Beulah – When Your Heartstrings Break

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I sort of dated a woman who liked Beulah. We sat on her porch and she was streaming her playlist through the portable speaker and a Beulah song came on; I froze. I was already deeply amazed that someone this attractive was interested in me, but to top it off she was a Beulah fan? We both expressed dismay that the other even knew who Beulah was. For a few weeks, she made me feel worthy and hopeful. Then she made it clear that I had absolutely no worth to her, and she did so in a cowardly, disrespectful fashion. I still think of her when I listen to this album, though I wish I didn’t. I still think of her a lot, even though she was cruel and unkind; I understand that she was the one who acted terribly, but I still feel like I was the one who wasn’t good enough. Beulah is a band whose work I adore and about whom I know almost nothing. I am not even sure who the band members are or were, other than I think of Miles Kurosky as the leader and, if I strain my memory, Bill Swan as the other main member; I just learned that Screeching Weasel drummer Dan Panic was in Beulah for some time, which is like discovering that Keith Moon played for the Left Banke. Anyway, they were from San Francisco, they were on Elephant 6 for a bit, and they released four albums, two of which are superb, and then they broke up and Kurosky released a strong solo record. Beulah make some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. And no one can take that away from me.

What I Think of This Album

This is an expansive, panoramic, lush, colorful album – loaded with strings, horns, percussion, and woodwinds (to the tune of 18 additional musicians, including the Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider on vocals, augmenting the five regular band members) – that sounds fresh and vibrant no matter how many times you’ve heard it. You need to listen to this either on headphones or really loud through quality speakers.

The fanfare that announces “Score From Augusta” gives way to UFO sound effects (reminiscent of but more sophisticated than the similar sound effect on the Pretender’s “Show Me”) and a fat distorted guitar sound and then an ascending keyboard hook, and then a French horn (?) run and then another horn part with a sawing guitar in the background and my god this is amazing. “Sunday Under Glass” jingles jauntily before mournful horns kick in – then more futuristic sounds arrive – and an array of orchestral instruments pile on but it all sounds perfectly arranged and balanced, and of course, with another wonderful melody and honest vocal from Kurosky; the flute is awesome. A drum machine gets things started on “Matter v. Space,” during which fuzz guitars, horns, and synthesizers all meet on the battlefield but decide not to fight and instead collaborate to build a better, brighter world.

The excellently-titled “Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand” begins with a pastoral feel before gaining both intensity and synthesized sounds, until the strings come in to ground things once again; the drumming here is superb. A guitar appears after two minutes, with the woozy horns not far behind and finally Kurosky breaks the spell to sing. The eventual horn hook is to die for. Horns again dominate on “Calm Go the Wild Seas,” full of lovely vocal harmonies and slightly atonal strings, until the clarinet outro. In high gear is how “Ballad of the Lonely Argonaut” rolls, with a nice guitar line and a relatively straightforward arrangement – the quick breaks at about 70 seconds and then two minutes are a nice surprise.

“Comrade’s Twenty Sixth” is another horn-heavy track – basically an instrumental, it seems like filler. The guitar and bass muscle their way in on “The Aristocratic Swells,” which still boasts brass and string adornments. “Silverado Days” is a sleepy number, with Kurosky (and whoever else) sounding weary and worn out, with a complementary gentle backing, though things pick up after the minute mark and get more baroque before calming down again (and then the pattern repeats). The drumming on this song is a highlight, as are the piano accents, and what seemed like was going to be a quick affair ends up being the longest song on the album. But at three and a half minutes, that’s not saying much. “Warmer” has backwards sounds (flute?) and fuzz guitar, plus horns galore and who knows what else; the outro is very Velvet Underground. This is another stunningly constructed track.

Finally – as if you needed a reward, as if the band had not already presented you with more riches than you could imagine, as if you had not already fallen head over heels – you come to “If We Can Land a Man On the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart,” easily this band’s masterpiece. Horns, a syncopated echoey drum pattern, a piano, and some of the most beautiful strings you’ve ever heard, plus more fuzz guitar, maracas, piano-as-clavichord, and an emotional vocal, with a killer outro, make this one of my favorite songs ever. I could listen to this song for months on end. The only thing I don’t like about this album is how quickly it’s over.

The Best Thing About This Album

“If We Can Land a Man On the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart” is majestic (“If you want to sing, tell me what you want to sing”).

Release Date

March, 1999

The Cover Art

I think this is a beautiful cover. It appears to be a Japanese woodblock, rendered in monochrome silvery grey (albeit against a white background), of a quiet mountain scene. The image is clean and almost beatific. The artistry becomes more apparent as you examine the trees and take in the shoreline (to say nothing of the additional detail of the wraparound scene from the back cover). I like the use of green for the album title, its placement with the band name, and the use of sans serif font. A perfect cover for a perfect album.

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