Saturday, February 10, 2018

When Your Heartstrings Break (1999)

Standing tall in the shadows of Neutral Milk Hotel and Guided by Voices, Beulah was built from the inside out, starting with the two principals, Miles Kurosky and Bill Swan, who by reputation never liked each other much, once again suggesting that shared musical taste does not always make for good friends. Guitarist, singer, and chief songwriter Kurosky met guitarist, singer, and trumpeter Swan when they worked together in a San Francisco office. Temps, I presume. Keyboardists, bass players, and drummers came and went. The band's association with the Elephant 6 collective came and went. Some good reviews, a little bit of fame, and road life came and went. Four albums and some singles—they never charted. They fought a lot. It didn't really work out. But I love this second album and like a lot of the rest. There is something pop-timeless and pop-ancient about When Your Heartstrings Break: it could almost be an album by icons such as the Beatles, Big Star, Squeeze, or the dBs, or certainly the aforementioned lo-fi paragons. Though Kurosky has all the songwriting credit, Swan is listed with Steve LaFollette as producer, which in some ways feels like the same kind of ruse the Coen brothers have been running for years, trading off directing, writing, and producing honors. Beulah has the feel of another unusual collaboration, like the aforementioned pop paragons, which is borne out by at least one anecdote at Wikipedia, where Kurosky is seen mailing demos from Japan (for a different album) to each of the band members and asking for their individual input, apparently collating it all later. That's not what happened with this album, but even so each song here feels like an individualized insulated little suite, embracing in a way Phil Spector's old idea about the tiny kingdoms of pop, tarted up ingeniously with inspired bridges, sudden attacks of breathless horns and strings, canny use of their trumpet, guitars, keyboards, and whatnot, plus all kinds of shifts in tonal texture and of course those lonesome boy vocals and harmonies, which ache. True to the indie ethos, they play it ironic and distanced, and to tell you the truth I'm not even sure what most of these songs are about. But there is such a beautiful sweet sadness in these oblique articulations. Later we found out Kurosky was diagnosed bipolar and everything made more sense—certainly the strife and maybe some of the music's oddness. But When Your Heartstrings Break is way more than that. It's made of many parts we already know and it's almost 20 years old. But it's still new.

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