A Frustrating Mess

Beulah leader Miles Kurosky's dark nights lead to pure pop sunshine

"While I was making the record, I was losing my mind," Kurosky says matter-of-factly. "Or I thought I was. ... I remember telling the guys during the making of the record, I was just like, "I think there's a bad Miles and a good Miles, and I think they're both inside of me, and it's freaking me out.'"

Feeling like something dangerous and uncontrollable was brewing within him, Kurosky went to see a psychologist, who diagnosed him with bipolar disorder. The psychologist gave Kurosky two choices: Start taking an antidepressant like Zoloft or Prozac, or begin daily counseling.

With the album's lyrics yet to be written, Kurosky chose therapy. "I didn't want to take the drugs," he says, "mainly because I was worried it would affect my songwriting. I definitely didn't want to be taking drugs to make me happier and have that be in my songs. Because that's not how I really am and how I was feeling at the time."

Not surprisingly, the personal excavations in his psychologist's office had a powerful effect on what transpired in the studio. In the past, Kurosky's lyrics had been compact little mysteries, charming bits of wordplay and indecipherable endearments. "I just tried to be too smart for my own good in that sort of Pavement way," Kurosky explains. "Totally cryptic."

This time, though, the heavy emotional work of therapy made that blithe approach to lyrics untenable. As a result, the studio became a real-world adjunct to his counseling, a place where the bleak discoveries of therapy got cataloged and organized into chorus and verse.

What came out wasn't pretty. Whether the words document the dwindling sex life of a long-term relationship ("Night Is the Day Turned Inside Out") or a car crash involving his uncommunicative father ("A Good Man Is Easy to Kill"), all the stories are bummers. Despair tarnishes every silver lining.

The dire mood set by the verses makes the 400-watt pop music blasting behind them all the more perverse -- and necessary. If the libretto of The Coast Is Never Clearpaints a wintry picture of estrangement and loss, the score is a garlanded bandstand in deep July; the dark thoughts hang from melodies so bright you have to squint to endure them.

The weird mix made perfect sense to Kurosky. "I've always approached it like Motown," he says. "It's like blues wrapped up in dance music. It's heartache, it's loss, and all these things. But you wouldn't know it, because you're dancing to it."

And dance you will: The Coast Is Never Clearis the best, most infectious work of the band's career. With the orchestral flourishes and trans-pop experimentation of When Your Heartstrings Break, Beulah proved it could emulate everyone from Bacharach to the Buzzcocks; on the new album the group adds saloon-style country, '60s go-go, and old-time barbershop harmonies to its pop palette.

The ever-increasing musical vocabulary adds punch to the soul-aching lyrics. On "Gene Autry," Kurosky longs for a return to the West Coast: "When I get to California, gonna write my name in the sand/ Gonna lay this body down and watch the waves roll in." But as church bells chime and trumpets herald the homesick traveler's arrival at the beach, everything goes awry. "The city spreads out just like a cut vein," Kurosky crows. "Everybody drowns, sad and lonely."

The album is full of darkly delightful moments like those in "Gene Autry." Many of the best tunes -- "Popular Mechanics," "I'll Be Your Lampshade" -- are fueled by Swan's trumpet, which adds ebullient mariachi trills to some songs and understated, jazzy highlights to others. It's also impossible to overestimate the contributions of the twin keyboards -- Evans and Noel are integral to Beulah's wide-screen pop, laying rich swirls of sound and emotion in the spaces between LaFollette's playful bass and Sullivan's immaculate drumming.

In any other band's story, pulling off a record as triumphant as The Coast Is Never Clear would be the beautiful sunset ending to a stormy drama. The musician wrestles with his inner demons, makes transformative art, and sends everyone home happy. But dealing with mental illness is rarely cathartic, and happy endings are not really Kurosky's style.

When the band finished recording The Coast Is Never Clear in October 2000, Kurosky flew with the tapes to Nashville, where he and Roger Mountenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney) spent two weeks mixing the album. They completed it in time for Capricorn's scheduled release date of June 2001.

Then Capricorn did a funny thing: The label liquidated most of its catalog and started over as an indie called Velocette. Beulah was one of the four bands kept -- good news considering that its recording contract could have ended up in indifferent corporate hands. But because of the changes, the release date was postponed indefinitely.

The delayed release was the start of a string of setbacks for the band, which culminated when Kurosky returned from Atlanta for a San Francisco gig that no one in the band was ready to play.

"We knew we weren't up to snuff," says Kurosky about Beulah's performance at the Noise Pop Festival last February, "and we ended up playing a really poor show. ... In our minds we played awful."

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