Sometimes it’s nice to be on the receiving end of a surprise, to have your expectations confounded. I had gone along to Beach House at the Riviera expecting a pleasant, if somewhat melancholy, show. I’ve been a fan of their music for a few years now, and I put the albums on during all the contexts in which I listen to music: walking around town, in the metro, peeling the spuds, having dinner, at night on the sofa along with a few bevvies. And while the music is good and often excellent — an aural treat, mesmerising, otherworldly — and Victoria Legrand’s voice is wonderful and uniquely deep and smoky, at certain times and in certain doses it lacks the required energy, gusto and vim to truly grab hold of me. My big surprise last Sunday was that Beach House live are better than on record. The washed-out drear that sometimes leaves me cold when I listen to their records is replaced by a dynamism and aggression that for me lifts Beach House into the realm of the great live acts I’ve seen.
Last Sunday wasn’t just about Beach House being louder* than on record. Loud does not mean good. You can be loud and appalling — Donald Trump is proof of this. Beach House were loud, but they were also a whole panoply of stuff which, as an old goth and shoegazer, tickled me as pink as the sleeve of Loveless. They were brooding, they were menacing, they were aggressive, creepy, disturbing, distorted. When you read any review of Beach House or go to their entry on Wikipedia a you cannot escape the D-word: dream pop. But live, my friends, Beach House are anything but dreamy. “Enter Sandman” eat your heart out, because Beach House are taking over your nightmare.
Beach House’s sound rests on three pillars (to co-opt that contemptible and ubiquitous business-speak term): Victoria Legrand’s voice; Alex Scally’s guitar; and Victoria Legrand’s keyboards. On Sunday last, all three were not just standing tall, but had grown in stature compared to the restricted dimensions afforded to them in the recording studio. Sometimes compared to Dusty Springfield, Victoria Legrand is the lucky owner of a voice that is both unmistakable and so amazing that the word “gift” is almost always invoked. The voice’s standard setting is low and husky, but it does do high and sweet. Victoria Legrand uses her voice masterfully: it has the clout to knock listeners over the head with its sheer power, like one of those wannabe divas on The X Factor whose winning strategy is to scream the house down, but she uses it as a painter would her brush, dotting splashes of colour and emotion where needed and wanted. Live, the voice is spine tingling. Unlike on record, she let loose a few times and nearly blew a path, Gandalf-like, through the crowd. As a keyboard play, she’s no dunce either. Most songs are driven by her chords and arpeggios. Her rhythmic style and the pads and synth sounds she uses put much of the dream (or otherwise) in Beach House’s pop. She proves that a frontwoman who stands behind a keyboard isn’t necessarily a yawn-factor. She somehow manages to combine being static with dramatic dynamism — her headbanging as she plays and gesturing with whatever hand happens to be free draws the interested eye every bit as much as a hyperactive, twerking Ke$ha/Mylie/Taylor.
Another reason why Beach House should never work live (at least visually) is that Alex Scally sits down for many of the songs. Every bit as anti-rock ‘n’ roll as having your lead singer stuck behind a keyboard, his sit-down style is as distinctive as his bandmate’s voice. He rarely strums or bashes out power chords, but picks out notes to intertwine with voice and keyboard. Many of the songs (“Myth” and “Zebra” for example) hang on Alex Scally’s hooks and melodies, which range from the deceptively simple to the baroque. His sound is somewhere in between Robin Guthrie and David Roback, less spacey than the Cocteaus but less blue than Mazzy Star. It is remarkable that more than three decades have passed since the post-punk explosion but someone like him can still pull a unique and recognisable combination of style of play and choice of effects out of the air — because it is true that he really does sound like no one else. On the night, just like his partner in chime (!), Alex Scally’s sound was more robust than on record. Songs were driven with more urgency and aggression and there was even something of the tormented guitar hero in the way he bashed and twisted and turned the neck of his instrument. As you would expect, there were no five-minute solos, but a degree of improvisation added plenty of new twists to some of the familiar songs.
I read somewhere that Victoria Legrand is a fan of David Lynch. Indeed, Beach House have a song (“Silver Soul”) for which the chorus goes “it is happening again” — a well known catchphrase from Twin Peaks. There is something distinctly lynchian about the atmosphere the band create in a live context. More than once I looked towards the stage and felt I was in the Road House watching the house band, or even in the Red Room hearing secrets I could never understand. It’s the weird sweetness of their sound, their 1950s structures with a nightmare twist that transports one to the Bookhouse or the Black Lodge. I can easily see them soundtracking the new Twin Peaks, if it ever appears.
The icing on the cake of a great concert was Victoria Legrand’s humour and warmth. In between songs she built up a rap about the cheesiness of the venue (it has a fake oasis as its central bar) and then got on to the serious topic of what happened in Paris the week before (she was born in France). She thanked us for venturing out to see the band with all that was going on. We cannot thank them enough for keeping the flag flying for challenging and arresting live music.
*Being a loud live act in Spain has the advantage of drowning out the chatter of those that come to a gig to catch up with their buddies and generally chew the fat.