Beach House – “Thank Your Lucky Stars”

Once a band has released enough material, it’s easy to fall into taking a definitive unchanging stance on them. After four albums, this was my take on Beach House: they’re like a statue in a museum. Their music is beautiful and I appreciated the craft, but I couldn’t form a connection with it. After enough looking, I’d eventually get bored and walk away to the next piece.

When their fifth album, Depression Cherry, came out earlier this year, it only strengthened my stance. It was Beach House doing their Beach House thing with the slow jams that sparkle and sound lovely but are samey and not that memorable. I listened a couple times, filed my obligatory take on the band on social media, then mentally wrote the band off, figuring there wouldn’t be new material for another three or four years and that the material would be the same old stuff anyways.

To everyone’s surprise, the band came back less than two months later and released Thank Your Lucky Stars, another full length album. I met this with an eye-roll: this band already makes too much similar material and now they’re putting out two albums in one year? We get it, Beach House: you can make slow-paced dream pop songs. What are you trying to prove?

I gave Thank Your Lucky Stars what I figured would be a token listen to further solidify my ironclad Beach House opinion. Instead, the album totally won me over in a way I didn’t expect. It’s not like the band dramatically changed up their formula or anything, but something about Thank Your Lucky Stars felt totally different. While their previous albums seemed like they were behind glass, this time I could reach out and touch it.

I’m having a hard time figuring out why this is the case beyond “I like the songs more.” One reason is that the tone of Thank Your Lucky Stars is a slight departure from their other recent albums — while their previous music felt too passive to me, this album has a darker edge that becomes confrontational and forces the listener to look inside themselves. A bizarre, nonsensical feeling I had listening to the album was that it almost felt like doom metal instead of dream pop. It sounds more foreboding, the music is heavier and more immersive, and the lyrics confront doomy topics — there’s literally a song called “Elegy to the Void,” which has a mesmerizing heavy guitar section that reminds me of Deerhunter’s “Desire Lines.” It’s easily my favorite song the band has recorded.

Given my previous complaints that Beach House sounded pretty to the point of being bland, I really love the slight roughness of Thank Your Lucky Stars and think it brings out a more personal and intimate side of the band. And by making this gloomier album, a band I previously thought was one-note proved they can subtly reinvent themselves without getting away from what they’re good at. I don’t know if this will be the most popular Beach House album among their longtime fans, but it is the one most likely to turn skeptics into believers.

“Blueberry Boat” and the Joys of Divisiveness

When I was first getting interested in music, a common method I used to find albums was looking at the highest scores Pitchfork has given out. A lot is said about how important a strong Pitchfork recommendation is for bands, and my experiences getting into indie music bore that out: anything over a 9.0 would instantly get my attention, and I certainly gave albums with a high Pitchfork score more leeway when listening to them, figuring that there must be something good about them to warrant that kind of acclaim.

One of the albums I found this way was Blueberry Boat by The Fiery Furnaces, which was given a 9.6 in 2004 by Chris Dahlen. It’s a 76-minute album with ridiculously long songs, tons of random noodling, and highly esoteric lyrics — when people make fun of hipstery over-intellectual indie music, they probably have something like Blueberry Boat in mind. In his review, Dahlen wrote enthusiastically about how how epic and complex the album was, and I get the sense that the “9.6” at the top is Dahlen’s own personal score for the album. Other music reviewers in 2004 disagreed vehemently, claiming the album was “unlistenable” or worse — it even got a 1/10 in the NME.

One of the most famous jokes on The Simpsons is in the “Cape Feare” episode, when the villainous Sideshow Bob steps on a rake so that the handle comes up and hits him in the face. Then he does it again… and again… and again, for 35 seconds, an eternity in the world of cartoon joke-telling. In the DVD commentary for the episode, showrunner Al Jean explained that the show’s running time was too short, so he decided to try something unusual to fill space. He’d been told that sometimes  if a joke is funny, it stops being funny if it gets repeated, but then can become really funny if it continues getting dragged out past the point of reason. So he looped the Sideshow Bob animation and had him step on nine rakes in total instead of the initial single rake.

The result is that the joke became one of the meta breaking-the-fourth-wall jokes that The Simpsons was known for. Initially, the viewer laughs at the physical comedy of Sideshow Bob stepping on the rake. But after about the sixth rake, the joke changes: it becomes about the people who made the show and what they were presumably smoking when they decided to write Sideshow Bob stepping on all those rakes — the joke is about the craft of the joke itself. It ends up really capturing the audaciousness and weirdness that made The Simpsons such a great show at its peak. In the world of comedy television where there is pressure to deliver rapid-fire jokes to keep the audience’s attention, they decided to show a peripheral character stepping on rakes for 30 seconds, figuring their audience would get it.

This is all a round-about way of getting to my point, which is that Blueberry Boat is the Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes of indie albums. Its songs and the album itself are so long and overcooked that it has the same fourth-wall-breaking element for me, where I stop thinking about what the music itself is saying and start reflecting on how absurd it is that Matt and Eleanor Friedberger made a 9-minute song about blueberry pirates, or a 10-minute album opener that is like four songs that got randomly glued together. And the brazenness of the band becomes part of Blueberry Boat‘s appeal: while this kind of indulgence can be very annoying, the way the Fiery Furnaces escalate it and push it so far gives Blueberry Boat a unique, winning charm — not despite its excesses, but because of them.

Blueberry Boat sometimes gets called a concept album because of its operatic story-based songs, even though there seemingly isn’t much connecting the songs to each other. I view it through the Sideshow Bob lens: it’s an album that is about the album itself. It is constructed to make you aware of its own construction and to appreciate the amount of wonder and energy that is put into these bizarre stories. It’s about embracing creativity and imagination, accepting complexity and weirdness, and being yourself even if that might end up annoying people.

