By Derek Cooper
Pearl and the Beard is not just an interesting name to many. There is little doubt as to the effective dynamic captured between Jocelyn MacKenzie (vocals and percussion), Emily Hope Price (vocals and cello and keys) and Jeremy Styles (vocals and guitars), but the ability of these three complementary voices and uniquely classic-yet-modern instrumentation to craft songs that span genres and defy easy description is unique in a way solely to them. Pop, gospel, ballads, folk hoe-downs…nothing is too niche or gnarly for this group. Having fallen in absolute love with them after a SXSW set in Austin a few years back I could not wait to find out more about them. I have played a lot of different types of music and shows, and been to many more, but never had I seen a crowd so attentive, so on the edge of their toes (they were standing) for an entire set. A guitar, a cello, and a simple tom/snare/cymbal setup was all it took for these three magnificent performers to keep a modest barroom in the middle of the Live Music Capital of the World at one of it’s biggest festivals from breathing. I had never seen such performance embodiment; these three fully transcended and became the music. Plus, they were, like, super nice after the set.
Since then I have waited with baited breath for new material, ravenously digesting their previous two full-length albums, 2009’s God Bless Your Weary Soul, Amanda Richardson; and 2011’s Killing the Darlings, as well as their two EP’s. Enter stage right 2015’s Beast: the cover an intense blue nearly as deep as the sound it contains. Recorded at Garden Tone Studios in Jersey City with Steve Wall, Beast pushes the boundaries that Pearl and the Beard have previously set for themselves. Herein lies a band with an undeniable bond and a penchant for exploration. Complacency is not in their quickly-expanding vocabulary.
Beast opens with the powerful "You", a digital sounding squiggle quickly giving way to an authoritative drum beat and vintage guitar tone. "Can you hear me?" roars MacKenzie, half-asking, half-exclaiming, daring you to attempt an answer. Decidedly rock and roll, this track shows the seemingly effortless energy of which this band is often capable. "Yeah // well it's not just in your head // My whole body is your home // I will keep you as the world goes on and on around us" builds the harmonies, before breaking into the rich "It's you---" refrain; percussive quarter note triplets push the momentum forward while still displaying a sense of open grandiosity. One thing is clear: this is an immense song.
Beast is an album that lets you know that it is something different right out of the gate. Nowhere is this more evident than the mixing. Less is the separation of instruments common to previous albums. Here is a mix that blends the ethereal vocal harmonies of three beautiful voices and makes it play nice with a variety of textures and reverb. The echoey guitar alone is one of the most aggressive-yet-upbeat things yet seen from the band. Immediately setting the tone, the band is already letting you know for whom they are playing: "It's you."
Quickly moving forward, "Again Animal" is another up-tempo track. This song has some of the most formidable power-harmonies this band has done. Trading off initial phrases through each individual voice, this song provides fluid transitions and clever word play, showcasing a band at the top of their game with complete confidence and mastery of their craft. “If nothing works, well // then that’s what we’ll do // Make me whole again // animal”. "Good Death" drops into familiar, but not tired, territory for the band. Beautiful mid-tempo ballads are where this trio regularly drops listeners to their knees. The marching snare drum in the background threading the needle towards the Vonnegut chorus of “So it goes” helps to illustrate the conscious instrumentation and deliberate writing style. This is an album that sounds more cinematic than previous releases (no doubt in part to Price’s penchant for composing film scores).
"Burn Me Up" is a brooding but poppy offering with so much room to breathe in the mix it feels as if you are on a tall ledge somewhere in nature, a location so exotic you likely cannot afford the return airfare. It is here, with Price’s voice, that I realize that in previous efforts it was more obvious which of the members was the obvious “author” of a song. This album’s mixing and instrumentation shows the true harmony of the band’s spirit: that three completely independent individuals can meld seamlessly in the moment to create true art. Not songs, put pieces. Compositions. This is an album with its individual components so varied that the mix has the Herculean effort of keeping things in a consistent sonic environment. It succeeds. This is an album you can sing along to while hearing marvelous instrumental arrangements. Everything about this album is intentionalized, crafted with the most delicate and conscious care.
