each House begins with lightly bit-crushed drums and a woozy organ that makes its way from church to deserted boardwalk in no real hurry, coaxing like a thick, sweet scent through a crisp wind. The procession of instruments is led by the quiet Victoria Legrand, whose voice saunters with equal deliberation into your psyche. “You couldn’t lose me if you tried” is her first refrain, lodged, like any good thesis, in this introductory song’s latter stages. As she delivers the line, hovering in static and wavering ever so slightly between two adjacent notes, she’s—dare I say it—the lady muse of Shut Up I Am Dreaming, answering back to the cowering pride and longing of Mr. Krug, whose compositions are, as this duo’s, gorgeous old dirges written on parchment, wrapped up in sandpaper and glitter and tied with horsehair.
The winter to Ys’s autumn, Beach House’s debut is consistently candlelit, worn at its lacy edges, and at once vertiginous and embracing, somehow residing both at the hearth and on an icy precipice. Alex Scally relies on a small body of instruments, and with Legrand tries his hand at a style lately embraced by such folk experimentalists as Beirut, Frog Eyes, and the Ohsees. But it’s not accessible like Beirut is accessible: Beirut is a well-worn, charming hat; Beach House is a fur stole tainted with the must of cigarettes and the perfumes of its multiple owners.
The duo’s electric harpsichord and organ fusion form the musical essence of that soft, storied accessory. It’s best exposed on “Auburn and Ivory,” a waltz that borrows centuries-old European innovations and gently weaves electricity through them, passing through the flue of Miss Havisham’s fireplace on the way. The result is an illustrious, archaic scene. It’s a rhyming tale about an “auburn” female centerpiece, a tale that leaves the listener’s imagination flooded with a rich, if arcane array of textured symbols, of which ‘auburn’ and ‘ivory’ are but two. At the bridge guitars drown the ears with fifths, with volume, with sudden candidness, and gone is the folktale mystery and metaphorical narration. “Come here and I’ll tell you what’s wrong,” Legrand sings, before hollering, “I’ll wait for you, I’ll wait for you,” now an emotional, vicarious storyteller, or the auburn lady herself. This last line is an eerie vocal mimesis of the Devotchka’s Nick Urata, who commands his group’s fluttering folk rock with such ardent yelps.
Legrand’s passion, while equally commanding, is more subdued. She more often refrains from howling or cowering. Instead she’s decorated in pearls, lounging in the shadows on an old tattered armchair, as on the happy lullaby “Childhood.” Or she chants from a dewy knoll miles away, using her hands as a loudspeaker: on aptly named “House on a Hill,” Scally’s classical guitar makes like a harp, curling around Legrand’s two-part harmony with herself. Here and elsewhere her voice recalls Mimi Parker. The song is an aching waltz with a loose structure that wavers between ballad and interlude. It’s her voice, of course, that gives the song structure in spite of her chiffony quality, a deceptive timidity. The organ, mimicking the guitar’s Fauré indebted melody, merely follows her lead. Then comes the haunting, extraordinarily brief climax, where the instruments align for a wash of deep, resolved chords and Legrand’s breathtaking final comment, “But I won’t be there.”
“Master of None” is the friendliest of tracks if it’s friends and not omniscient storytellers or enigmatic heroines you’re after. Legrand makes a flirtatious sashay up and down the major scale, and you imagine her mimicking that movement beneath a decrepit chandelier. The delicate reverb and her thick vibrato introduces jazz to the tapestry, bringing an element of camaraderie to the lyrics’ second-person ode: she shoots glances of annoyance and adoration at a charismatic homme. It’s with this center track that Beach House etch their greatness, establishing a musical expertise that runs the gamut from charred to underdone. No matter how subtly, each song builds up something from nothing—‘nothing’ being tried-and-tattered indie inanity. The pair is doing business in a risky genre, one of endless strums, adagio tempos, unintelligible croons, and creaky old instruments. In the midst of this drunken backward-looking and borrowing, Beach House’s work is not a conformity, nor is it a revolt. It’s a restoration that includes the exuberance of the past in its reading of the present. They have blown off the dust, uncovered some of the sheen, but retained a loveable tarnish, limning their winding trajectory through the history of music with guts and grace.