Every once in a great while an album comes along that invades your very consciousness. Songs seep into the recesses of the brain, lodging and residing there until years later, when the strains of the first few bars are heard again, that part of the brain is unlocked, and a smile creeps upon the face as every note and every word of every lyric is remembered verbatim. Some are part of a global consciousness, as with most Beatles songs or records, and some are part of one’s unique personal consciousness, as with my obsession with 80’s Scottish band The Silencers’ A Letter from St. Paul. (Writer’s note: if anyone can find me a real, not burned, copy of this CD, let me know!) These albums, the ones that invade the gray matter, are rarities, blips on the map of a grand landscape of popular music. Some are ahead of their time, and some combine the best elements of what makes music great. Beulah’s Yoko toes the line between these two concepts.
That’s right, the band that brought us some of the best song titles in history (“I [love] John, She [love]s Paul”, “Dig the Subatomic Holdout #2”, “If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart”, “Popular Mechanics for Lovers”, and “Night is the Day Turned Inside Out”) are back with more indie pop on the verge of breakout stardom.
From the word ‘go’, Yoko is an amalgam of sounds culled from various influences and genres. The first track, “A Man Like Me”, is like a song taken from the secret tapes of Wilco’s recording sessions for Summerteeth while Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs sat in. The next track, “Landslide Baby” is more of the same, but along with the Wilco influence, throw in a little of the pop sensibilities of the Dandy Warhols and Fountains of Wayne. The piano, overlapping horns, and Abbey Road-esque guitars all add a little something extra to the mix.
Speaking of the Beatles, which is purported to be Beulah’s biggest influence, (although really, whose aren’t) this album is named (or is it?) after the woman who, as the myth now goes, broke up the band. Most everyone agrees now that this is not the case, but this entire album smacks of `the girl who ruined everything’ motif. It drips with heartache, loss, and the memory of a relationship now gone sour. Which brings us to the second possibility of the album’s title which is the acronym of the third song, “You’re Only King Once”, in which vocalist Miles Kurosky pleads, albeit achingly, “Smile/please smile/I just want you happy.”
“My Side of the City” starts off like Elastica and continues like Spoon, complete with organ. After hearing this song, it seems that Beulah has come a long way since their Elephant 6 days. Smart, crafty, inventive, and sensible, the band has matured into the thinking listener’s band that they are today, as is further evidenced the next track, “Hovering”. Sparer than most of the previous tracks, “Hovering” takes on more of that later Beatles harmony and some of their heartfelt lyrics with less posturing.
My favorite title on “Yoko” is the sixth track, “Me and Jesus Don’t Talk Anymore”. Already one calls to mind Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.”, but once the track starts we hear strains of George Harrison and more Spoon, until the lyrics arrive. Then the song takes on a different tack altogether, combining the alt-country twang of the Old 97’s, a little of the short guitar crunches of Green Day in their heyday (ya like that rhymin’?), and then ends with the `woo-hoo-hoos’ and `Aahhh-aaahhhhs’ reminiscent of Joshua Tree-era Bono. Who would have put those three together? Only Beulah, that’s who!
“Fooled with the Wrong Guy” was the first track I heard from this record and it’s definitely a stunner of a song. Starting off with a plucking guitar, soon seamlessly replaced with banjo, which usually either makes me recall The Muppet Movie or Deliverance (now there’s a conflict of memory!), the song evolves into a crying guitar during the chorus while Miles and backups harmonize the song’s title. Shortly before, it is evident how hurt he is when he breathes, “I’ve got the biggest heart you’ve ever torn apart.” This song is definitely the cornerstone of the album, thematically, and in the mere fact that it is the best song on the album.
“Your Mother Loves You Son” again moves the album into stranger territories as we hear some of the first dramatic vocal effects. As we get into the last two songs of the album, I have to take notice that, unlike a whole hell of a lot of albums, Yoko has not one unlistenable song on it. Every track, while maybe not quite at Joshua Tree or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot status, is a gem and beckons the ear. “Don’t Forget to Breathe” recalls World Party, a.k.a. Karl Wallinger, another artist that idolized the Beatles, but unlike both Karl and the Fab Four, we get lyrics like “in my dreams I’m dyin’.” It doesn’t quite evoke thoughts of “All You Need is Love” or “Here Comes the Sun”, but still seems to work.
“Wipe Those Prints and Run” is a slow and methodical seven and a half minute journey into regret. While the title suggests some kind of criminal activity, the song lyrics themselves suggest the regret of losing one’s roots of home. “Home is such a dirty word, no matter what you’ve heard, it’s a lie.” And let’s not forget the idea of stardom changing people, “Fame, it means a lot to us.” The song finally winds up in a “Day in the Life” like coda of noise with Miles singing “I don’t believe in anything except you, my friends,” before cutting out into a little mini song tag at the end, a la “Her Majesty.” One would get the impression that they like the Beatles. Hmmmm.
All in all, Yoko is a thoroughly enjoyable album with exquisitely crafted songs that will burrow into your mindscape and take root. It is the most polished, fullest indie record I’ve heard and will not disappoint. Jaded musicians, lo-fi fans, and critics will find fault with the large production, the number of influences evident, and the fact that it is not able to be pinned down into any one genre, but this is what critics, fans, and musicians loved about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And, in the end, it is just a great record.