“All my toys are dead,” Victoria Legrand lamented on Beach House’s 2006 self-titled debut, an album resplendent in memory and soft sadness, as hazy and emotionally affecting as an old Polaroid found at the bottom of a shoebox. Through the potent mixture of Casiotones, Alex Scally’s slide guitar spangle, and Legrand’s cavernous singing, Beach House found a reason for us to stay inside, under the covers, in the coldest winter and the warmest summer. Imagine a vacation retreat in Maine or the English coast, the utter opposite of a teen-filled MTV set or a Key Western palace: dreary and damp at times, but endearingly antique and cozy. Now partners Legrand and Scally—the Gillian Welch and David Rawlings of folktronica, dream pop, or whatever imprecise tag one drops on their unique sound—have returned to offer us their bittersweet bouquet once again.
Devotion includes all of the same essential ingredients as its predecessor, but a ratcheting-up of intensity makes this album shine even brighter. Where previously Lagrand’s vocals occasionally faltered or got lost in the mix of sped-up shoegaze, here she of the many Nico comparisons is comfortably out front. In fact, Lagrand’s vocal performance on Devotion is as masterful a one as you’re likely to hear in 2008. She reigns and rains, sultry and big-throated, whispering love and shouting anger, while Scally lays down the shimmering landscape that Lagrand’s voice floats above. On opening stunner “Wedding Bell,” Legrand belts out the rhetorical (at least to me) “Oh, is your heart still mine to sail?” like a fully-formed diva. “Don’t you waste your time,” she coos on “Gila,” with the sexy coldheartedness of Estella Havisham, before breathlessly rattling out the chorus of nearly two dozen, orgasmic oh’s. “Heart of Chambers” has Legrand gliding from upper to lower registers, playfully splitting one-syllable wordlets into Rihanna-like vocal ellipses (“With your picture books and ancient wih-ih-ih-it”) and then drawing out the coda in graceful legato. The accompaniment to Lagrand’s star turn is consistently interesting even if it maybe tries too hard not to be overly dramatic: It’s mostly quiet strumming, jangling percussion, and busy, elegiac keyboards. It’s possible to believe that if this band ever tires of killing with quietness and powerful beauty, they have it in them to dabble further in noise and space-rock. For now, though, holding back is working pretty damn well.
In efforts to perfectly describe the sonic beauty of Beach House, many of the band’s ardent admirers fail to fully acknowledge the super-smart songcraft underlying the band’s music. Though gushing critics rightfully cite Manny Star and Velvet Underground as providing the basis for Beach House’s sound, the band’s songwriting owes much to the gentle melodies of Elliot Smith, and not since Smith has someone been able to blend melancholy and pop structures so fluently. The loveliness of the gauzy arrangements found on Devotion notwithstanding, I have a hunch these tunes would retain their spellbinding spirit were they to be covered by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, the Hold Steady, or even Sonic Youth. Indeed, no one should complain if Devotion turns out to be the best of Beach House, but few will be surprised if they continue to get even better.