magic, listeners never lose sight of the modest means of this music. Devotion's cover image strikes a similar balance, signaling formality Legrand and Scally sit at a candlelit table while admitting a homegrown touch: the album's title is spelled out in a cake's icing, and Legrand's casual bare foot peeks out at the bottom of the frame.
If Beach House established the group's palette, Devotion sees the duo working more confidently with the brush. When I describe some of the new disc's brightest passages as "Technicolor moments" to Legrand, she replies: "I personally heard Technicolor in 'Turtle Island' during the bridge because all of a sudden the voices burst out, and it feels literally like paint and light are bursting through . . . a soft burst like a bubble in slow motion." That beats "autumnal" any day.
With Anaura and Best Wishes
Sat/15, 10 p.m., $12
Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF