Saturday, July 14, 2012

Modern Classics: "Bloom"

Wistful dreams are palpable in Bloom, Beach House's new album (released on May 15th). As if elicited from a Terrence Malick film, the songs imbue a softness that you can almost taste, all at once tranquil, joyful and melancholy.

The musical influences of Beach House are a delightful mixture, most notably 80's The Cure and 90's Enya, with a side helping of vintage electronica. The second track "Wild" provides a plentiful dose of echo-y, starkly picked guitar tones that seem to be directly lifted from The Cure's Disintegration (a good theft). Despite the annoying synth cymbal that pervades the percussion, the song is lifted to mystical heights, as is the entire album, by lead vocalist Victoria Legrand.

Legrand's voice is remarkable in a number of ways. Perhaps most notably, it sometimes seems androgynous, as the opening track "Myth" reveals. The first lines of the song are sung low, and bring to mind a bit of Janis Joplin's husk. At other times, Legrand sounds beautifully feminine, as on tracks like "Lazuli" where she channels Enya's breathy harmonies. Toward the end of the song, Legrand's voice is multi-tracked with both mid-range and gorgeous high notes that emit a striking beauty.

The fourth track "Other People" slides into an effortless, smooth groove that will suck you in like a vacuum. Legrand's voice is at its most comforting here, submerged in a soft echo and speaking of a wonderfully simple realization in the chorus: "Never thought that it would mean so much / Other people want to keep in touch." The second verse speaks of a blissful time: "Somewhere nothing could reach us / These days go by." At the end, Legrand hazily murmurs underneath the final verse. Is she saying "I love you"? It's impossible to know for sure, but it's pure ecstasy.

Not all of Bloom is euphoric. On "Wishes," Legrand's tone becomes a few shades darker. Impressionistic lyrics like "Wished on a wheel / How's it supposed to feel" are sung in a way that make her feelings known. Later, the music is hushed, serving as a lead-in for Legrand: "One in your life / It happens once and rarely twice." The aura here is potent, a lesson learned in no uncertain terms.

"On the Sea" is Legrand at her most wistful. Backed only by a piano for much of the song, a reflective melancholy pervades lines like "On the sea, we'd be forgiven / Our bodies stopped, the spirit leading / Wouldn't you like to know how far you've got left to go." "On the Sea" melds into the final track "Irene," a slow burner that is paced in a way so as to leave as much room for reflection as possible. The album's deftest observation is the centerpiece here: "It's a strange paradise," Legrand intones in sing-song-y lullaby mode. This refrain is repeated numerous times over the song's final three and a half minutes, which seems to give the delightful impression of added meaning and nuance each time.

The songs on Bloom are circular in nature, with the verse, chorus and bridge melodies sequenced in neat succession. You won't find any guitar solos or other improvisations here. What you will find is layer upon layer of reverb-drenched atmosphere. The echo-immersed keyboards, guitars, synth percussion, live drums and vocals are overlayed in such a blissed-out fashion as to leave the listener in a trance. Don't be surprised if you feel the need to return there again and again.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Modern Classics: "Port of Morrow"

The Shins' fourth album Port of Morrow feels relentlessly positive. This may come as a surprise to those familiar with the band's previous work. The Shins' brand of indie rock, starting with 2001's Oh, Inverted World, was marked by an intoxicating blend of wistfulness and melancholy, with a good dose of beguiling lyrics and poppy melodies. The low-fi quality of their recording style added to the gray mood, but also added charm. As The Shins expanded their sound with keyboards and a variety of guitar effects, they also expanded their emotional palette with more upbeat themes over their next two albums, and the recording quality became more defined.

With Port of Morrow (released on March 20th), The Shins sound as crisp as ever, and the results are startling. Songs like "The Rifle's Spiral" and "Simple Song" surge happily forward with resonant percussion and bass, supplemented by shimmering bursts of guitars and synthesizers. Slower, more mid-tempo tracks like "It's Only Life" and "September" create a more subtle and reflective mood, but are no less richly recorded. The album indeed sounds more "produced" than the band's previous outings, but the new sheen suits the songs just fine.

What's particularly striking about Port of Morrow is that each song seems to be on its own separate mission. Despite the shared feeling of optimism, the musical stylings are remarkably distinct from one track to the next. "Simple Song"'s exuberant power chord blasts gel perfectly with lead singer James Mercer's poignant lyrics of finding comfort in the love of a girl. In "No Way Down," a strong, addictive dance beat creates buoyant energy that by this writer's recollection is uncharted territory for The Shins. "For A Fool" establishes a lounge-style, vintage 70's feel with reverb-heavy surf-guitar licks, backed by warm strings. "Fall of '82" has a distinctly Beatles vibe (particularly in the chorus), complete with a nifty trumpet solo following the bridge.

The epic ninth track "40 Mark Strasse" is a wonder to behold. Beginning with a simple acoustic theme, Mercer relates his reflections on observing a young German prostitute on the streets. A potentially titillating subject turns into a surge of empathetic emotion, particularly in the chorus: "Blown like a broken kite / My girl, you're giving up the fight / Are you gonna let these Americans put another dent in your life?" Backed by stunningly beautiful vocal harmonies, the chorus lifts the song to spiritual heights rarely encountered in a rock song. The near-perfect unity of melody and subject matter that is evoked in "40 Mark Strasse" elevates it as a singular piece of art, one that is worth the price of the album alone.

Taken collectively, Port of Morrow feels like a treasure trove of The Shins' greatest hits rather than a cohesively themed album. Each song knows where it's going and unmistakably arrives at its destination, albeit a little too quickly at times. The album's 10 songs clock in at just over 40 minutes, which seem to go by in half that time. This can create an impulse to put Port of Morrow on repeat, which may be another indication that The Shins know exactly what they are doing.