Beulah, The Coast is Never Clear
If there is a precursor to my choice, it's actually one I was lukewarm on, Nada Surf's The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
, as Beulah's 2001 pinnacle The Coast is Never Clear
is a pop record. Or maybe a pop-rock record. It's not dark. It's not even moody, unless you count the bratty moods of a self-absorbed twentysomething. (Or thirtysomething. I'm not sure how old Mssrs. Kurowsky and Swann were when they wrote and recorded the album.)
But this album was a part of my re-entry to contemporaneous pop music. I had spent most of the previous decade diving into the past, whether the classic rock of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Queen, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppe--why am I telling you whom "classic rock" comprises? I'm guessing you're familiar… Anyway, that. And some more esoteric acts like Zappa, VU, Beefheart. And jazz. Lots of jazz. Because for better or worse, the reality is when Nirvana broke things, I wasn't happy about it. I hated Nirvana. And I hated the crap that followed under the nom de plume of "alternative" even more. Just hated
it all. So I checked out.
In the early 2000s, I started coming around. I'd been familiar with Cotton Mather's masterpiece KonTiki
since the guys themselves dropped off a copy at the music store where I worked. (They were in search of vintage gear as they stopped in that little college town to do a show; I took the disc home with me at the end of that summer, not willing to leave it behind.) A friend introduced me to Splitsville's Pet Soul
--then just an EP--and it was impressive to me at the time.
So a few years later, I shared these with musical friends at work; in turn, they asked whether I'd heard of this collection--collective, actually, though the term has become tedious as relates to musicians since then--of Georgia-based musicians who really captured a lot of the styles of music I loved in their new, mostly self-produced and -released music. (Obviously, they meant Elephant 6.)
I had not. But soon, I was pretty damn familiar with Of Montreal, Apples (in Stereo), Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, Olivia Tremor Control, and the fifty-billion other "bands" under that umbrella.
One of the most interesting was this badly named band, Beulah, who weren't Georgian at all. In fact, they weren't E6, aside from having done one earlier album with E6er Robert Schneider in his Colorado studio. But their obvious reverence for '60s pop music made it easy to keep lumping them in with the E6ers.The Coast is Never Clear
was the first Beulah album I bought while it was new. (There would be only one more Beulah album, their breakup album Yoko
, a couple years later.) And it was magical
to me at the time. The riff that opens "A Good Man is Easy to Kill" complemented in short order by that go-g0 60s percussion and then the background "ba da bap bap ba-dah dahs," … I'm in heaven. Horns? Yes, please. Vitality! It's not a fast song, but it drives ahead. It rocks while not really being a rock song, riff notwithstanding.
It set the pace for the album--and the album lived up to its opener. (I'm not counting "Hello Resolven," here, which is more an introduction than a song.) Miles Kurowsky isn't the strongest singer in the world, but he holds his own, all through a kind of cynical-but-doe-eyed hipster sneer that hit the spot for this then-24-year-old.
Most of all, the kind of hook-oriented rock that bands like Weezer were doing at the time always left me unaffected because their arrangements bored me. They were mostly just straight ahead, maybe a clean-toned arpeggio section and a distorted power-chord section, but nothing else. This, this Beulah, threw in the kitchen sink, and the sink fit goshdarn well. Lead vocals doubled by octave. Background vocals like I mentioned before, all those glorious ba-da-das that make my world go 'round. Tambourines, shakers, a vibraslap. A VIBRASLAP! Piano, organ, trumpet, strings, acoustic, electric.
And it wasn't just there to be there, it all fit these songs. These lovely songs that felt comfortable from the beginning, but still new to me. Like those on KonTiki
they didn't feel like rip-offs so much as forgotten classics or even continuations. Singable hooks, lovely memories, mostly mid tempo, all rolling along (and occasionally even rocking along).
Lyrically it's what you'd expect from people who are as self-consciously hipster as Beulah were. They seemed eager to drop references, be they musical or verbal (in interviews). It's clever, it's self-absorbed. I want to hate them, but I can't do it. Anyone who does the instrumental (plus oohs) break of "Popular Mechanics for Lovers" gets a free pass. They just do.
Beulah broke up a couple years later. I saw their last two Minneapolis shows, one in October '03 with John Vanderslice (whom I hated, who sounded like pure pastiche that night, as I could name the overt inspiration for every song the man played) and one in June '04. There has been little in my life that competes with the live-show experience of guitarist-singer-multi-instrumentalist Bill Swann reaching back to whip out a trumpet and dive into the fanfare of sorts that is the the ending of "Gene Autry." In an era when most indie bar bands were "just" rock bands, this sort of DIY was absolutely ecstatic for me.
These two shows were both part of a massive farewell tour, their breakup already announced before Yoko
had even been released. I felt like I was breaking up with the band, especially since their inability to get along especially well was pretty obvious. (I felt a kinship as my band at the time seemed--and was--similarly doomed, minus any semblance of success first! My singer was, to me, Miles Kurowsky.)
I listen back and I still smile. I still love The Coast is Never Clear
. I don't think it's a groundbreaking album by any stretch of the imagination. But I think it's a great album anyway. I think it's the kind of album that people will look back at and call an under-appreciated gem.
With that, I give unto you, Beulah's The Coast is Never Clear
. Do you know it? Like it? Bored by it? Hate it? Hate me? Let me have it.