The impending release of Beach House’s Bloom LP has all the trappings of a hype-saturated media frenzy. An upstart duo from the not-so-halcyon environs of Baltimore records two albums of tentative dream pop that immediately wins over critics but fails to draw much of a mainstream audience. In 2010, the band’s vision and creative zeal is finally realized in the form of Teenage Dream, a lush and sprawling affair that propels guitarist Alex Scally and singer Victoria Legrand into indie rock’s upper echelon. Lucrative festival appearances, late-night TV performances, and myriad best-of nods ensue, leaving some to wonder if perhaps Beach House was poised for the same sort of widespread adoration now being experienced by one-time indie stalwarts Bon Iver and Arcade Fire. The group crafts unquestionably beautiful music, but you’ve got to be willing to either create an air of vulnerability or express fervent defiance in your songwriting if you stand a chance at gaining broader appeal. With obsessive speculation and anticipation now running at an all-time peak some two years later, the groundwork and template for Beach House’s next move has been set.
Bloom is as fetching a record as any in Beach House’s growing canon of work. There’s a brand of soothing sentimentality and reflective ambience at play here that renders it nearly impossible not to be at least a little bit charmed by their ubiquity. Yet for all of these finer qualities, one thing Bloom is not is direct. Legrand – with all of those Nico and Janis Joplin comparison in tow – is a tremendous vocalist, but a husky alto masked by willowy applications of reverb is never going to speak to the masses in the same way that powerhouses like Adele or even Florence Welch can do. Where the majority craves a hook, a riff, or a surging groove in the prototype pop song, Alex Scally instead coaxes trembling and gauzy rhythms from his guitar – so effective in cloaking any earnestness that the casual listener might take it as a taciturn gesture.
Yet as circuitous and hazy as Beach House’s music can be, there’s something remarkably clarion about it too; for all of the other acts currently charting similar dream pop waters, there’s not a one among them that possesses such a definitive M.O. Simply put – no one else out there sounds like Beach House. It seems incredulous when you consider just how many bands are currently drawing from the nostalgic well of 80s and 90s shoegaze. Wouldn’t all of those lo-fi synth textures and woozy vocal inflections just devolve into one goopy miasma? Nothing could be farther from the truth with this band.
Beginning with the opening strains of lead single “Myth,” it’s abundantly clear to whom we’re listening. An innocuous drumbeat coalesces while layers of minimalist guitar and piano arpeggiations undulate beneath Legrand’s smoky voice. The song’s opening stanza seems to pointedly sum up Beach House’s signature sound with phrases like “drifting in and out” and “you say just what you mean / and in between / it’s never as it seems.” Indeed, there’s nothing forceful or aggressive tossed into the mix. Everything – from the percussion and guitar to the keyboard and vocals – seems to be exceptionally pliant, willing to submit to whatever it may encounter.
Taking in the entire 50-minute disc, it can be tempting just to let the warm ambience wash over you and dig no deeper. Bloom works swimmingly for this sort of casual listening, but as past Beach House efforts have revealed, there’s much more beneath those cymbals rolls and rippling guitar lines meriting your attention. “Wild” is a gorgeous summertime reverie with swooning guitar lines, percolating synths, and Legrand singing, “You start to smile / the earth is wild” in breathy cadences. New single “Lazuli” begins with a series of childlike keyboard arpeggios that give way to an expansive chorus of wordless vocals and chugging percussion. “The Hours” – which begins like a warped quote from Pink Floyd’s “The Show Must Go On” – unexpectedly launches into a simmering two-chord groove that is nearly danceable. Indeed, this is as close as these guys probably will probably ever get to strutting. “On the Sea” seems somehow indebted to either Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney with its melodramatic piano balladry (“The heart is full / and now it’s spilling / barreling down the steps”).
The album comes to a close with the epic “Irene,” a sublime slowburner whose secret weapon is a one-minute-long, one-note rhythm embedded in the song’s middle third that manages to heighten the anticipation of the curtain call with the sort of aplomb known well to Steve Reich aficionados.
On Bloom, Legrand and Scally seem to have made a calculated decision not to tamper with the ingredients that made Teen Dream such a success. Most songs float along at a midtempo pace, the atmospheres are generally of a pacifying nature, Scally’s guitar lines tend to be more concerned with texture than melody, and Legrand rarely pushes her voice outside of its relatively narrow range. Given that the band developed and recorded most of these new tracks while on tour in support of Teen Dream, it’s not terribly shocking to hear just how many similarities the new album bears to its predecessor. Bloom is every bit as alluring as what came before it, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?