That San Francisco sextet Beulah has chosen Yoko (Velocette) as the title of their new album could come from the fact that it's an acronym for "You're Only King Once," one of the album's songs; but after taking it for a spin, it quickly becomes apparent that, no, we were right the first time: It signifies a breakup. Or, in Beulah's case, several breakups.
Half of the band's members were divorced last year, and though he's never been married, singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Miles Kurosky endured a devastating breakup with the woman he thought he'd eventually marry. The tracks of his tears are all over Yoko, which marks a distinct change from the band's previous releases.
A former member of the Elephant 6 collective, Beulah's initial full-length, Handsome Western States (1997, Elephant 6), was full of songs that updated feel-good, '60s pop with a dose of Pavement-esque indie-rock. For their next two releases--1999's When Your Heartstrings Break (Sugar Free) and 2001's The Coast Is Never Clear (Velocette)--the band recruited upwards of a dozen guest musicians to create what is invariably referred to as "sunny California pop," complete with string sections, staccato horn flourishes and an abundance of handclaps and ba-da-ba's. The albums merged Beatles-esque songwriting with the production density of Pet Sounds, and both stand as near flawless, modern pop masterpieces.
But Kurosky seems to not only thrive on, but need change. So, when it came time to make a fourth record, he laid down some ground rules for his bandmates: "No ba-da-ba's; no staccato horns (fewer horns everywhere, in fact); record live as much as possible; darker chords a must." Couple that with the state of mind of the band's members at the time, and it was apparent that with Yoko, Beulah was going to be drastically changing its M.O. yet again.
"Even if we are the shittiest band in America, we've been the most progressive," Kurosky says. "I think we kind of push ourselves more than most bands do, wouldn't you say? Other bands just make records over and over and over again--I won't name bands, but their sixth record sounds like their first, you know?
"The only band that seems to get away from challenging the audience and changing from record to record and not getting any grief is Radiohead," he adds. "They're the only one; everyone applauds it. Thom Yorke could easily fart on a microphone for a good hour and everyone will go, 'Holy shit, that's a 10!'
"People want us to make Heartstrings again. We've talked about that, and it would have been one of the most depressing things. Sometimes, you just gotta move outta town."
Kurosky says that after writing the first song for the album ("Wipe Those Prints and Run," which closes Yoko), "it turned me on to realize that didn't sound like us at all. There we were, not sounding like us--it sounded like we were a completely different band, and that made me excited. Who wants to sound like you? It's like when actors love a role, because they got to play someone so unlike themselves."
Thus, unlike the wall of sound that marked the two previous releases, the album's sound is pared down to the essentials. There's still the occasional trumpet or banjo, but there's a lot more space between all the instruments.
"We wanted to be a band playing in a room," explains Kurosky, "and capture what it is that we six individuals are. And we wanted to play it live as well. We've never done that before. We've always just laid down drums and overdubbed, overdubbed, overdubbed." Which made for a tricky situation when it came time to play those songs for audiences; it forced the band to work for months to figure out how to make six musicians replicate songs that were originally performed by 18.
And it's not just the relatively spare arrangements that are new this time around. There's the tricky subject matter, too, which manifests itself in brutally honest--and often brutal--recounts of Kurosky's crumbling relationship.
"I wanted to make an honest record, and that's what was going on in our lives," Kurosky says. "I wanted to make something honest and pure. Somebody recently said that our album was good, but it wasn't as good as Blood on the Tracks by Dylan. I beg to differ; I think our record's better than Dylan's."
Asked if he's serious, he's off on a rant, and it's tough to tell just how far the notoriously perfectionist--Yoko was mastered six times--and self-admittedly "difficult" Kurosky's tongue is placed in his cheek: "I'm fucking way serious. I don't know why we think that everything Dylan did, his shit didn't stink. The fact is, that record bores me to fucking tears.
"Here's the thing: Who's to say that Bob Dylan and his emotions with his breakup with his wife are more intense or more profound or better than my feelings? They're not, you know what I mean? My breakup, in my mind, was as heavy as his breakup, and I think I was even more fuckin' brutal. I was fuckin' honest, man--I almost fuckin' bled on the goddamn tape. I don't think he did. Fuck Bob Dylan."
Catching himself, he chuckles. "Here's the funny thing: I'm comparing myself to Bob Dylan. At least I have the fucking balls to do that. I'm actually sincere. I'm not even saying it because I'm an egomaniac; I'm saying it because I believe we made a fucking kick-ass motherfucking record. I don't think we made as good a record as Highway 61 or Bringing It All Back Home or anything."
When it's pointed out that the comparison was certainly meant as a compliment, Blood on the Tracks being held up as the quintessential breakup record, he retorts with, "Probably because it was the first, the first that was so personal."
But Yoko isn't just about breaking up with your significant other. Kurosky, 34, says it's also about reaching that awkward age where you start questioning what you've accomplished with your life so far, and wondering where to go from there. When I tell him we're the same age, he says, "Just so you know, I wrote the record for people like you and me. The whole record's about breakups, and what are we doing? And the fact that our careers still haven't taken off exactly the way we wanted them to, divorces, just everything about growing older and questioning yourself. We're at a very weird age, aren't we? We still feel incredibly young; we still hang around with young people; we still do young things; yet, all those young things and people make us feel quite old."
Lest you start thinking that Yoko is a supreme bummer, rest assured, it's not. While it's certainly a bit more grown-up than its predecessors in both sound and content, the album is one of those rare cases where the mostly upbeat music doesn't betray the underlying lyrical bleakness, not unlike, say, the Smiths.
"I like that juxtaposition," Kurosky says. "I think it makes people think a little more. If the music was depressing, it's sort of a giveaway. I like the fact that you can lure people in--like my mom, or somebody's mom, anyway--and they think, 'Oh, what nice music,' then they start thinking about it. My mom just called me yesterday and said it was just beautiful and gorgeous and all these other things, but maybe she's just listening to the music. 'Cause if she was listening to the lyrics, she might be going, 'Oh dear, what's wrong with you?'"
The band members' romantic relationships haven't been the only topic in conversations about breakups this year, either. Before Yoko was released, Beulah hinted that the album might be the band's last. When the subject is broached, Kurosky is reticent to talk about it. "We can't talk about whether we're breaking up or not," he explains. "We've taken an oath of silence--can you take an oath of silence? The thing is, if we talk about it, it just takes away from the record. In hindsight, it was a really big mistake to even mention it, because too much was made of it.
"You read (blogs) where kids will say, 'They sound like their heart's not in it 'cause they were going to break up.' Well, that's not true. That's a load of shit. This record was our fucking savior. This band, we were never more excited to go into the studio and make a record. Never. I mean, the guys came in with sullen faces for Heartstrings and Coast, and this one, everyone gladly showed up. ... More love and passion and desire went into this record than anything we've done before. Ever. We'll take the rote, pedestrian route of breaking up and just do it like everyone else: finish our tour and go, 'OK, that was it. Thanks.'"