Album Review: Beach House - 7
The thing about the band name Beach House is that it’s always been brimming with irony—even from their humble, chintzy, and ramshackle beginnings, there has never been anything ‘beachy’ about the Baltimore based duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally.
Easily labeled ‘dream pop,’ their music is dreamy, yes, and gauzy, hazy, and, swirling, and swooning, and any other like-minded verbs you can think of. However, the music of Beach House, in a sense, has always been about maturation and growth. Scally and Legrand quickly outgrew the nervous and pensive sound of their self-titled debut and its follow up, Devotion, and overnight, grew into what is, by far, their best album from start to finish—2010’s Teen Dream. From there, the sound got bigger, and more bombastic, with Bloom, released in 2012.
From there, the duo decided to scale it back, releasing two subsequently insular and relatively reserved albums in 2015—Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars.
Returning after relatively three years of silence, and working with producer Peter Kember (also known as Sonic Boom, formerly of the legendary Spacemen 3), Beach House has returned with their adventurous, dynamic seventh album, aptly titled 7; it finds them working with a kind of confidence they haven’t exemplified in nearly a decade, and throughout, Legrand and Scally find a way to balance their penchant for both the insular and reserved, as well as the bombastic.
7 opens with what is, perhaps, the most bombastic song of the bunch—the driving, infectious, “Dark Spring,” a very bold way to begin the record; structured around a fuzzy rhythm, hush vocals from both Scally and Legrand, and powerful live percussion, the song literally then careens into “Pay No Mind”—a near 180 from the first three minutes and change of the record. The fuzzy rhythm is still there, sure, but the tempo slows down to a dream-like crawl, with Scally strumming a 4AD-esque guitar riff at a glacial pace, with Legrand’s other worldly, haunted vocals taking center stage. Both songs are two of the most successful of the record, and show the near polar opposite sides to the dynamics Beach House is capable of (specifically on 7), but that moment when “Dark Spring” winds down to a close and slides right into “Pay No Mind”—it’s a real surprise the first time you hear it, and it’s still an exhilarating moment on subsequent listens.
Early on in the band’s career, they locked into a specific ‘Beach House sound’—most notably Legrand’s penchant for slightly off kilter sounding organs. 7 finds the duo exploring sounds that may be outside of their comfort zone, or at the very least, what people may expect from a Beach House record. This kind of startling direction arrives on the album’s third track, the glitchy, synth heavy “Lemon Glow.”
7 doesn’t open with a ‘false start,’ but it does lose momentum completely with “L’Inconnue,” before regaining its composure as it heads into the second half with the outstanding and evocative “Drunk in L.A.”
One thing Beach House has successfully done over the years is hone the ability to create an atmosphere, or a feeling, with their music—it becomes less about the lyrics, specifically, or the music; instead, it’s the undistinguishable mix of both, and the euphoria they are capable of when everything comes together.
However, “Drunk in L.A.” is different. Built around a dusty sounding drum machine pattern, and a wall of synths and organs that almost drown out the chugging, fuzzed out rhythm that plods along in the background, it’s the song’s lyrics that are among the starkest and imaginative on the record.
Evoking a strong, visceral loneliness, Legrand deadpans, “Maybe there’s a screenplay, or a bathroom I can hide/Down the hallways of a high school and the dances left behind,” as she works to bring to life the image of a faded Hollywood starlet, alone in a bar.
Musically, the song continues to build until there’s no place else for it to go—however, there’s no explosion or grand lift off in the end. It’s a simmering tension with no release, making it all the more unsettling of a song, and among the strongest of the album.
The band carries that simmering tension into the album’s second half, with “Dive,” though following a grandiose and sweeping opening, the song explodes into a powerful, nearly anthemic direction with pounding drumming, and dense, swirling layers of guitar riffs that carry it through to its sudden end; if there was ever a Beachv House song that made you want to pump your first along with it (a strange thought, I know) “Dive” is it.
As 7 works its way through the second act, Legrand and Scally continue to expand their sonic pallet—on “Black Car,” they embrace an ominous synthesizer sound that casts a slightly menacing shadow over the song; “Lose Your Smile” turns up the fuzz, and finds them leaning more toward the ‘dreamy’ side of ‘dream pop,’ while in a sharp contrast, “Woo” barrels head first into the ‘poppier’ side of things, opening with a slithering groove that wouldn’t sound out of place in the mid-1980s.
The album concludes with an impressive double shot—the gigantic sounding “Girl of The Year” wouldn’t sound out of place on Bloom, as live percussion rings out in the background, Scally’s understated guitar playing keeps the rhythm moving along, while Legrand multi-tracks and distorts her vocals, applying layers of organ and synth, cooing “Get dressed to undress/depressed to impress/all night long.”
Clocking in at seven minutes (but of course), “Last Ride” is the slow burning grand finale to the album. The first portion of the song is based around the tension Legrand and Scally create with the ebb and flow of a somber, dusty sounding piano, and a heavily effected guitar—this then gives away to cavernous sounding percussion and acoustic guitar strums, as the urgency of the song begins to build towards its surprisingly reserved resolution, ending with roughly a minute and change of dissonance that decays into the distance on its own.
Critical darlings since the beginning, Beach House were not a band that was in desperate need of a reinvention to their sound—but 7 is the result of a band that grew restless with itself, what it had accomplished in its output thus far, and was willing to explore something drastically different in order to continue growing. At times gorgeous, at times a statement on contrast between glamour and darkness, 7, if anything, deserves admiration for pushing Scally and Legrand out of their comfort zone, out into something much more ambitious; something larger, brighter, and unknown.7 is out on May 11th, on CD, LP, and cassette, via Sub Pop.