(Sub Pop) 2010
Merriweather Post Pavilion was released on January 6, 2009. The year wasn’t even a week old and people were already calling it the best album of 2009. It seemed crazy, but sure enough, come December the bigger question was where to put it on your Best of the Decade list. January 2010 is a tad early to talk about Best of the Decade, but as we entered the New Year something seemed eerily familiar. A highly anticipated January release, Teen Dream by Beach House, was already being projected as a potential album of the year.
Jimmy Morris is a fellow music blogger that I follow on Twitter (check out his excellent site Head Underwater) and his bite-sized review on the eve of the album’s official release directly addressed a question that, while premature, was definitely on my mind. I didn’t hear the album until the next day, and I’m still not sure if I agree with his statement, but they are close enough in quality that I think it boils down to taste rather than superiority. Pink Floyd has been my favorite band since grade school, and I’ve seen Phish more times than I care to admit in a public forum, so it’s safe to say that I’m pre-disposed to loving Animal Collective.
Beach House has two previous albums, Beach House (2006) and Devotion (2008), both of which are quite good, and established them as an artist to watch, but neither hinted at the breadth of what was to follow. Teen Dream hits like a ton of bricks. No need for repeated listens to “get it,” it’s just great songwriting, beautiful instrumentals, and breathtaking vocals. In a recent interview, Alex Scally, one half of the group along with Victoria Legrand, told Pitchfork that “we wanted every single song to be a single on the record,” and you can tell. From the opening build of “Zebra” to the aptly title closer “Take Care,” there is not one bad song, not even an average one, every last track is a winner.
While each tune can stand on its own, they still fit perfectly with the rest of the album, and this cohesion is no accident. In that same interview, Scally said their goal was that “at any point you could pick up the record and feel that you’re in this universe.” They succeed in building their universe despite forgoing the more abstract material that artists often use to fill out the thematic arc of their albums. The Beach House sound, often described as dreamy, hazy, woozy, hypnotic, etc., has always been a universe unto itself, but on Teen Dream it evolves dramatically in its scope.
The lo-fi, reverb-heavy production and minimalist approach to arrangements are gone. Freed of these chains, Legrand’s vocals take center stage and she makes a star turn for the ages that is already earning her comparisons to Stevie Nicks. It’s even more impressive in the live setting. On the album, there is a slight crackling on the vocals where the power of her voice seems to meet the limitations of the recording, but when I saw them last month at the Paradise, the crackle was gone and Legrand blew the doors off the place. They played every last song on the record, including my favorite, “Lover of Mine,” and it was easily the best show I’ve seen this year.
There are many highlights on Teen Dream besides “Lover of Mine,” but the two singles (“Norway,” “Zebra”) are a good place to start. Both employ a unique approach to harmonizing that sounds like, um, heavy breathing, or hushed singing to use a more appetizing term. This technique is only featured on these tracks, but it is sprinkled throughout and it helps establish the album’s somber atmosphere. We start by gathering “medicine for heartache” on “Silver Soul,” and learn of the possible source of sadness on a “Walk In The Park,” where “your hand that you sometimes hold doesn’t do anything” and “the face that you see in the door isn’t standing there anymore.” With song titles like “Used To Be” and “Better Times,” it’s hard to miss the theme of trying to revisit the past. We finally start looking to the future by “10 Mile Stereo,” where the mood isn’t really lifted, but a sense of optimism start to shine through, and in the end, closure is found and the door is finally shut on “Take Care.”
In the interest of not looking stupid, most music publications are very stingy when it comes to handing out 5 star or perfect 10 reviews. I’m not sure SPIN has even given out a 9 this year (they gave an 8 to this) and I was amused by their recent Top 125 Albums of the Last 25 Years where a large number of the blurbs admitted that SPIN originally gave the album a negative review. History tells us that classics are dropped way more often than reading current reviews would suggest. By dealing with timeless themes, Teen Dream is unlikely to fade in relevance compared to its contemporary rivals and Legrand’s vocals are equally timeless, her performance would be notable in any era. At the risk of looking stupid, I think Teen Dream is a classic, at least a 9.5 out of 10. It’s impossible to tell if your love for an album will hold up over time, but if you don’t have the balls to call this a classic, why bother reviewing albums in the first place.
I started writing this post over a month ago, but on the eve of new releases this Tuesday from Broken Social Scene, New Pornographers and The Hold Steady, I figured it was now or never for publishing a post called The Best Album of the Year So Far. May will also see the release of the new LCD Soundsystem and The National albums, which, to borrow from Paul Wall, have “the internet going nuts.” It’s quite possible that Teen Dream won’t survive the month as the clear Album of the Year winner, but regardless, it will certainly be a finalist.