Baltimore’s Beach House are perhaps the most unlikely indie success story of the past few years. They play the game by their own rules, turning down high profile tour slots and TV advertisements, and often book small gigs not closely commensurate with their popularity.
The band — who prefer to not be referred to a duo, but are essentially composed of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and multi-instrumentalist Alex Scally, along with touring drummer Dan Franz — formed in 2004. They emerged with their critically acclaimed self-titled debut album in 2006, which won them some high-profile indie fans, including Grizzly Bear, who would go on to take Beach House on tour.
2008’s Devotion raised the stakes with a more sophisticated songwriting acumen, but often felt like the sequel of sorts to Beach House’s debut — it wasn’t a grand leap forward, just a band tugging lightly at the confines of their sound, to often dazzling effect, including on tracks like the classic “Gila” and their delicate nursery-rhyme take on Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last A Long Time.”
They crashed through indie’s glass ceiling with the spectacular Teen Dream in 2010 — it came in an No. 3 on our list of that year’s best albums. They followed that with 2012’s astounding Bloom, which is more of a mood piece than its predecessor — it’s less singles-oriented and more of an album, demanding to be heard in one sitting, without skipping or pausing.
It can be difficult to pinpoint just why Beach House is so popular. Their gauzy vintage synths, Scally’s intuitive slide guitar playing, and their tastefully unobtrusive drums render them sonically irresistible; those parts that flat-out serve the songs. Still, it’s just remarkable that a band with such inscrutable lyrics and often downcast instrumentation have managed to cultivate such an ardent fan base around the world. So much of their appeal stems from Legrand and Scally’s ability to each deliver formidable elements that serve as bright, blinding stars in their sonic constellation, crucial pieces of their luminous milieu. Give yourself to it fully and you’ll likely become enraptured. They’re that good: one of the finest bands of the past decade.
Legrand perhaps best elucidated the band’s appeal in an interview I conducted with her last year. She said of Beach House, “ We’ve all listened to music our entire lives. We need music. I really think it’s one of the most versatile, powerful art forms, because it’s how people figure out why they’re existing, and helps people to believe in something.” Succinct yet undeniably true, much like the band’s stunning music.
Culling 10 best songs from such a remarkably small yet nearly peerless discography is no easy feat, but here we are. Share your own favorites (of which there are sure to be many) in the comments.
10. “Take Care” (from Teen Dream, 2010)
The sublime “Take Care” Is an adolescent ode to unrequited love, capturing the period when lost love feels like one of Dante’s circles of hell. When Legrand, in a fever dream-esque vision alludes to “Swimming in the lake/ We’ll come across a snake/ It is a real and then it’s fake,” it suggests a certain perfidy. The relationship as they know it is irrevocably altered, and probably doomed, but Legrand clings to a wide-eyed quixotic notion of its eventual redemption.
9. “Other People” (from Bloom, 2012)
“Other People” is one of Legrand’s more emotionally direct tunes; on it, she dustily ruminates over elegiac keyboards and a winding guitar motif of how “Other people want to keep in touch/ Something happens and it’s not enough.” She’s hinting at how some romantic relationships lead to lifetime friendships, and others wilt like flowers in the frost. Yet she doesn’t sound in the least bit resigned, and manages to transmogrify grief into a grand catharsis.
8. “Norway” (from Teen Dream, 2010)
One of the more ornate Beach House songs, “Norway” was the track that transcended the minimalist work on the band’s first two albums. Thematically, it’s rather brutal, with Legrand urging “He’s a hunter for a lonely heart.” When she sings, “With your tiny heart/ You let us in the wooden house,” she hints that what’s been discovered is fools gold. And, listening to the tune’s insistent refrain of “Norway,” it sounds eerily like “No way” in her consonant dropping proclivities, perhaps subconsciously hinting at what she’s attempting to escape.
