Judging from Beach House's latest cover, they want to be barely there. Not quite the visual mind-fuck of Animal Collective's Merriweather, the cover for Teen Dream is a kind of perceptual understatement, best seen by shifting your eyes to the side and not looking straight on. Of course, if the Baltimore duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have had any problem, it hasn't been with being seen. Beach House's self-titled first album won critical acclaim all over and paved the way for the languid, if a little too spacey, Devotion in 2008, which won similar critical acclaim. Now the group has returned with their best and most rigorous and taut work to date, Teen Dream.
If I had to poke one well worn criticism at the whole "dream pop" style, its that it relies on mood over structure. Like the phrase "scholarship-athlete" there's a reason that "dream" comes before "pop," but when Beach House is at their best, as they are on this record, their mood and songwriting fits together in harmony. Each track seems to sonically unfold without losing the core of the melody. It's enthralling, nuanced, exciting composition. Listening to this record, you're not letting the sound go by, you're actively being tossed around by the instrumentation, the shifts in tonality, and the gentle hum of Alex and Victoria's voice.
That said, this album feels much more like Alex's album than Victorias. Opener "Zebra" begins with a practiced guitar riff which slowly brings in percussion and vocals. As a setter in style, "Zebra" relies on a really basic pattern of songwriting that Beach House seemed to eschew on previous efforts. But rather than sounding traditional or tried, the reliance on form benefits the group's dreamy sensibilities. I mean, it is called Teen Dream. If you're listening to it, you've signed up for more than your share of swoons.
Perhaps the most subtly invigorating aspect of this album isn't in the music at all, but in the silences. Unlike most things that you hear where it seems that people are banging on instruments to try and fill space, Teen Dream invites silence to poke through. It's kind of Music 101 -- music being the arrangement of sounds and silences. But, in the hands of Victoria and Alex, the silence and notes cultivated seem so impeccably crafted, so well-thought out. The silence between notes allow for the notes to happen: the perception you might have is that your unconscious is playing a record. It's an utterly surprising feeling. This album doesn't fill silence with sound, but molds sound to fit around silence.
Beach House may be intimating that this record is barely here, that it is a bit of salience in your local record store, a subtle thing that's almost overlooked, but it is undeniably a part of you, just as your silences and your teenage dreams.