Consistency is a double-edged sword; it secures satisfaction just as easily as it engenders diminishing returns. There are certain artists who establish a signature sound from the outset but never manage to move away from or beyond it in any meaningful way. Beach House is one of these bands, but their gimmick is such a strong one that it’s almost forgivable that they’ve stubbornly stuck with it for three albums now. The Baltimore band’s sound is cavernous, warm, wintry and deceptively large for a duo – everything is generously soaked in reverb, from Victoria Legrand’s luscious, languid vocals to the ever-present hammond organ. Their music is soothing and relaxing and irresistibly romantic.
However strong their material, it doesn’t really make for well-constructed albums. They are a band that produces friendly and cozily warm ballads, but the relatively slack pace tends to blur the songs together. One person can only take so much aching beauty in a single sitting. The last two Beach House records fell victim to this, and Teen Dream is sadly no exception. It’s not all negative though; just as Devotion was a sonic improvement over the debut, compared to that record Teen Dream is a richly-produced world imbued with sensuous swathes of red and orange – but unfortunately little else. The songwriting is arguably stronger than ever, as several songs stretch beyond the five-minute mark but never feel laboured, forced or overextended. The band’s songs are made to slowly unfold and expand, and the two that do, “Silver Soul” and “Walk In The Park,” steal the show. The thing is, 10 slowly unfolding lengthy songs begin to wear after a while, and so the band has to make the rather awkward chance of properly developing their songs or truncating them in the interest of sequencing, making for unfinished and undeveloped songs.
For every bit of admitted expertise here there are some definite moments of awkwardness, whether the consequence of being a relatively young band or simply an inability to competently step outside of the comfortable confines of an established sound. A few of the tracks sound amateurish; “Lover of Mine” especially, with its completely unnatural pronunciation, sounds sloppy and rushed rather than thoroughly written. “Norway” has pretty instrumentation but is ruined by a strained and forced vocal, stretching the titular noun into 10 syllables. While Legrand may have an appealing voice, it’s not technically impressive enough to pull off this sort of Melisma. Some other attempts at (relative) experimentalism fare well; “Used To Be” has thinner, airier production – cool rather than humid and warm – and sounds like it could easily be an early ’60s pop side. “Walk In The Park” augments its strolling chorus with stunning string instruments and “Silver Soul” features wobbly steel guitar to a disarming and disorienting effect, as if it can barely be made to play a single note for any measurable amount of time.
The second half of the album drags and struggles to establish an identity, instead sounding like a halfhearted going-through-the-motions exercise rather than the more laboured first half. There isn’t much wrong with these songs (“Lover of Mine” aside), but they do almost nothing different, and by the time you’ve already listened through five Beach House songs you’ve probably had enough. Penultimate track “Real Love” is a gorgeous torch song driven by a lonely piano and an affecting, almost raspy vocal; but for all of its emotion, it is rendered almost totally ineffective placed so far at the end of the album – it’s just another Beach House song. “10 Mile Stereo,” despite a great chorus with a stunningly distorted guitar (one of the few concessions to modernity on this entire disc), has a rollicking riff that feels far too similar to the superior “Silver Soul” to be worthy of existing on the same album, and closer “Take Care” attempts to up the tempo but admittedly is too late to have any sort of real effect on the level of Teen Dream’s energy.
Ultimately it feels a little bit disingenuous to be this dismissive of an album full of mostly good-to-great songs, but the unfortunate sequencing leaves a lot to be desired. Any one of these songs might sound great on its own terms, but shoved all together their borders smudge and they become an amorphous blob of keyboards and moans. For all the hype surrounding Teen Dream (it being their Sub Pop debut), it falls short of “breaking through” or bringing the band into bold new frontiers – and while the production is certainly more professional, it’s an incremental improvement rather than an eye-opener. They’re refining their craft, producing some of their most bewitching material yet, but the rest of it feels like they’re merely spinning their wheels while they wait for more interesting ideas to come along.