Blueberry Boat definitely did annoy people, which is why it’s this exceptionally rare, maybe even bygone thing in music: a truly divisive album, even among critics who (especially now, I feel) have very similar outlooks on what makes music good. Especially on social media, albums seem to instantly reach this suffocating consensus, but Blueberry Boat holds up as a legitimately love-it-or-hate-it album that defies easy categorization. And the fact that people hate it only makes me like it more. I’m not that interested in music that makes itself too easy to like — it’s much more fun to find the good in an album like Blueberry Boat that is so off-the-wall and inaccessible to the general public.

The days of albums like Blueberry Boat getting a 9.6 from Pitchfork are pretty much over, and I imagine it’s one of those old reviews that the site wishes they could wipe from existence. Personally, I find myself nostalgic for when music reviews read like strong individual opinions instead of bland consensus-forming or wishy-washy “this might appeal to you I guess” non-statements. Consensus is boring, and that’s something The Fiery Furnaces understood when they made Blueberry Boat. It’s an album that practically begs you to dislike it, which is why I like it so much.

The Legacy of The Shaggs

A lot has already been written online about The Shaggs, a band of sisters who released one album, Philosophy of the World, in 1969 that has gained a cult following over the years. Their story gets told frequently because it’s a compelling outsider narrative: their overbearing father, believing they were destined for stardom, put them in a band when they had no knowledge of music, and the resulting album sounded bizarre and alien. Yet, thanks to artists like Frank Zappa who allegedly proclaimed them to be “better than The Beatles,” their music has endured.

Many suspected Zappa was trolling when he praised The Shaggs — that nobody could possibly like music that is so obviously bad. It is easy to assume anyone who likes them only does so in that “so bad it’s good” way, like people who watch Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, where most of the enjoyment comes from pointing and laughing at it. I argue that The Shaggs made actual good music, or at least music that raises interesting questions about what art is and who can make it.

I’d be lying if I said I really loved The Shaggs and listened to them regularly — the truth is, it’s hard for me to really enjoy music that is so lacking in basic rhythm, melody, etc. There is plenty of weird, avant-garde music that consciously rejects those elements, but most of the time it’s by artists who know music very well and are interested in pushing its limits — they know the rules, and thus know how to break them effectively.

The Shaggs are different: they seem entirely oblivious to what music even is, much less the rules that govern it. The result is music that is unique not just in how bizarre and off-kilter it sounds, but in how unguarded it is emotionally. To listen to The Shaggs is to hear music that is entirely free of calculation or pretension. At times, they are painfully innocent, particularly on songs like “My Pal Foot Foot” or “Who Are Parents?” where they earnestly clatter in their unusual way about imaginary friends and the importance of their family. They are so sheltered and naive that it even has a darkness to it, a twisted beauty that makes their music worthwhile and memorable instead of being random noise.

It is hard for human ears to adjust to The Shaggs, which is something that fascinates me in and of itself. When I listen to them, I always end up going very deep into this existential dorm-room logic, where I begin to question everything I thought I knew about music. Because the story that is told is how The Shaggs “couldn’t play music,” but like… what makes music music, man? Why do our brains like to hear rhythm and melodies done in the way that most music is, and not in the way The Shaggs did? Aren’t these all just like… random sounds existing in space and time that we arbitrarily give meaning to? Sometimes after thinking stuff like this long enough, I begin to wonder if The Shaggs are the only band that has ever played music correctly — maybe everyone else has been doing it wrong.

I’m usually able to talk myself off that ledge eventually, but I do think The Shaggs unintentionally predicted a lot of common indie trends that I still hear today. In particular, they’re the most extreme example of a crucial indie idea: that sometimes it’s good for music to have imperfections and flaws. Tons of indie music intentionally sounds rougher and dirtier than major label products as a calculated reaction to the slickness of mainstream music. Sometimes this comes across as a cheap gimmick, especially when it’s only done because a band is trying to sound “authentic,” but it’s something I really like when it’s done naturally. Limitations can often result in more memorable music than all of the studio magic and technical ability in the world.

In that regard, this year’s band that really reminds me of The Shaggs is Girlpool, a duo of teenagers from L.A. who play music that is defined by simplicity. They only have an electric guitar and bass (no drums), and sing interlocking vocal harmonies with each other over basic chords. The title of their album, Before the World Was Big, even sounds a bit Shaggsy, and their lyrics naturally reflect a youthful (yet smart) view of the world. Before the World Was Big doesn’t reach the subversive insanity of Philosophy of the World, but it’s similarly powerful because of how restricted it is — it’s interesting to listen to music that is so boiled down to its basic parts.

To give Girlpool credit, they have real technical ability, which The Shaggs did not. But I hear a lot of the same themes in their music, especially the tension between youthful innocence and encountering the darkness of the real world.  The limitations in Girlpool’s music feel vital and genuine because it supports those ideas — a lot of what makes their music special would be lost if it was slickly produced with a full band set-up. It’s a delicate act to pull off because it can so easily sound contrived, yet Before the World Was Big never does. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it being presented in any other way — just like it’s hard to imagine highly trained musicians making an album like Philosophy of the World.

I think that is the essence of the “better than the Beatles” thing. The traditional view on this as that The Beatles were immensely talented and The Shaggs could never hope to approximate their music in any way — which is true. But this can also be flipped: The Beatles were too good, knew music too well, to ever in a million years make an album like Philosophy of the World, even with infinite resources. If that doesn’t take talent, I don’t know what does.