Recorded in upstate New York, in a converted church called Dreamland with producer/engineer Chris Coady (who has worked with TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Blonde Redhead, and a bunch of others) Teen Dream is the third album from the Baltimore-based duo Beach House, and their Sub Pop debut. The new album gives voice to a full universe of unbridled imagination, and the manifestation of Teen Dream has been a welcomed and all-consuming obsession for Beach House the past 9-12 months. Teen Dream will be packaged with a companion DVD featuring a video for each song on the album, each by a different director.
Review by Heather Phares
There wasn't much room for Beach House to improve on Devotion, so instead, the duo improved the room in which they made Teen Dream. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally recorded their Sub Pop debut in a converted church with producer/engineer Chris Coady, who has also worked with TV on the Radio and Blonde Redhead. The same dark lushness echoes through this album as those bands' works, with a spaciousness that's more like a beach mansion than a mere house (and Teen Dream’s DVD of videos for each song adds to its lavishness). The slightly squalid sound quality of Beach House and Devotion had a unique charm, as if the band had to record those albums not just on the cheap, but in secret. On Teen Dream, however, the hugeness previously implied in Legrand's lyrics and luscious vocals is made real, like tuning Beach House in at their full frequency. The duo's mix of retro electronics and chiming guitars is still as dreamlike and distinctive as ever -- if anything, the tinny taps and hisses of their drum machine are even more present in Teen Dream's pristine settings, making the contrast between them and the molten slide guitars and rippling keyboards on “Norway” even more vivid. The songwriting is also more focused, using Devotion songs such as “You Came to Me” and “Heart of Chambers” as templates for the album's elegant longing. Like Teen Dream's title, these songs are wry and wise enough to know better about idealizing love, and romantic enough to still believe in it. “Zebra” positively swoons, while “Walk in the Park,” with its graceful coda and chorus lament “In a matter of time/it will slip from my mind/In and out of my life/you would slip from my mind,” makes losing sound beautiful, even if it's anything but a walk in the park. Despite the wintry sorrow that dominates Teen Dream and songs like “Used to Be” and “Better Times," in particular, Beach House lets a little hope into the album before it closes with “10 Mile Stereo” and “Real Love.” Though it's not as eclectic and whimsical as their earlier work, Teen Dream is some of their most beautiful music, and reaffirms that they're the among the best purveyors of languidly lovelorn songs since Mazzy Star.
Beach House's sound was fully formed at the time of their 2006 debut. They had slow, shadowy dream-pop down; at times they recalled Mazzy Star or Galaxie 500, but songs like "Apple Orchard" and "Master of None" had a dark and blurry resonance all their own. Artists that start out so assured and distinctive can run into trouble on second, third, and fourth records. Hardcore fans are there no matter what, but others may wonder: Do I need another album from this band? When I'm in the mood for what they bring, can't I just put on what I already have?
Teen Dream, Beach House's third album and first for Sub Pop, obliterates these concerns. This is both the most diverse and most listenable of their three full-lengths, and yet it never seems like a compromise. It feels like the product of careful, thoughtful growth, bringing in new influences-- bits of mid-1970s Fleetwood Mac, sparkling indie pop, even a few soul and gospel touches--- while maintaining the group's core sound. Teen Dream is a stirring reminder that good things can happen when you move out of your comfort zone.
The interplay between Victoria Legrand's voice and droning keyboards and Alex Scally's guitars is still the key element of the band's aesthetic. But here, each song has its own palette, which creates new possibilities. So the repetitive guitar figure, double-time kick drum, and crashing cymbals in the opening "Zebra" immediately suggest movement, signaling that this record will have a dramatic sweep unheard on the band's more pensive beginnings. And the whispery "ah-ah-ah" backing vocals that open "Norway" imply a new openness to the allure of pop pleasure, as that bit of ear candy finds a sharp contrast in the seasick-sounding slide that hovers over the verses. More somber ballads like "Better Times" and "Silver Soul" have the thick, churning gloom familiar from earlier records, but they acquire more force by being placed alongside tracks that allow for more light. Front to back, the arrangements and sequencing are superb.
Despite the brighter, more pop-informed sound and an album title that brings to mind the hazy nostalgia of youth, Teen Dream has a pretty sad heart. Because the music is so effective, the churn of emotions is there even when you don't know exactly what Legrand is singing about (this can happen easily with her unusual phrasing). But a closer listen reveals songs about uncertainty, doubt, and feeling beaten down by the world. "Walk in the Park" sounds romantic on paper, but this is a journey taken alone as a way to try and forget someone who is no longer around. The choppy verses, nudged along by the sort of cheap drum machine Beach House use expertly to suggest loneliness, explode sideways into a shimmering chorus that finds Legrand busting out a time-heals-all-wounds affirmation over a calliope organ. This chorus turn is a big moment that gets more affecting with more listens, lunging from resigned sorrow to an anxious plea, and it accomplishes this mood swing with a damn catchy melodic hook. A similar lift-off happens on "10 Mile Stereo", when the song shifts from its deliberate opening bars to its rushing and noisy main section that's as close as Beach House have come to true shoegaze. The gorgeous racket is affixed to a song about feeling dead inside after another failed relationship: "Limbs parallel/ We stood so long, we fell."
Though the Teen Dream lyrics are printed in the booklet, they lose their power on the page. "Real Love", from the album's less immediate but equally rewarding second half, has my favorite imagery from the record, and is also Legrand's best vocal performance. At first, it's just her and a piano, with chords that lean toward gospel. Hearing her voice in such a spare setting reinforces just how rich, earthy, and, dare I say it, soulful it really is. "I met you somewhere in a hell beneath the stairs," she sings, "There's someone in that room that frightens you when they go boom, boom, boom." There's pain in these lines, but her cracking, husky intonation amplifies it tenfold. It's easy to miss that Legrand's presence is forceful and deep rather than ethereal and angelic, but here these qualities stand out like never before, lending her darker laments extra weight.
As with Liars' Drum's Not Dead, the Teen Dream CD comes with a DVD containing videos for each of the record's songs, all by different directors. The clips range from 8mm found footage to colorful Flash collages to silly stories that clash with the music in a big way. To be honest, it's a little overwhelming to be dealing with 10 videos when you're getting to know an album, and I'm not sold on this sort of package at this point. The DVD, while it looks reasonably interesting, seems like something to spend time with later, after the record has had a chance to sink in. For now, I'm more inclined to close my eyes and imagine my own pictures for Teen Dream. The music has been inspiring some pretty vivid ones.
— Mark Richardson, January 26, 2010