"Yet" drops things down to a pinpoint. Styles’ voice soars smooth over a beautiful left pan guitar part before letting control go to piano and the most interesting, haunting harmonies yet before meeting up with a matching cello part, and it is here the album re-balances, turning introspective with “patience, beauty // those horses come in last // buried deeply in the past”.
"James" may be the closest thing to resembling something off the previous EP’s, and the band still shines in their trademark ¾ waltz feel. This halfway mark for the album brings a harmonious crescendo vocal section that builds with the violin in the background, begging to be released.
"Devil's Head Down" is a fun, Mississippi-style gospel-esque tune from before your time. Featuring some of the gnarliest cello work and tightly crafted song structure, you’re gonna dig it. This is an “I can’t wait to see it live” song if there ever was one. "River" is a spacey, filter heavy, vocal centric ballad displaying just how beautifully Pearl and the Beard sing together. Their melodic display is in full force here: a song with no where to hide, and every space filled precisely because of it. This is fearless writing. You do not want to see me try to karaoke this, though I am all too tempted.
"Take Me Over" is a song in the vein of "You", a fifties-esque guitar riff holding things down until the surprise explosive chorus. The lyrical content is in keeping with the beastial theme, one of primal, animalistic lust, with the sounds embodying both the excitement and mystery that another person’s physical presence can bring to our short time in this world, combined with the what-if element to the “will they/won’t they” that’s kept many-a-sitcom alive. "And all your touch is telling me//it don't just hurt, it's killing me," builds like an orgasm to the ending, practically pleading, “take me // take me” before trailing off into it’s abrupt end. Whew.
"Anything" is a masterpiece of brooding, deep tones, ethereal atmospheric sounds and dark harmonies. This is the band at their best, slowly crafting out the moody touch until it builds on itself to a wonderful peak using all the previous instrumentation. Here we see more electronic effects. It is nice to see the band trusting in their own abilities, navigating relatively new territory. The transition at 2:28 building to the explosion at 3:31 is alone worth the price of admission.
Beast rounds out with two of the most expressive and unique songs on the album on the latter end. “Suck out the oxygen // become innocuous, too” commands the harmonic chant of "Oculus", while chains and shuffling sounds rattle in the background and the piano leads us to our next track. "Landmine" is a moody, detached piece with clever and eerie string textures before dropping down to one of the most lyrically beautiful songs I’ve heard this year. This is a song for a movie, for something larger than life. Through the pre-chorus this song inches closer and closer to the finale’s peak, walking that drastically beautiful melancholy line that only Pearl and the Beard can walk. "Wait, wait, wait // Sweet ammunition // Please, please, please // Sweet ammunition // Amen". This ghostly lead in to the most aggressive and huge vocal peak of their discography leaves me, yet again, awaiting more material from this wondrous trio of capital-A Artists. Not many people today are making music like this, and it is a wonder to me that I don’t see this band everywhere. As the band says, "There's something about you, isn't there?"
To close, Beast is one of the most adventurous and confident offerings of a band that still manages to stay familiar in the right ways. Pearl and the Beard haven’t reinvented the wheel, but they have taken their sporty little Jetta and morphed it into something sleeker, sexier, and, well, louder. This is moodier and darker material than we’ve seen as an album from this band, and many people won’t recognize the amount of combined restlessness and dedication it takes to drastically challenge a formula that was working just fine for them, but that is where Pearl and the Beard transcend the modern music scene, industry, whatever. They don’t need us. They are on their own level. With this final album, after eight years, they leave us better than they found us.
Derek’s recommendation for fans of: Father John Misty, Iron & Wine, The Head & the Heart, Florence & the Machine, Milo Greene, Mother Falcon, any indie folk / indie pop fans that like a flair for classical composition structure, those people that sing harmonies in their cars. I see you.