By Traviss Cassidy | 3 March 2008
With its cheap-sounding synth hums and even cheaper-sounding drum machine patter, Beach House’s 2006 self-titled debut was an easy album to write off after the first listen. Hell, I did it. The Baltimore-based duo of Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand seemed bent on hanging in stasis, their songs occasionally hinting at crescendos but never following through. Then, for some strange reason I gave the record another shot and found myself going back to it again and again. Yes it was a grower, but not the kind that consistently reveals something new—some muffled guitar feedback or reverberating vocals buried deep in the mix. Rather, what hooked me on Beach House was what it didn’t reveal; cuts like “House on the Hill” and “Auburn and Ivory” harbored a sort of veiled menace whose figure could be vaguely made out but, thanks to the album’s muddy production values, never fully emerged from behind the shadows of Legrand’s lovelorn laments.
From the opening bars of Devotion, the duo’s sophomore effort, it’s clear that this sonic miasma has all but dissipated. The keyboards and drums roll out crisply and cleanly and Legrand’s voice floats more separately from said keyboards and drums than it ever did on the debut. No mud. No murk. Nowhere to hide. Of course, any upgrade in sound quality will necessarily involve a trade-off between the endearing features of the lo-fi old and the expanded possibilities of the hi-fi new, but on Devotion Beach House have stripped their sound of the eerie muck that made them interesting in the first place, all the while failing to tweak and transform the whole enough to justify the absence.
Still, the cleaner, wider production of Devotion presents a great opportunity for the group to add a few colors to their monochromatic palette, to, ya know, do what most artists would do with a nice studio and some extra cash: add a horn section here or there, tackle more complex arrangements (Legrand is a classically trained pianist and vocalist, after all), enlist a new band member…stuff, I dunno, anything. But instead they’ve churned out eleven songs that deviate little in structure or style from those of their debut and that generally come off as the work of the dull, tired band that detractors have always portrayed them as. In fact, Devotion is an even more homogeneous affair than the debut and lacks the type of stand-out tracks that bolstered the self-titled’s midsection; nowhere on Devotion does Legrand sound as inspired or empowered as she did on “Master of None,” and nothing here is as gut-wrenchingly beautiful as “Apple Orchard.”
To its credit, Devotion is a delicate, often gorgeous listen that flows remarkably well, though I can’t help but attribute its coherence to the utter lack of variation among its eleven songs. Its smooth transitions often prove a damning flaw, one which allows the album to play out in its entirety without once pricking the ears of the listener. The stretch from “Turtle Island” to “All the Years” is particularly fluid, I believe, though I usually don’t wake up until “Heart of Chambers” kicks on. That song sits alongside “Gila” and “Wedding Bell” as the only numbers that match the quality of the tunes on Beach House. Still, even if their next record is chock full of cuts like these, I’m not sure it’ll be enough. Now that they’ve abandoned the puzzling aura of before, Legrand and Scally need to take their game to new realms if they hope to keep listeners away from the brands of lethargic diddling already stocked in the critical coffers.