If, as the pundits keep saying, our irony age is over, what is to become of alternative rock, a style of music that was built on the foundation of ironic disengagement? In the San Francisco band Beulah, the sold out Spaceland house got a glimpse of a possible way out for the genre. Beulah is still disengaged, but at least they seem concerned about it.
Their new album, “The Coast is Never Clear” (Velocette Records) is the album that Warner Bros. wishes Wilco had delivered: a collection of beautifully modulated, intricately shifting textures, just strange enough to announce its seriousness but grounded in an immediately accessible pop sensibility. It’s miles away from the shrugged off Pavement meets Brian Wilson noodlings of their earlier work.
Live, the band is a little more ragged, the album’s odd nuances replaced by more muscular guitar and keyboard arrangements. But their melodic inventiveness shines through. Miles Kurosky’s songs expertly flirt with unexpected stylistic conjunctions. At their best, Beulah melds the scruffy modesty of roots rock with the ruffled fripperies of baroque pop. Bill Swan’s trumpet on “Gene Autry” recalls Arthur Lee and Love, Pat Noel’s rumbling “Sister Ray” organ adds a sense of menace to the jittery “Silver Lining,” while “Popular Mechanics For Lovers” seamlessly melds mellow, countryish verses with an emphatically anthemic chorus. And their thumping cover of Talking Heads’ “Psychokiller” announces their deep connection to the teeth-gnashing dislocation of the new wave.
Like the best psychedelia, Beulah both reflects and provides a safe haven from a scary, fragmented world. It’s as much as anyone can expect these days.