7. “Zebra” (from Teen Dream, 2010)
Perhaps Beach House’s most beloved song, “Zebra” opens Teen Dream; its lyric “Black and white horse/ arching among us” hints at the dichotomy so prevalent in many Beach House songs. And when Legrand disarmingly contemplates, “Don’t I know you better than the rest?” it’s suffused with utter ambivalence, a certain resignation regarding the object of her affection — whom she imbues with a non-judgmental character sketch worthy of the Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says.” She obviously sees the inherent contradictions in the protagonist, but nonetheless responds with abject compassion at their flaws.
6. “Apple Orchard” (from Beach House, 2006)
“Apple Orchard” has a majestic grace redolent of some of Galaxie 500’s finest moments. It finds Legrand droning sweetly, “You know how it is my friend/ In the boxes of those old picture frames.” It’s like a sepia-toned photograph, but it never succumbs to cheap nostalgia. It’s pure equanimity, and is emblematic of much of the band’s early work.
5. “Gila” (from Devotion, 2008)
The metronomic “Gila” is positively minimalist in comparison to the band’s later fleshed-out compositions. Eschewing the synths that would color much of their later work, it’s a cabaret torch song that moves at a snail’s pace. But it’s Legrand’s extended enunciation of “Gila” that devastates. And when she suggests, “It’s why you keep your little lovers in your lap/ Give a little more than you like,” it hints at perniciousness on the part of the protagonist. But the ultimate kiss-off occurs when she cautions, “Don’t you waste your time,” like she’s conducting an emotional exorcism.
4. “10 Mile Stereo” (from Teen Dream, 2010)
When Kirsten Dunst was asked what song made her cry in a Spin interview, she answered, “10 Mile Stereo.” It was a song, she noted, that she listened to over and over again during the filming of Melancholia to prepare her for working on the soul-crushing movie. It’s a magnificent song instrumentally — the synths gurgle hypnotically, suggesting a certain queasy treacherousness — but it’s easy to see why Dunst would use the song to isolate herself prior to performing in such a powerful film, and LeGrand’s final line of “Love’s like a pantheon/ It carries on forever” captures the ineluctably affecting end of the world evoked in the picture.
3. “Lazuli” (from Bloom, 2012)
Legrand has stated that “lazuli” was a word she long wanted to integrate into a song, not for a literal translation or anything along those lines. The song itself is a Cocteau Twins-esque dream-pop number, replete with guardian angel backing vocals. But the word somehow assumes the heart of the song brilliantly. It’s a bitterly blue, lachrymose, and downcast tune that fits the brilliant gestalt of Bloom like a glove.
2. “Master of None” (from Beach House, 2008)
For anyone who’s seen the terrific Miranda July film The Future, this track will always be inextricably tied to the director/actress wrapping herself in a shirt like a faux cocoon in an utterly unforgettable scene. July is trying desperately to connect via technology through a YouTube video soundtracked by the tune, which is somewhat counterintuitive to the thrust of the song. The track itself is one of the band’s finest, with Legrand crooning that you “cry all the time/ because you’re not having fun.” Her magnificent lyrics often get lost in the rather beguiling amalgamation of slide guitars and vintage synthesizers, but dig deeper and they’re enigmatic yet engaging, capturing what it’s like to be utterly lost in a world of technological confusion and disengagement in the 21st century.
1. “Silver Soul” (from Teen Dream, 2010)
Beach House have long been considered something of the ideal house band for a David Lynch film, but what they’ve most conjured over the years is the Twin Peaks scenes when the giant would break through in a hallucinatory vision to warn Dale Cooper of impending doom. The refrain on “Silver Soul” echoes his warning that “It is happening again.” What is happening? It’s hard to say, but a perusal of the lyrics indicates that “Silver Soul” is a devastating, “vision, complete illusion,” in the words of Legrand, bordering on licentious and carnal. The light was blinding in those sordid Twin Peaks scenes at the Roadhouse, and for anyone who’s seen Beach House live, it’s hard to not imagine the Blade Runner-esque light of their archaic yet brilliant stage setup shining through, like a beacon illustrating a nefarious epiphany.
Listen to this playlist on Spotify here.