If the ideal of indie rock is to make the most out of limited resources, and for the quality of your songs to trump their recording quality, then Beulah took that idea to a new extreme with second album When Your Heartstrings Break. On debut Handsome Western States, the San Francisco-based band, one of a handful of West Coast Elephant Sixers along with The Minders, played a fun and sloppy brand of indie fuzz-rock, a la Guided by Voices or Pavement. But in their first incarnation as a full band, When Your Heartstrings Break found the Bay Area group keeping the fuzz-pop aesthetic in tact, while tightening up their playing and piling on layers and layers of instruments, making it the biggest possible record one could make on a small budget.
Much like The Apples in Stereo or Neutral Milk Hotel, Beulah incorporated more than a few elements of the ’60s in their work, from Pet Sounds-style orchestration to Beatlesque harmonies, all with a more grounded and straightforward power-pop sound that made each song brilliant when taken individually, and even more spectacular as part of a unified whole. Though more `twenty-something symphonies to chicks’ rather than `teenage symphonies to God,’ Beulah nonetheless soundtracked the twilight of my teenage years, from “Sunday Under Glass” scoring the trek to edit a video in a rural North County suburb, to inspiring a spur-of-the-moment flower delivery to a girl I liked at the time. Even at my worst moments, I had Beulah’s sunny, colorful sound to bring me out of whatever adolescent funk had overtaken me.
Boasting no fewer than 18 guest musicians, When Your Heartstrings Break runs the gamut from stripped down rockers like “Score From Augusta” to enormous feats of orchestration such as “Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand.” Though the former contains plinks of piano, a bright sheen of trumpet and bubbling background effects, it’s relatively simple compared to the latter, which sprawls out over five and a half minutes, beginning with tabla beats, then adding keyboards, guitar and drums, sweeping strings after that, a brilliant and heroic trumpet, piano, and ultimately Miles Kurosky’s warm vocals, backed by stunning vocal harmonies. “Calm Go The Wild Seas” seems far more restrained at first, though it too swells into a giant symphony of gossamer sounds. And the piano that introduces “Warmer” suggests something huge to come, though the pop tune that ensues is smart and subtle, with backward keyboard sounds swapping for heavenly organ melodies during the chorus.
If there’s one song on When Your Heartstrings Break that everyone has to hear at least once (there’s actually 11, and they should be heard about 100 times but whatever), it’s “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart.” Aside from it’s fantastic title, the song is arguably the most impressive here, closing out the record with as much fanfare as possible, switching instrumental breaks nimbly, with piano, strings and horns each playing their part while Kurosky romantically intones, “if you wanna sing, tell me what you wanna sing/ and I’ll play, and I’ll play.” Rather than leave a ballad for the end, Beulah goes out with as big a bang as possible here, leaving you with such a high that you can’t help but want to start the whole thing right over again. It’s truly a wonder to me that this album didn’t make our best of the ’90s list, or anyone else’s for that matter. Don’t make me spend the next hour telling you how much better it is than Pinkerton.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Apples In Stereo – Fun Trick Noisemaker
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.