Beulah: The Coast Is Never Clear

Beulah: The Coast Is Never Clear

Beulah
The Coast Is Never Clear
(Velocette)

The context: When it made 2001's The Coast Is Never Clear, San Francisco band Beulah had already proven that leaders Miles Kurosky and Bill Swan could make a pop song gleam without revealing too much information. Its 1999 breakthrough, When Your Heartstrings Break, hinted at Kurosky's bitterness as a songwriter, and on Beulah's final album, 2003's Yoko, he carved it in with all the grace of a rusty paper clip. In between, on Coast, the band's pleasant side struggled to make more room for a clearly difficult personality.

The greatness: When Kurosky's ego swells, the hooks push up against it. On "A Good Man Is Easy To Kill," he sings about his emotionally tricky father, obscuring the specifics with wordplay ("When they drilled holes in your skull / and screwed that halo to your head, did you think you could fly?") and keeping the universal in plain English ("Give, up, give up your love / I promise it's not gonna kill you, and I need you, lord I need you"). As he once told an interviewer, "There's a good Miles and a bad Miles," and they're both in this song—one just begging for relief and the other choking on his spite. Like much of the album, this song takes pride in wallowing, but Swan and the duo's collaborators give people choices: Whine along with Kurosky, or thump to the distorted bass riff and flute solo. Get sad, deliriously happy, or anything in between.

Horns, strings, synths, vocals harmonies, and guitars overload the songs, and they do need to be overloaded. Without its mournful trumpets—and its general sense that pop music is a distraction from life—closer "Night Is The Day Turned Inside Out" might still be a fearsome tearjerker, but harder to enjoy on repeat listens. "Popular Mechanics For Lovers" celebrates self-delusion following a breakup, and the piano traipsing around his words softens the resentment, or at least reminds that this is forgivable behavior.

Defining song: It'd be impossible to fill an album with open-wound epics like "A Good Man Is Easy To Kill," and the band finds more balance in "Gene Autry," a song that looks forward despite its anxieties. In the chorus, "The city spreads out just like a cut vein" and "everybody drowns, sad and lonely." Everything else about the song—the lazy gallop of the guitar hook, the affectionate Western fantasies, and one of the snappiest horn breaks ever played on a rock record—lets this drama queen bask in boyish optimism.