Beulah have been tagged as the San Francisco representative to the ever-growing Elephant 6 collective. And while they were actually signed to the Elephant 6 label for a while, their music is more richly textured and less prone to spaced-out experiments than bands like Elf Power and Apples in Stereo. Beulah is just a pure guitar pop band, happily mining the same veins originally unearthed by bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
Consisting of seven core members playing traditional rock instruments but augmented by a dozen or so of their closest friends on instruments ranging from dulcimer to saw, Beulah trips on a sunny California vibe that helps wash down the sometimes bitter pill of sarcasm in their lyrics. "The Coast Is Never Clear" is their third record, but it sounds like they've been doing this forever. I mean that in a good way; there are very few flaws on this record, either in terms of the technical precision of the instruments and production or in the emotional resonance and accessibility of the songs themselves. Listen to any track and you'll know that the musicians who play on it are both consummate professionals and wildly passionate about making music; they have that perfect mix of technical skill and emotional vibrancy that is so rare these days.
Principle songwriter and vocalist Miles Kurosky has a maddeningly nondescript singing voice. He sounds like a higher-pitched version of the guy from the Beta Band just after he's taken a swig of whiskey, but it's perfectly suited to the post-millenial take on 60s pop stylings that Beulah engages in. The songs have familiar elements in them, but they're surrounded by structures and sounds that you wouldn't expect: a horn section exploding from a chorus to an otherwise gentle and meandering tune; a guitar that sounds more like a church bell with a crack in it; or a plodding piano that sounds strangely bright above a backdrop of quivering stringsthese are just a few of the instrumental surprises tucked away in every corner of this record.
The lyrics are also impeccable, often using clever plays-on-words that combine wry, ironic angst with achingly honest expressions of emotion that recall Game Theory (another band that hailed from the sunny west coast) and the Smiths. Kurosky casually slips in at least one gem per song with lines like "I'm waiting for something to give/I hope it's not me" (from "Gene Autry") and "I don't love you to death/But I'd die if you left" ("Night Is the Day Turned Inside Out") But when he sings lines like "Don't believe a word he says/He wouldn't ever cut his heart out for you" ("Popular Mechanics for Broken Hearts"), or "Don't know about God, but I believe in you" ("A Good Man Is Easy to Kill"), you know he's just being sarcastic to hide the sincerity of his feelings.
It's hard to pick a favorite track from "The Coast Is Never Clear", but "A Good Man Is Easy to Kill", "What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades", "Gene Autry", and "Cruel Minor Change" are all worthy candidates. But really, this is a record that should be listened to in its entirety, despite the single-worthiness of many tracks. The band obviously spent a lot of time not only arranging the structure of the individual songs, but also of the album as a whole; there are times when the listener doesn't notice that one song has ended and another begun. That's not to say that all the songs sound the same, but rather that Beulah has done a good job producing an unquantifiable ambience that pervades the substructure of each song and binds the album together as a unified whole.
At their heart, Beulah is a just an honest-to-god pop band trying to figure out just what the hell their place is in the modern music universe. In a world where Britney's barely-legal schtick can sell tens of millions of records and rock critics have been reduced to pretending that Fred Durst and Sean Combs are talented artists with an entrepreneurial bent, you have to wonder how a band like Beulah has managed to survive. But thank god they have; they show us that pop music isn't dead, despite the treatment it's been getting for the past few years. Beulah is an antibody for the disease of corporate pop, a beacon that gives us hope that music will one day conquer this plague.