Undoubtedly the oldest adage offered to writers is the trite “write about what you know”. San Franciscans Beulah seem to have taken the phrase to heart and their range, lyrically and musically, rarely strays past their state’s borders. Far from being a stifling constraint, however, the result is a perfect pop paean to the Golden State. The album could even be used as an ideal musical map to the stars’ homes of California. To your right are Brian Wilson’s Hawthorne harmonies, around the corner is Arthur Lee’s lush Los Angeles orchestration, look to your left and there are Steve Malkmus’s Stockton slacker vocals.
After the half-formed “Hello Resolven”, “A Good Man Is Easy to Kill” begins with a glorious fuzz bass before effortlessly incorporating flute, organ, trumpet, violin, harp, and Steve LaFollette’s acoustic guitar, which enters the musical mise-en-scène with perfect timing. The track simultaneously serves as a proclamation of intent and a lesson in how to pull off a song that, by any rational conception, should simply not work.
The band consists of five deft multi-instrumentalists (six if you count the guy whose main credits are backing vocals and handclaps and who has since “retired” from the band) plus a host of guest musicians to round out the sound. “I’ll Be Your Lampshade” sets harmonica, saw, and accordion to a slow trot to conjure an image of range life while the poignant pedal steel and banjo of “Popular Mechanics for Lovers” helps singer Miles Kurosky face the prospect of being alone again (or otherwise). “Burned by the Sun” uses Jew’s harp, air organ, and electric harpsichord as a soundtrack to contemplating the lonely sea.
“Silver Lining”, however, broaches a subject that perhaps would be better laid to rest. Any song that begins with the words “punk rock” would inevitably make me cringe. Over a distorted guitar and a decidedly un-punk rock horn melody, Kurosky goes on to liken the style to his “first girl” who subsequently left him with a scar and he ultimately redeems himself by creatively approaching a spent subject.
If there were any justice in the world, “Hotel California” would be erased from our collective unconscious and be replaced by “What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?” The song would make perfect listening after the party ends and the sun makes its way through the curtains. Or it could just as easily be suited to sitting on the beach watching the sunlight recede, as Kurosky intones “Do you feel afraid? / The days are getting shorter / What will you do when your suntan is fading and the summer’s gone?”
The only song to actually use the C-word, “Gene Autry”, proclaims the state’s redemptive powers with “When I get to California / Gonna write my name in the sand / Gonna lay this body down / Watch the waves roll in” — but not before throwing in the Hitchcockian twist of “Everybody drowns sad and lonely”. It’s a theme they return to repeatedly. Apparently finding the weight of California’s mythology as oppressive as the heat, they take every opportunity to help build a sunny façade only to later punch holes in it.
Even the album’s title reveals mixed feelings about the prevailing image of peaceful shores. Despite the lack of nominal referents, though, the state (or perhaps corresponding state of mind) can be spotted in numerous places. Just how many depends on how hard you want to look for them. When Kurosky sings, in his endearing not-quite-there falsetto, “I hope you know you’ll always be / The life of the party” — before ending the song with “There never was a party at all” — it’s difficult to tell exactly who or what his object is.
Perhaps realizing that music this good doesn’t need to leave home, on “Hey Brother” Kurosky serenades a girl who has “cursed the West” and was “moving back East where men are men” with the words “Love’s got no border / Why don’t you feel free / To cross my state line / And bring yourself to me”.