Like a haunted illustrator moved to continually render the same scene in greater and greater detail, Baltimore's Beach House have spent three albums articulating a continuous feeling with incrementally increasing skill. Their 2006 debut was an achievement of sustained tone rather than accomplished songs, with Alex Scally's keys and guitars and vocalist Victoria Legrand's drawn-out, twisted syllables bleeding together over a limping drum machine into a particularly lovelorn blur. That underdeveloped record was better wallpaper than centerpiece, though. Devotion, released in 2008, conjured the same diffuse amber fog-lamp glow but with more pristine arrangements, more oddly specific imagery. Now, stepping up to record for the bigger-fish Sub Pop label, the duo unveils Teen Dream, which captures another leap in craft, this time an exponential one. It's hardly a grand departure from what's come before, but for those who've been following the band's career to this point, it holds all the satisfaction of an indistinct image snapping into deep, crisp focus.
In the context of a big swath of recent music that's been obsessed with channeling indistinct, inarticulate adolescent longing, it's important to note that Teen Dream seldom sounds like the lust-clouded, chaotic fantasies of an actual teen. Victoria Legrand's voice is notably grown-up, deep and knowing. "It is happening again," she quivers on "Silver Soul," with a world-weary manner that suggests she saw it coming the first time around. Even the late-album standout "Real Love," which features a "boom boom boom" refrain evoking the immediacy of infatuation, is past-tense and more warmly remembered than viscerally felt. While her voice, slowly articulated in long undulating sustains, has never been anything less than gorgeous on record, it's layered here to a deeper effect. The previous records were mostly content to let her sigh into the echo chamber alone. The tracks on Teen Dream support her main vocal with staccato backing coos, granting more kinetic energy to even the most languid compositions. More than just motion, though, the tiered arrangement helps the melody hum.
Multi-instrumentalist Alex Scally does fine, subtle work here as well. On first listen the songs might seem interchangeable, even monotonous. The instrumental palette doesn't swing wildly from song to song, or really even differ much from Devotion. All the compositions clock in between four to six minutes, providing neither succinct pop nuggets nor true sprawling epics. But there's a lot happening. "Used to Be" starts with gentle piano repetitions, then gathers something close to urgency (as close as they get, anyway) before dropping off to stark fragility, and then reclaiming a bit of a waltz swagger. Others, like "Better Times," move so gracefully from place to place that it can be hard to notice the exact moment of shift. It's the opposite of abrupt. While their past work was typified by bloody organ sounds, the most affecting work here is just as likely to be guitar based. The music never rocks, exactly, but it certainly sways.
Beach House have mastered their chosen nostalgic mood to a degree that even when their component parts sound similar to other bands, the effect remains distinct. The pulsing synth loop on "10 Mile Stereo" isn't so far removed from recent Portishead, but where that band inches towards darkness and desperation, Legrand and Scally maintain a warm, slightly disconnected felling that could best be described as mildly regretful. A neutral, beige feeling for some listeners, perhaps, but a shade the band thoroughly owns. Since such pain has been taken to keep consistency through all of their releases, it's tempting to grant Teen Dream the same mood-music utility as its predecessors. And sure the record could still be brilliant brunch background, but finally, the band's become more rewarding upon close regard.