Despite the moniker’s Old Testament overtones, San Francisco’s Beulah was, for a time, the (northern) California wing of the Elephant 6 collective. They mix soaring harmonies, head-swirling pop hooks and circa-’65 Beach Boys and Beatles creative mindset with an overriding love for glistening hooks and record-collector details. All of which is important only because the lead Beulah, Miles Kurosky, couches those details in what might have been the most sparkling arrangements in the entire Elephant 6 solar system.
A Small Cattle Drive was recorded by Kurosky and his partner (and fellow San Francisco mail-room employee) Bill Swan throughout 1996. The lead track, “I [Love John], She [Love]s Paul,” exposed their influences from the get- go. Otherwise, the pre-formative 7-inch EP offers tape hiss and neat pop angles that never quite congeal.
Trading off on guitar, bass, drums and whatever else was handy — plus Swan’s trumpet playing — the duo plied Handsome Western States out of a worn four- track tape machine the next year, yielding the first hints of Beulah’s mature style. A successful meld of ’60s harmonies and the surging indie-pop stance of bedroom- savants like Sebadoh, the album — which includes reprises of three of the debut’s four songs — for the most part connects pleasingly.
With a high-profile tour offer from Apples in Stereo on the table, Kurosky and Swan recruited drummer Steve St. Cin, bassist Steve LaFolette and keyboardist Pat Noel. After their live journeys, the expanded group settled down to record When Your Heartstrings Break. The disc, which opens with a telling sample from Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, brings Beulah’s particular genius to full flower in the dizzying crescendo of “Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand,” the twitching pop glory of “Ballad of the Lonely Argonaut” and the tripped-out, gorgeously over- arranged “If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart.” The 11 tracks inject the drippings of Brian Wilson’s 1966 brainpan into listeners’ pleasure centers.
Moving to Velocette Records, Beulah added keyboardist Bill Evans (no, not that one), replaced St. Cin with Danny Sullivan (ex-Groovie Ghoulies, Pansy Division and Screeching Weasel) and plunged into The Coast Is Never Clear. Kurosky and company nearly drowned in Smile-style obsession, logging more than 500 studio hours on the album, but emerged with a worthy successor to the brilliant Heartstrings. The disc has a bittersweet West Coast vibe; haunting tracks like “Burned by the Sun” and “Gene Autry” swirl in a delicious haze, floating between ’40s Hollywood, a cruise down Vine Street and the pot-smoke-clogged Gold Star Studios of Spector’s 1964. A mellow, mature, questioning and affecting pop album that, unlike many retro-pop-showoffs, actually lives up to its influences.
Yoko is a very pretty album about romantic collapse, full of minor chords, laconic tempos, mock jollity and brash bursts of electric power. “A Man Like Me” and “Landslide Baby” open Beulah’s putative swan song with a he-said, she-said diptych. “My love is a lot like yours / It’s been crippled by the wars we wage / We’re hopeless, we’re on the losing side,” laments the former. In this harmony-rich exercise in self-loathing, Kurosky sings, “Try wasting all your days on a man, a man like me…” The latter tune is outwardly bitter and aggressive: “You’re scared and you’re weak and you don’t give a fuck about me / And I do believe that you hate yourself.” The lyrical despair energizes the sweet pop melodies, but that’s just one of the album’s angles. The third song, “You’re Only King Once,” is more forgiving, and “My Side of the City” expresses genuine romantic enthusiasm — clearly, this is the sound of pop twisting in the inescapable web of love’s maddening complexity. Yoko (no, the title is never explained) is inconsistent, running out of melodic steam before the lengthy finale, “Wipe Those Prints and Run,” but there’s plenty to chew on, and smile to, before it does.