Much like actual boarded-up buildings near the shore, Beach House songs offer a lot to unpack on first encounter. Each unforgettable, eerie melody is stretched out with drowsy fluidity by singer and organist Victoria Legrand. But just like any abandoned beach home, there are numerous dark, dusty corners, and echoes abound — music covered in cobwebs.
Unsurprisingly, Legrand's lyrical meaning seems always out of reach — evoking a wealth of emotions without being specific. Take "Heart of Chambers," in which she sings "In that nook I found you/So old and tired/Would you be the one to carry me?" It's up to the listener to break impersonal lines like these in and make them personal, and increasing numbers adore this band for that reason. Inhabiting a Beach House song can be thrilling or, for some who need more immediate auditory gratification, frustrating.
As such, the band has its work cut out for it opening for the relentlessly upbeat Vampire Weekend's all-ages crowd — its youngest audiences yet. Still, Legrand and Beach House's musical backbone, Alex Scally, haven't made any concessions in their musical mood or performance style.
"So far, it seems like some people have heard of us and are excited to see us. To other people, it probably appears really boring because we're not jumping around, and our style, the point of it, is not to please any crowds," Scally says by phone, early in the tour. "It kind of seems depressing in comparison to Vampire Weekend. But I like that. I like that we may be making some people think about something other than how fun life is."
Depressing isn't really the word for any of Beach House's three albums to date, the latest of which is Teen Dream, released this past January on Sub Pop. But everything does seem rather sepia-toned. Legrand's husky voice often recalls the late, great Nico, another striking, slightly distant frontwoman with songs often preoccupied with recalling and reexamining past choices. The compositions' structures and moodiness recall power-pop legend Alex Chilton's slower moments, with far-out textures mirroring great '80s 4AD acts like the Cocteau Twins — but less shrill and slightly more grounded in reality.
To that sketch of name-checks, Scally would probably politely demur. He prefers to avoid specifics. "People are welcome to feel whatever they want," he says. "We purposely design our music to be abstract. We want it to be open; we want it to be free. We don't want it to be a specific experience, just whatever happens naturally."
To him, Beach House is a pop band at its core. "We do definitely love the aesthetic of pop music: the choruses, the supercatchy melodies, going back to the '50s and '60s, when things became so clearly pop."
So what if pop, in the new millennium, is a term rarely associated with Beach House's tempos of choice, which rarely rise above a steady plod? The narcotized pace of Teen Dream (and 2008's Devotion and 2006's self-titled debut) is all a function of best expressing melody, says Scally. "You can hear everything when something's slow. You can hear all the notes; you can hear everything blending together. It's not just a blitz of sound; everything is really meticulous."
If depressing doesn't accurately describe the band's music, then meticulous certainly does. Building on Scally's and Legrand's love of early pop, there is a heavy dose of Brill Building-esque production on Teen Dream. Instruments and vocals are layered for a near-orchestral effect, with powerful blasts of organ throughout. Gone is much of the near-exaggerated reverb used on the band's previous records, and any "lo fi" descriptors from the past are now completely inaccurate. Teen Dream is a ripe kernel of the band's sweeping vision, a sort of timeless, subgenreless take on haunting pop. Make that specific subjectless too. In spite of the title, Scally clarifies the record is not wrapped in nostalgia.
"I don't think it was really nostalgic for us. For us, it's a very, very forward-looking record," he says. "Maybe if anything, it's a call to go back and explore the feelings you had when you were a teenager. But not in a reminiscing way; it's more about reinvigorating yourself, feeling passionate about things."
But if Scally and Legrand are purposely coy about subject matter and content, they are exacting about form. "We're very, very controlling about how the music is made and how it sounds. We write very, very specific arrangements and every sort of detail," he says. "Our previous records were kind of made in a lo-fi way, because we didn't have any time or money. We just kind of jumped right in and recorded them as fast as possible. But with this record, we did have time, so we were able to concentrate on each sound and record it just the way we wanted it."
Luckily for fans of that result, the band aims to reproduce it faithfully in its live shows. For proof, check its recent iTunes Sessions live EP. Its six tracks cover only material from after the group's debut album, but what is there sounds as lovely as the studio recordings.
This is a point of pride for Scally. "We try to sound exactly like that. It's bigger, because it's a much bigger sound system, but we try to preserve the arrangements as much as we can," he says. To that end, he and Legrand will be joined live onstage in Miami by Dan Franz, who drummed on Teen Dream, as well as a second touring organist.
So already converted fans of the record can look forward to experiencing it at full wattage. Scally hopes to convert everyone else but won't provide any easy ins. "You can make the audience happy by being like 'Yoooo!' and getting out and clapping your hands in front of them, and then they all start clapping their hands," he says. "But you're not doing anything musically to make them happy. You're just doing things that are crowd-pleasing. It's like complimenting someone without really feeling the compliment."
Don't take that as him snubbing the whole concept of "crowd-pleasing," though. Otherwise, why play music for public consumption? "We want people to have an intense experience while they're watching us, but we don't want to do it cheaply or falsely," he says. "We feel really lucky that this album has done as well as it has, and we really hope people are having legitimate emotional experiences to it. So do you see the difference between 'crowd-pleasing' and doing something that people actually feel?"