A month ago I gave Beach House’s fifth album, Depression Cherry, a reservedly positive review.
I think it’s a fine record, in many ways their tribute to old-school shoegaze, all blurred-out and indistinct. While it was still definitely a Beach House album, it represented a strange left turn for them, and the record suffered a bit – the focus was on mood, not melody, and over 45 minutes, it felt like a single hazy song that didn’t quite go anywhere. I wondered then where all the winsome, pretty songs they must have written alongside these went to.
And now I know: they’re on the duo’s sixth record, the lovely Thank Your Lucky Stars, a surprise release mere weeks after its predecessor. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scully are adamant that this is not the second half of a double album, nor is it a companion piece – it’s a separate album, with its own feel and identity. And while they’re right – this is certainly its own thing, and bears very little resemblance to Depression Cherry – its existence can’t help but add context to the 86 minutes of music Beach House has given us this fall.
If you, too, thought that Depression Cherry didn’t sound as much like Beach House as you would have liked, you should run out and buy this new album as soon as you can. Where Cherry took its time, its dark and suffocating songs stretching past five and six minutes, Lucky Stars feels light and airy, full of four-minute marvels with delightful tunes. Even though the records are a similar length, Lucky Stars feels smaller, faster, more compact. Its songs feel like prime Beach House, Scally’s guitar and keyboard flourishes adding texture to the band’s usual organ-and-electronic-drums formula. But more than anything else, it’s the pop half of the dream-pop style that sets this album apart. These are lovely little pop songs, with a movement and a sweep missing from Cherry.
In fact, this album feels like the proper successor to Bloom, building on the dreamy sound of that record. The opening trilogy is among this band’s best work, from the blissful, chiming guitars of “Majorette” to the smoky nightclub drawl of “She’s So Lovely” (with its ascending guitar melody ending in an uncertain bit of dissonance, as if the band doesn’t want to reach the summit), to the Cure-esque overtones of the awesome “All Your Yeahs.” There’s a strong sense of nostalgia to songs like the lilting “Common Girl” and the ‘50s-balladry-meets-Cocteau-Twins closer “Somewhere Tonight.” Through all of this, the haunting voice of Victoria Legrand floats like a specter, there and not there, adding new dimensions just by existing. That these songs give Legrand something to sing, as opposed to most of the ones on Cherry, is only for the better.
I know the band would prefer that I don’t think of Cherry and Lucky Stars in relation to one another, but it’s impossible. The fact that Lucky Stars is so traditionally Beach House, such a consistent and winning example of how good their sound can be, means that they know that the songs on Cherry were a departure, and they grouped them accordingly. It also makes me wonder what they think of Cherry – is it an experiment that worked for them? Will they be returning to it? Or is Lucky Stars the way forward? It would be the safer path, certainly. I’d like to see them incorporate some of the moodiness of Cherry with the melodies of its successor – they came close on “Elegy to the Void,” the only song on Stars that breaks six minutes, but it moves and shimmies like nothing on the previous album.
But in case it isn’t obvious, I like Thank Your Lucky Stars a lot more, and if they chose to keep on sounding like this (which is pretty much deciding to sound like themselves), I’ll be happy. Beach House is at their best, I think, when their music bursts with dreamlike wonder, and they’re at that best on Thank Your Lucky Stars. Had this been the only album they released in 2015, I’d have been good with it. Think of Depression Cherry as a bonus. This is where the heart is.
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When she was 20 years old, Vanessa Carlton wrote a perfect pop song.
“A Thousand Miles” has that delirious mixture of youthful exuberance and beyond-her-years sophistication that makes it immortal. It’s so good that it even rises above the cluttered production it was saddled with on Carlton’s 2002 debut album, Be Not Nobody. (There isn’t much her producers could have done to ruin that song, to be fair.) It remains the song for which Carlton is known, a calling card so immense that it has overshadowed everything else she’s done.
And that’s a shame, because the rest of Carlton’s discography is well worth digging into. She’s a decent example of an artist hitting it big her first time out and not allowing that to change her. She’s fought against the kind of pop stardom one might expect after writing a song that takes the world by storm, and she’s rarely tried to write another one like it. It’s been a while, in fact, since Carlton has written anything radio might play. Her last record, 2011’s Rabbits on the Run, was a quiet and gentle affair, and her new one, Liberman, is even more so.
