Beulah – The Coast Is Never Clear

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

This album’s liner notes at least give us more info about the band, now a septet. It turns out that Miles Kurosky writes most of the songs (collaborating with individual bandmates on two songs, and with one song provided by Buelahn Patrick Noel), and Bill Swan arranges the harmonies and horns. The band produced one more album after this, Yoko (which is fine but no match for the second and third), and their debut, Handsome Western States, is good but lacking the delightful adornments of their classic period.

What I Think of This Album

You could say this is more of the same, but you would be wrong (although being wrong would be welcome, as more of When Your Heartstrings Break would be a treasure). True, the basic sound hasn’t changed – this is still full of melody bursting with orchestral embellishments. This time around, there are only 16 additional musicians, incorporating such instruments as saw, hammer dulcimer, trumpet, violin, vibraphone, flute, and accordion. But the tone is darker. The youthful vibrancy of Heartstrings has ebbed and in its place there is a moroseness, if not malevolence. This is a pattern that hit its apex/nadir (depending on your preferences) with fourth album Yoko, which was rather dour and angry.

So the first track (“Hello Resolven”) repeats the lyric “it’s over” relentlessly over a minor piano vamp, and the song that follows, “A Good Man is Easy to Kill” (take that, Flannery O’Connor) tells of a car accident victim flying through a windshield (“When they drilled in your skull and screwed that halo to your head / Did you think you could fly?”). Likewise, the declaration “this is going to hurt, kid” opens third song “What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?” But this is mostly hidden behind bright, bold instrumentation. “Good Man” twirls its skirt to a jaunty Summer of Love flute part and soul music horns. And “Suntan” has a Bachrach style to it, albeit with a mariachi horn arrangement. Similarly, while  “Gene Autry” is close in sound to the more exuberant work on Heartstrings, with a bright, stuttering horn part and a descending piano, Kurosky leavens things by singing “When the city spreads out / Just like a cut vein / Everybody drowns, sad and lonely”.

Blasts of distorted guitar leave deep scars across the otherwise pretty backdrop of the bouncy “Silver Lining.” Angelic harmonies frame the desperate sentiments of “Hey Brother,” while “I’ll Be Your Lampshade” is a sorrowful country song, with harmonica and twangy guitar (and of course, horns). The band rouses back to life on “Cruel Minor Change,” with a syncopated drum pattern and a hypnotic guitar riff. Noel’s song, “Burned By the Sun” is the equal of Kurosky’s contributions, gently swaying on a tropical beach. Closer “Night is the Day Turned Inside Out” is similarly excellent. I should point out that not all is death and despair. The band makes a good Magnetic Fields joke on “Popular Mechanics for Lovers” – dominated by a plinking saloon piano – when Kurosky snidely observes “I heard he wrote you a song / But so what? / Some guy wrote 69.” Taken on its own merits, this is an outstanding album, falling short only in comparison to its predecessor.

Trivia: this album was mixed by Roger Moutenot, who produced several Yo La Tengo albums, as well as for Sleater-Kinney and Lou Reed.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Popular Mechanics for Lovers” is a wonderfully bitter tale of being passed over in love (“Just because he loves you, too / He wouldn’t ever take a bullet for you / Don’t believe a word he says / He wouldn’t ever cut his heart out for you”). I agree that “Popular Mechanics for Broken Hearts could help me now” (but probably not).

Release Date

September, 2001 (September 11, actually)

The Cover Art

This art is beautiful. The color palette is warm and inviting, the lines are clean, and the whole thing feels like a throwback to a forgotten era. It is the work of activist and street artist Shepard Fairley (his Obama “Hope” poster is quite well-known); his art can be found in the MOMA, the National Gallery, the Smithsonian, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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