Sunday, August 24, 2008

Beulah. Yoko (Velocette, 2003)

"All right/ Forever's on your side/ Oh, it's only time/ It's longer than you think."

I always wonder why more people aren't, like me, huge fans of the much-missed Beulah. Is it the incredible melodies? The massive hooks? The clever lyrics? The multi-instrumental Pet Sounds-era pocket symphonies? It's a mystery, is what it is. 'Cuz these guys were phenomenal, and their break-up after the release of Yoko, their fourth and final album, was a real loss. Especially to fans of extremely catchy, melancholy chamber pop.

Beulah were from San Francisco, though they were part of the Athens, Georgia-based Elephant 6 collective (, along with other analog eccentrics like Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, and Elf Power. Being from the West Coast, these guys always had a distinct Bacharach-Beach Boys sensibility, producing sunny-but-sad little masterpieces, complete with horns and strings and whatever else was lying around. A real kitchen sink plan of attack. The melodies were mainly major key, and the tempos were up, but there was always an underlying bitterness giving the songs an edge. Listening to Beulah is like going to the beach on a sunny fall day: there's sun and sand and waves, but it's chilly, too, and kinda lonely.

Though Beulah started off as a lo-fi outfit, their production values steadily improved, and by Yoko, their songs had taken on a distinct studio polish. Nothing distracting or cheesy, but they no longer sounded like a bunch of guys, some of whom were armed with harpsichords and french horns, playing in someone's garage. They sounded more focused, and this focus, coupled with stunning songcraft and a fuming anger lurking just below the surface of nearly every song, makes Yoko a fitting parting shot from a band at the height of its powers.

Yoko (the title simultaneously references Yoko Ono and is an acronym for "You're Only King Once," the album's third track) is a break-up record. Some of the band members had gone through divorces between 2001's The Coast is Never Clear and Yoko, and it shows. Plus, the band was getting ready to implode, various internal band slights, resentments, and pressures (all of which are on display in the Beulah tour documentary A Good Band is Easy to Kill) finally sinking the ship. Most of the songs deal with splintering relationships and bitter feelings, the lyrics standing -- in typical Beulah fashion -- in stark contrast to the bright, sparkling melodies. On "Landslide Baby," singer Miles Kurosky spits out, "It's a lie, it's a cop-out, and I know you know I know why/ You won't try, cause you're scared and you're weak/ And you don't give a fuck about me/ And I do believe that you hate yourself." That's the chorus, sung to an incredibly upbeat, shimmering chord progression that makes you think of Sunday afternoons filled with hammocks and icy cold beers.

The clear highlight of the album is "Me and Jesus Don't Talk Anymore," an infectious account of one man's loss of faith and cheerful surrender to the man downstairs. The subject is as dark as it gets, but the song's vaguely country-and-western feel, all roadhouse piano, pedal steel, and shuffling drums, makes it one of the catchiest, breeziest songs from a band that made catchy and breezy its stock in trade. As Kurosky sings, "Can you give me that, friend?/ Without a soul to sell along the way/ The devil rides with me again/ He always says things are okay," it's hard not to think, "Hey, yeah, that sounds like a pretty good deal." And that's before the song joyously declares, "Woke up today/ Just called to say/ Your body's cold and you're going nowhere" in a tone more suited to telling your mom you just got a big promotion.

So I'm pretty bummed that Beulah isn't around any more. I always loved the way they could juxtapose resentment with the blithe, carefree joy of loose, sunny pop. Yoko is a great record to remember them by. This October, put on your headphones, cue up Yoko, and head down to the shore.