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Beulah - Yoko

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Artist: Beulah

Album: Yoko

Label: Velocette

Review date: Sep. 15, 2003

Six years of label-hopping, distribution problems, and threats of disbandment, and Beulah still manage to put out great albums like clockwork. 1997's preciously lo-fi Handsome Western States laid the groundwork of their deceptively joyous take on low-maintenance rock, while 1999's When Your Heartstrings Break converted all of its predecessor's gritty potential into idyllic, Elephant 6-archetypal pop, availing itself of no less than 18 studio musicians to do so. In 2001 the band raised the stakes again with the sweetly wistful The Coast is Never Clear (unfortunately released on September 11th and bearing an airplane on the disc). Then, in the last two years, the Elephant 6 collective has begun to lay low amidst rumors of extinction, four of Beulah's six members have gone through divorces or high-caliber breakups, and the band has publicly ruminated one of its own. Yoko was supposed to be Beulah's last record; though this may no longer be the case, the album still has finality written all over it, from its spare artwork to its melancholy themes to its very name.

There is, admirably, no trace of self-pity or wound-licking on Yoko, just a new lyrical gravity and a somewhat matured approach to their already near-perfect take on the pop song. If Heartstrings and Coast painted the band as children at play in a ’60s pop aesthetic, then they've grown up a bit in the last two years, refining their tastes from overextended to simply versatile. Amidst their lineup of trumpet-heavy, guitar-driven bliss are the usual variety of strings and horns (only ten extra musicians this time), but also the odd banjo, pedal steel, and slightly gruffer distortion effect. More significant, though, is the air of pessimism that only begins to show itself after a few establishing listens. Perhaps it's the same pessimism that's always been lurking in Beulah songs, but now it has an outlet grounded in fresh experience, an edge that becomes simultaneously irresistible and tragic.

As the album unfolds, those dominant forces remain at odds with one another: the sunny lushness of the pop song, and the quiet listlessness of the heartbreak which inspires it. Some songs struggle bravely to keep smiling; "Landslide Baby", which recalls the best of Coast, sees Miles Kurosky accusing himself of unforgivable romantic indifference ("I know why / You won't try / 'Cos you're scared and you're weak and you don't give a fuck about me / And I do believe that you hate yourself"), yet the music to which he does so is so infectious and gleeful that it takes attention to detail to realize the gravity of the situation. Similarly, the narrator of "Me and Jesus Don't Talk Anymore" seems determined to forget lost loves through the simple, joyous exercise of rocking. Meanwhile, others admit defeat just as quickly: "It's so hard not to be crushed / When you're praying for too much / The stars refuse to shine for you / They do it just to spite," Kurosky mopes in "You're Only King Once", and the accompanying strings and trumpet, usually a festive element, only heighten the lament. Still other songs portray the same duality, but earn their points by exploring territory new to Beulah's catalog: the glorious, banjo-driven "Fooled With the Wrong Guy" and the creaking, seven-minute "Wipe Those Prints and Run" both push the band's frontier somewhere at once new and antiquated.

Honestly, every song on Yoko impresses in one fashion or another. Even the clattering and noisy "My Side of the City" turns into something great by the end. Each moment is impeccably arranged and appropriately emotive, paying tribute to those universal feelings of loss and ambivalence. Better yet, Beulah have somehow blended the sounds their last three albums, each a significant achievement on its own, into one career-spanning epic, completely worthy of their reputation; any small ways in which their past work has seemed lacking, superficial, or scatterbrained is gone, and only the best points remain. Yoko is genuine and soulful without a moment of excess.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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