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The Coast Is Never Clear

I used to have all these illusions about Robert Schneider and his Elephant 6 empire. That Schneider sat on a throne made of Moogs and four-tracks, holding a theremin scepter and controlling a vast studio with his mind. That he had some special way of twisting the knobs or playing percussion that made his records sound the way they did. That everything he touched was 14-karat, and his legions of bands (The Apples In Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, etc., etc.) would suffer without his omniscience and tutelage.

Time gleefully corrects all misconceptions. A couple years back, The Minders jumped the E6 love boat and still made a great record; Olivia Tremor Control split into two warring factions and each managed to pull through unscathed and without Schneider's assistance. And Beulah, from out of nowhere, made the best record of their brief, forward-moving career, and one of the best albums of 2001 that you probably never thought to pick up.

The Schneider-free release, The Coast Is Never Clear, is everything an Elephant 6 album should be — a dozen mini-masterpieces of crisp, multi-layered production and tight, jangly guitar, a cohesive but loose effort that recalls the warmth of summer even in the cold chill of a New York March. Lead Beul-er Miles Kurosky writes the kind of vaguely hopeful love song that manages to spiff up generic sentiments with cutting wit and heart-on-his-sleeve confessionalism, but backs up that uncertain foundation with tunes that are as rocking as they are lovely, as fun as they are slyly emotive.

Kurosky must have been taking notes while Schneider manned the boards for Beulah's last record, When Your Heartstrings Break, because The Coast Is Never Clear (produced by Kurosky and the band) picks up where that last album left off, throwing elements of lounge, tropicalia, and punk into the mix while filling in the empty spaces in the band's sound. Where Heartstrings found Beulah working with a wide palette of instruments but still coming up with a rather thin, general Elephant 6-ish sound, The Coast thickens things up with a more active horn section and more varied, imaginative production.

The album opens, oddly enough, with a brief strings-and-piano song called Hello Resolven that would be a nice coda if it were the last track — "It's over, it's over, it's over," Kurosky repeats until the strings fade out as quietly as they faded in. A diminishing drumbeat folds itself into the beginning of the second track; the beginning of the album proper, "A Good Man Is Easy to Kill," finds a fuzzed-out electric guitar kissing a peppy flute part over some snappy "ba-ba-ba" vocals (even post-Elephant 6, the Beach Boys influence is still as thick as gravy). Tambourines and keyboards create a layer of driving motion in the background until this kinetic equation gives way to a cadence-like drum roll and a thick coating of groovy horns. "When you flew through that windshield and your life passed reel to reel, was there a bit part for me?" Kurosky asks, hypothetically, until the music rolls back into the catchy flute line from before. Musically, the song is a good representation of the way Beulah's songs can keep a feeling while changing tempo and instruments; lyrically it extends the metaphor of "life = film" that Kurosky began on Heartstrings and that pops up occasionally in his lyrics.

"Did you forget to read the script/ There was never a role for him. It was always you and me, just me" goes a line from "Popular Mechanics for Lovers." Cleverness can be cloying, but Kurosky deftly maneuvers around any such roadblocks with a direct and rich delivery that smacks of just a little nonchalance. There's an emotional detachment in some of the songs that make lines like "There is a place in the red light district of your heart that I used to visit" (from "Night Is the Day Turned Inside Out") more palatable than if they were coming from a more serious-minded singer. Kurosky balances feeling with humor subtly enough that the two elements don't cancel each other out.

"I'll Be Your Lampshade" and "What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?" are laments, as tongue-out-of-cheek as Kurosky's writing gets, and yet they still manage to retain an underlying joie-de-vivre — some peppy accordion amidst a whining trumpet, or Wilson-brothers harmonies following lines about drug addiction.

Beulah have removed their training wheels; they've taken an Elephant 6 foundation and built upon it, embracing experimentation and moving themselves ahead musically and professionally. The Coast Is Never Clear is a welcome gust of warm air, a late-summer album full of comforting late-summer sounds, poppy and endlessly melodic.

by Neal Block

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