Liberman is so quiet that it will take you a few listens to realize how pretty it is. It floated right by me at first, and I was convinced it was her least interesting record, the one on which her bent toward maturity yielded diminishing returns. Sometime during listen seven, though, the album started to click for me, morphing from static to meditative before my ears. The entire album is low-key and placid, its melodies hiding from view, needing to be teased out. Part of that is the hit-or-miss production – Carlton’s voice and piano are often submerged under layers of keyboards and reverb. But part of it is that Carlton has concentrated on writing simple little numbers about love and loss, and the record is small and slight on purpose.
But those songs are somewhat more dynamic than they first appear, particularly the flowing “Willow” and the sad “Nothing Where Something Used to Be.” Opener “Take it Easy” is a long, breathy sigh that sets the tone, while “Operator” (co-written with her husband, John McCauley, of Deer Tick), pulses along nicely on a churning bass line. “Matter of Time” is a wistful folk song that leads into mini-epic “Unlock the Lock,” with its insistent strings. Things end quietly, because of course they do – “River” glides in on chiming electric guitar and builds to a sweet chorus, while the brief “Ascension” is more like a coda than a real song.
Nothing on Liberman is earth-shattering, or even revelatory. It’s a quiet hymn of a record, one that took me a while to like. What helped more than anything is Liberman’s second disc, which includes stripped-bare versions of seven of its numbers, just Carlton and her piano. These versions helped me find the melodies in these songs, and left me with the feeling that even the muted production on the album proper might be too much. (The piano version of “River” is three times as beautiful as the album version, for instance.) Next time, Carlton should go the whole way and record an album like this. Liberman is good, but its songs are even better, and Carlton should have this much faith in them.
Carlton’s recent work is a thousand miles from the music she’s best known for, but it’s often quite lovely stuff, and should be heard. While I sometimes wish she would find a bit of that old anything-can-happen fire, I’m impressed and elated that she’s managed to do whatever she wants for her entire career. Liberman is absolutely the work of an artist beholden to no one, a quiet celebration of complete freedom. Despite several reasons not to, I’ve grown to like it quite a bit.
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Speaking of quiet hymns, there’s the Innocence Mission.
I first heard the Innocence Mission in the ‘90s thanks to my friend Chris L’Etoile, who is always ten curves ahead of me. Since 1989, married couple Karen and Don Peris have been making fragile, wonderful music. Their earliest efforts were akin to the Sundays, but since 1999’s Birds of My Neighborhood, they’ve been playing delicate acoustic folk, the kind you might hear if you came round their house for a backyard singalong around the fire. They’ve been doing this so beautifully for so long that it’s almost easy to forget how good they are.
Their eleventh album, Hello I Feel the Same, keeps the streak going. It’s another short and sweet collection of tiny songs of uncommon beauty. The foundation is Don’s nimbly picked guitar and Karen’s lilting, unearthly voice, with occasional drums, upright bass and organ, but nothing obtrusive. Arrangements are kept at their sparsest, letting the natural grace of the songs shine brightly. Everything here is simple and warm, from the instant connection of the title track to the bittersweet lullaby of “State Park” to the grateful closer “The Color Green.” No bitterness, no regret, only kindness and fondness and simple joy, if tinged with nostalgic sadness.
Yes, it’s another Innocence Mission album, offering the same delights as the other ten. But I don’t mind at all. The music Karen and Don Peris make, particularly lately, is almost too beautiful for words, and I’m happy to just put this album on repeat and sink into it. Hello I Feel the Same is another gorgeous, quiet triumph, and it leaves me wanting nothing.
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I took the title of this week’s column from a Cowboy Junkies song, and while they don’t have anything new to review, they did issue a box set with the same title this week. It includes their albums Open, One Soul Now and At the End of Paths Taken in remastered form, along with a fourth disc of freshly recorded songs written during those sessions. I’ve been really lax in reviewing Cowboy Junkes albums (I didn’t write up any of the Nomad Series, to my shame), so I’ll put in a good word for this set. If you like dark music that takes it slow, you’ll love all of this.
Next week, Celldweller’s epic End of an Empire. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.