The Coast is Never Clear opens with "Hello Resolven", a sedate mixture of piano, sampled strings and gently throbbing keyboards, topped with a few simple, dreamy lyrics. It sounds almost nothing like 1999's When Your Heartstrings Break, which may disappoint a few fans who were hoping for a by-the-numbers retread of the band's watershed sophomore release.
You can't blame Beulah for taking a few risks; the last few years must have left the band feeling like plane crash survivors. Newly signed to Capricorn Records, the band hurried to the studio, eager to take advantage of their first major label recording budget, only to watch in horror as Capricorn was absorbed in major-label merger madness, leaving them (and a handful of other acts) homeless. Fortunately, newly-formed indie Velocette stepped up to give Beulah a new home, ending speculation that The Coast is Never Clear might become Beulah's "lost" album. After dodging so many intangible obstacles, getting fans to embrace their new material should be child's play.
Luckily, The Coast is Never Clear is an easy album to love, a well-balanced mixture of new ideas and familiar sounds. Overall, the record is mellower and more mature, reflecting changes in the band's writing and recording process. Rather than assembling the songs cut-and-paste style from bits and pieces floating around in his head, as he did with Heartstrings, frontman Miles Kurosky holed up in Japan to write and demo each tune. The other band members added their input to the four-track sketches, thereby sustaining the group ethic without falling victim to a "designed by a committee" surplus of ideas. It definitely worked; Coast... sounds more logical, deliberate and downright organic than its predecessor. It's simply a more accomplished recording; because the band had enough time in the studio (San Francisco's Tiny Telephone) (as opposed to Heartstrings' uncertain and nomadic creation), they were able to fine-tune the sound to their satisfaction, creating an album that moves them forward on every front.
Among the album's surprises is "What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?" This appropriately-titled tune sounds like poolside lounge music (or the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group), full of gentle horns and vibraphone. Kurosky's vocals, smoothed to a borderline falsetto, complete the mood; you just need to supply the lounge chair and fruity drink. "Burned By the Sun" extends the beach mood, creating a straightforward and gentle rock song that, with the exception of a few telltale vocal tricks, sounds nothing like anything else Beulah has done. "Hey Brother" takes a few cues from R&B, but adds a familiar Beulah chorus, complete with horns and Beach-Boys-style backing "ahhhs". "Gene Autry" and the oddly familiar "I'll Be Your Lampshade", meanwhile, are quintessential Beulah in a more leisurely incarnation -- slowed down and slightly countrified, but full of familiar Beatles-esque flourishes.
As anyone who has seen them live will tell you, Beulah likes to rock, and The Coast is Never Clear has the rough edges to prove it. Check out the raw lead guitar in "A Good Man is Easy to Kill"; after its jaw dropping intro, it's largely hidden between strings, horns, flute and organ lines, but asserts itself periodically throughout this intricate and gorgeous tune. The energetic "Gravity's Bringing Us Down" promises to be even more of a barn-burner live, and "Cruel Minor Change", which will please Heartstrings fans, sustains the powerful, percussive energy of its glittering introduction while offering a number of surprising melodic shifts.
The album's best moment, however, is the killer one-two punch of "Silver Lining" and "Popular Mechanics for Lovers". In less than six minutes, these two songs define the band's sound; the former offers a blaring horn line, exuberant chorus and Kurosky's friendly, nimble vocal technique, while the latter ably demonstrates Beulah's ability to write the sort of lush, orchestral pop songs that'd make Van Dyke Parks a jealous man, and finds time to slip in a Magnetic Fields reference as well. Both are as close to perfection as anything I've heard this year. Excuse me while I wipe all this foam from my mouth...
I'll confess, I've had The Coast is Never Clear for something like three months. I've probably listened to it a hundred times since I received it, and I'm nowhere near tired of it yet. It's not perfect -- what album is? -- but it easily justifies the two year wait. I can't help but wonder what Beulah could do if we gave them three years...