Beach House treats Iowa City concert-goers to a spectacular light show, but fails to fully connect

I enjoy seeing opening acts, especially ones that accompany a band across a tour. Entrance, a solo singer-songwriter, was worth seeing. He seemed steeped in a folk tradition, and most of the melodies felt like memories with words I had not heard. The songs seemed to haunt the edges of what I already knew without feeling derivative: Something comforting shone in its seeming familiarity. What resonated most spectacularly, however, was his voice: His beautiful vibrato oscillated over his guitar playing with a textured richness. This warmed the occasionally chilling tone of the lyrics, especially when they were depicting the problems of our political world.

Beach House contrasted with this sense of warmth: Something isolated and mechanical seems to govern the band’s performance, which has grown noticeably less organic since they first played Iowa City for Mission Creek in 2009. One of my friends has noted that Beach House isn’t the kind of band he would choose to see live — one could, perhaps, sympathize. The albums are icy perfection, crystalline notes hazed in a fog of vocals.

In many ways, the live performance is an authentic recreation of the recordings. When the band began, they were backlit against a black backdrop, the fog machine obscuring any features beyond silhouettes. Behind the band were three large 3D rectangles, which were used to good effect during the light show. The performers did not move much during the set, staying more or less situated. Sometimes, apparently when it seemed as though the possibility existed that one may see her face in spite of the curtain of her long curling hair, lead singer Victoria Legrand would wear a hood. The effect of this was to transform her into another object on the stage.

The songs were largely reflective of the albums, with little improvisation. Improvisation, of course, requires interaction among band members: Beach House was perfectly in sync throughout their performance, but it was as though each followed their own part, individually and precisely, and the audience was rewarded as it came together.

What I realized about the stage performance is that it was perfectly consistent with the nature of the band’s discography. The band’s albums balance between a trance-based love of repetition and a hazy vocal line just distinctive enough to keep listeners alert. The band, which claimed to have exhausted its supply of banter during a brief fire alarm (set off due to the copious amounts of fog the band prefers), obscures not only its interactions but also the performances. It was almost as if they would prefer to play live from within the depths of the orchestra pit rather than up on the stage, or to allow the audience to watch a movie that they scored, live, rather than to have the audience watch them play.

Aesthetically, concealing one element of a performance only reveals different dimensions of an act. When movies display blackness, or blankness, one tends to focus instinctively on other sense stimuli — particularly sound. Beach House, in the desire to obscure their own creation of sound, provides audiences with a spectacle in the way of their light show.

Photo courtesy of the artist
Photo courtesy of the artist

Although I generally prefer watching the interaction of musicians to the distraction of lights, their light show is impressive. Fittingly, given that their latest album was titled Thank Your Lucky Stars (released a scant two months after the equally highly acclaimed Depression Cherry), much of the light show seemed intent on providing a cosmic or galactic experience. White lights twinkled in the black backdrop, while flashes of deep orange and blue highlighted the drummer with an almost supernova intensity. Cool greens and purples recalled the gentle glow of the Northern Lights with an almost perfect match of hue. Occasionally the band would have a cascading lightfall dance down the surface of the rectangles behind them, the depth allowing for an interplay among the lights. At one point in the show, the stage was transformed into an aquarium, with jellyfish coolly floating at the tops of the cubes, dangling stingers of light. Throughout, the band’s performance seemed intent to become part of the background rather than to stand foregrounded in any way.

Legrand commented, at one point, on the dancers filling the aisles. “Music is human expression: Express yourself in a human, loving way.” Although the point, I believe, is valid and she seemed sincere in making it, I found the comment disconcerting primarily because it seemed at odds with the almost inhuman spirit of the band. The dreams provided in the soundscape seem too rigid to be truly, or at least primarily, human in nature. Most songs follow a similar logic: a slow tension that reaches a slow reconciliation, followed by a slow conclusion. One senses the resolution of the song and appreciates it as a moment of culmination, but understands quickly that the band will follow its own pace in arriving at its chosen destination. In many ways, the dynamics of this band’s songs have the same type of satisfaction as watching objects rise and fall within a lava lamp. Songs are not glacial in their pacing, a term more appropriate for Sigur Ros or A Winged Victory for the Sullen, but they are defiantly unhurried, driven by the relentless, unfailing logic of the drum machine.

The choice to bury themselves behind their lighting could, in some ways, direct the audience to the music of the songs at the expense of the musicians. It’s a good strategy, overall, and consistent with long traditions in music where performers see themselves as mediums for some more powerful muse. In this case, the presence of pre-recorded drums and organ loops simply made the mystery of the band more obscure. Rather than invoking the presence of some transcendent sense of music, the band merely begged the question. In other words, while it was easier to become attuned to the sound of the music, too much of the music was absent for it to command one’s attention.

This is not to say that it was a bad show, or that Beach House shows aren’t beautiful or in any way undeserving of their ticket price. It is more to say that the aesthetic performance that they provide, which seems authentic and genuine given their reserve as performers and the type of music they explore, is one that I find peculiarly lacking. The lack has nothing to do with the quality of musicianship or the nature of their songs, and more to do with a question that the band plays with, but does not resolve. The songs are as complex and intricate in their design as the light show, and translate well to a live environment. But their overt attempts to conceal themselves bring forth only absence, not a new or different kind of presence, which leads to an odd chilling of one’s emotional investment in the band. Although I was never bored during the show, I also never reached a point of captivation or absorption during their set. This may well have been my mindset when arriving at the Englert that night, a mindset processing questions of presence and absence. But I think that, beyond my particular potential failings as a listener, the band is one peculiarly attuned to the sense of mystery that lurks in the heart of absence and has little interest in drawing audiences in below the sheen of the surface.

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