The first two albums by Beach House create a stunningly dreamlike atmosphere: the ethereal warmth behind 2006's "Beach House" and 2008's "Devotion" make the Baltimore duo's music sound like summertime watercolors, with just enough ambiance to evoke a specific mood but without enough detail to make out distinct scenes.
Instead of carrying that blurriness even further on "Teen Dream," the group's third album and first for Sub Pop, Beach House adds a surprising structure and precision that turns this record into a striking collection of dream-pop songs, rather than just a continuous, yearning trance.
The result is fantastic; "Teen Dream" marries the haunting atmosphere of Beach House's first two albums with a confidence in Victoria Legrand's voice that prevents these songs from retreating into the background. Where her voice previously felt like it was floating over her keyboards and Alex Scally's guitars and organs, here she gives a more direct performance. Her repetitious chant of "It is happening again" on the swirling "Silver Soul" sounds more like a lover's protest than a wistful resignation, and her vocals on "Used to Be" sound equal parts soothing lullaby and compelling narrative.
Of course, much of Beach House's sound does remain the same; Legrand still evokes a downtempo Hope Sandoval, and these songs are still reminiscent of Mazzy Star and shoegaze acts like Ride.
But where earlier albums felt like one hazy sonic tapestry, there are so many details in the "Teen Dream" songs that command attention. The intense piano chords at the top of "Real Love" make way for a lovely, arpeggiated melody that serves as an excellent counterpoint for Legrand's sighing vocals. Scally's guitar work on "Zebra" stands out as a separate instrumental layer, rather than just fading into the song's overall background. The bouncing synth that opens "Better Times" meshes with Legrand's sultry coo to create a song that's as much a pop tune as it is an ambient mood-invoker.
Such a long list of stunning moments makes it easy to overlook the few sonic choices that don't quite fit in, most especially the drum machines that open "Walk in the Park" and "Lover of Mine," which stick out against the group's otherwise lush sound.
As an unusual bonus, Beach House has supplemented this release with a DVD containing videos for each of the album's 10 tracks, with each video directed by a different person or group (Legrand herself contributes a video for "Silver Soul"). It's not an essential part of the album, of course — especially for a group whose dreamlike sound is visually evocative on its own — but it's certainly a creative incentive for acquiring the physical CD in this era of downloads.
» Black Cat, 1811 14th St NW; with Bachelorette; Fri., March 26, 9 p.m., $15; 202-667-4490.
Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis
.: Originally published: ExpressNightOut.com: 25 January 2010.