The Last Seven Years
Watching Foals and Beach House Evolve

September already?

I work at a particle physics laboratory where we delve deeply into the mysteries of space and time, so I know that the theory that time speeds up as you get older is false. Time moves at the same rate, which is why we call it time. But damn, it certainly feels like the days are zipping past more quickly, the months blending into one another, the years barely distinguishable. I feel like I’m constantly celebrating the 10th, 20th or even 30th anniversaries of things I remember like they happened yesterday. (Are we really about to get a 20th anniversary edition of Jagged Little Pill? Really?)

I’m 41 now. I promised myself decades ago that I wouldn’t turn into one of those old guys who thinks that music peaked the year he graduated high school. I wanted to be constantly seeking out new sounds, new artists, new expressions. I think I’ve done OK, even though my favorite artists still tend to be the ones with extensive catalogs, ones I have grown with over the years. As much as I enjoy hearing a good debut album, I like them mainly for the potential they represent, the idea that someday, this band may put out a fourth or fifth album, and that one’s probably going to blow me away.

Both of the records I have on tap this week come from bands I tried on a whim in 2008, spurred on by good reviews, and have watched evolve over the past seven years. I’m happy with the way both of them have grown – these new ones might be career-best in both cases – and overjoyed that I took a chance on them seven years ago. Results like this embolden me to take more such chances, try more bands and artists I might be hesitant on. I’m hopefully never going to shovel out Pitchfork-levels of new-band hype in this space, but at least in these two cases, the leaps of faith have been justified.

I can’t quite remember why I bought Antidotes, the first album from Oxford’s Foals, but even now I think it’s one of the brattiest math-rock albums ever. It’s intricate, like a puzzle that keeps solving itself, and yet danceable, lead throat Yannis Philippakis (then just 21) pushing things along with his barking, Isaac Brock-esque voice. I think Antidotes is great. I also think it’s fascinating and commendable that the band has never made another record like it. That willingness to experiment is risky, but it’s paid dividends.

Two years ago, I criticized the band for heading in a more accessible dance-rock direction with Holy Fire – much of it sounds like a tribute to modern Modest Mouse. But now that the fourth Foals platter, What Went Down, is here, it’s clear that their previous effort was just a way station on the road they’ve been traveling. Holy Fire scrapped one of the band’s key elements – the sense that each band member was contributing a different interlocking piece that only made sense as a whole – in favor of more straightforward rhythmic foundations. What Went Down does the same thing, but proceeds to build massive, gleaming towers on those foundations.

If you don’t know what I mean, just listen to the title track, which opens the album. There’s nothing immediately intricate about it – the drums pound in 4/4, the bass line throbs, the guitars land on the beats, and Philippakis sings a simple melody with passion. But just listen to how the band builds the song up higher and higher, crashing into that fantastic middle section about three minutes in, breaking it down, and then going even bigger. There’s an intensity to this song that Foals have never injected into their material before – by the end, it’s almost unbearable, and you have to move or do something or you’ll scream. And then the last 30 seconds lets you do just that.

In so many ways, What Went Down sounds like the work of a different band than the one that made Antidotes. Foals have always been more interested in sound than song, in creating interesting sonic sculptures than writing indelible melodies, and while this new album doesn’t flip that script, the 10 songs here are more interesting and memorable. “Mountain at My Gates” is a proper single, one that feels like an honest effort, in contrast to their last stab at radio, “My Number.” It’s obvious in every song here that the band rallied and focused for this one, and the result is simultaneously their most succinct and most ambitious statement.

In short, Foals have grown up here, and they’ve left their brattiness behind. Nothing on What Went Down is brash – it’s all well-considered, strong material. “Birch Tree” is the perfect adult Foals song, its shimmering guitars and gliding chorus almost sounding smooth. “Give It All” is a low-key, subtle bit of hopeful melancholy, with glittering keyboards and a “woo-oo” for the ages. “Night Swimmers” is a delightful update of the band’s old vibe, the only time on the record that the bass and drums do that nimble little dance, but this one is fully written, the groove underpinning a solid song. And epic closer “A Knife in the Ocean” earns all of its seven minutes, finally blossoming into a massive and powerful finale.

I wasn’t sure what to expect after Holy Fire, but with What Went Down, Foals have crafted their best record. They did so not by ignoring the pathways they’d previously taken, even the ones that led to dead ends, but by learning from them and building on them. This album shows a true evolution, and marks a coming of age – they started as a bunch of cocky kids, but What Went Down is the first album they’ve made that can truly be called confident. It’s been a treat to watch them find their way here, and it’s even more of a treat to see them arrive.

I’ve been following Beach House for just as long, but their evolution has been much more subtle. The first Beach House album I bought was their second, 2008’s Devotion, and the main elements were already in place – droning keyboards, pitter-patter electronic drums and Victoria Legrand’s lush, haunting voice. Seven years later, those are still the main ingredients, but they’ve learned to cook more interesting dishes with them. Still, everything they’ve done sounds unmistakably like Beach House.

The duo’s fifth album, Depression Cherry, also sounds like Beach House, but this time, there’s a larger helping of classic shoegaze here – this record sounds gauzier, farther away, more mesmerizing than the comparatively pop leanings of their last effort, the glorious Bloom. The first single, “Sparks,” is the one most obviously inspired by the likes of Slowdive and the Cocteau Twins – Alex Scally’s fuzzy guitar is slathered all over Legrand’s thick organ chords, and her harmonized vocals sound like she sung them down an echo-filled hall from the microphone. It could not sound more like ‘90s shoegaze if Kevin Shields produced it.

The rest of the album doesn’t quite follow suit, but there is a definite focus here on that cavernous sound. As a consequence, while these songs are fine, they’re not as memorable as those on Bloom and Teen Dream – this album is more concerned with mood than melody. That’s not to say there aren’t gems here, particularly the stunning six-minute “PPP” and the delicate “Bluebird.” But Depression Cherry is designed to be taken as a whole, and that whole blurs together into one long, sustained note.

What keeps this record afloat, as always, is Legrand’s voice. She layers it, then sings around those layers, covering the tracks like a warm blanket. On the relatively sparse “10:37” she sounds a lot like Enya, another rich-voiced singer who has mastered the art of the multi-track, and when the arrangements get bigger, like on “Wildflower,” she matches them with lovely, finely sculpted vocal webs. Closer “Days of Candy” starts with a hundred Legrands harmonizing like a choir, providing a supple bed for her shining-light lead vocal. It’s the darkest and dreariest song here, sending Depression Cherry out on a note befitting its title. But Legrand is captivating throughout.

For those who have been following along, this album is a surprising turn away from the bright shimmers of the last few Beach House efforts. (It even comes packaged in a cherry-red felt-like material, further setting it apart.) The essence of the band remains at its center, but they’re looking at that essence in new ways here, refining their sound and taking it places they’ve never been. As the next step along their path, it’s a strange choice. But as a Beach House album, it works very well, and I’m interested to see where they go after this.

Next week, Iron Maiden. IRON MAIDEN. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.