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Miles Kurosky knows about grief. After his father experienced a near brush with death, the songwriter/lead vocalist of the California band Beulah constructed one of the most disturbing and thought-provoking pop songs in recent memory: "A Good Man is Easy to Kill."
Chatting by phone from his San Francisco home, Kurosky talks candidly about his father. "Here is this man who means the world to me, and yet I don't really know him," he says. And so, in the song, he sings, "When you flew through that windshield/and your life passed reel to reel/was there a bit part for me?" over a resonant tableau of strings, flutes, and harmonies.
Hold it...string arrangements and harmonies?! These sounds are far from funereal. Of course, Beulah's crystalline California pop has never been without a little crackle and snap, even when Kurosky is creating an album based on life's many absurdities: finding love, discovering meaning in the world, dealing with death. Imagine Camus backed by a stable of horns and hand claps and you may be clued in to Kurosky's curiously cynical and terrifically catchy style of pop.
Listening to Beulah's recently released third album, the cautiously titled The Coast Is Never Clear (Velocette), is particularly striking while one is in a melancholic, post-World-Trade-Center-attack mood. The sparse opener "Hello Resolven" offers the melodic death wish "Kill off the king/Kill off the queen/It's over." A subdued drum machine and piano provide little comfort to the warm samba beats of "What will you do when your suntan fades?" as Kurosky forewarns, "This is gonna hurt, kid/you better hold on tight." When he asks, "What will you do when your suntan is fading and the summer's gone?/Will you fade away?" he's contemplating what happens to us when we're stripped of what's most important in our lives. His sincerity, here and elsewhere, is never buried beneath cynicism.
Yet the album is not without humor. Kurosky's famously coy and calculating song titles are still in evidence, ranging from the amusing "Popular Mechanics for Lovers" to the whimsical "I'll Be Your Lampshade." ("I may be, in a lot of ways, too esoteric and cryptic for my own good," Kurosky says, "[but] I think I've become less so, especially on this record.") Riffing on Hollywood's make-or-break mythology, "Gene Autry" percolates with bandmate Bill Swan's horn arrangements, fuzzy guitar distortion, and shimmering chimes while Kurosky sings about finding fame on the golden shores of his West Coast home. Yet Kurosky's Eddie Haskell-ish vocals offer little remorse as he drawls, "the city spreads out just like a cut vein...everybody drowns sad and lonely."
Kurosky describes the album as his most personal and cathartic release to date, although he admits he's uncomfortable with a straight confessional tone. "I've been hiding behind the metaphor of a suntan," he says. "In some ways I'm not as healthy as I seem and need to become a better person."
Perhaps Kurosky has managed to hide the darker parts of his personality beneath his sunny pop. But he was able to engage in a little self-reflection while retreating to Japan for a couple of months before recording. Having written much of the album, he mailed his five bandmates individual cassettes, instructing them to build upon his ideas while warning them not to speak with one another in the process. Later, stepping inside a studio for the first time, the professed technophobe found himself at the helm of a full-scale production. "I don't like pushing buttons," he explains wryly, "and I don't like setting things up. I just like ordering people around and deciding what things are going to sound like."
Since Beulah formed in the mid-Nineties, Kurosky's sweet-tart songcraft has become an irreverent alternative to the often saccharine world of pop music. Simply by crooning, "I've been trying all the time to find/a song that would make you mine/but all I ever find, my love, are clichés that don't rhyme" (from "Popular Mechanics for Lovers"), Kurosky gives the genre a new honesty.