Graded on a Curve: Michael Beach,
Golden Theft

Masterpieces don’t come along every day. In fact, they arrive with such infrequency that awarding Michael Beach’s sophomore record Golden Theft with this distinction will understandably instill immediate doubts in those unfamiliar with the man’s work, and if in the same position I’d likely feel the same way. But time spent with this LP reveals a striking document possessive of rare confidence for a musician of Beach’s level of experience, and the fact that Golden Theft sounds like it could’ve emerged from any time during the last two decades only raises its value.

On one hand, Michael Beach doesn’t do anything that’s immediately startling on Golden Theft. That is, it’s an album consisting of common elements, specifically guitar, vocals, and drums. The initial rumblings of shock don’t really set in until approximately halfway through the first listen, when the clarity of the situation really begins to take shape; from inside trappings very well-established, something special is unwinding.

As the disc completes its course, the singer-guitarist not only manages to not screw the pooch of good fortune but ends the eleven songs on a high note, and that’s when things get really startling. Golden Theft isn’t Michael Beach’s debut release, but it did serve as my introduction to his stuff. If I was afflicted with pessimism over the contemporary music scene’s overall level of quality, this record would serve as a tonic. That I don’t happen regard the topography of current sonic endeavors with cynicism or distaste makes the effort all the more impressive.

And while it derives from a well-trod mode of musical expression, that circumstance doesn’t make Golden Theft any kind of cinch to pin down. Much of what’s here is directly rock taggable, but on more than a few occasions the aura of folk gone electric is hard for my ears to deny, even at points where bass, keyboard, and the forcefully expressive drumming of Utrillo Kushner (a member of Comets on Fire and Colossal Yes) heavily tilts the direction toward the climes of rock.

That Golden Theft is touched by rock precedent makes sense, for Beach, a native of Northern California, was/is a member of the Melbourne, Australia trio Electric Jellyfish (additionally, he was/is also a part of Colossal Yes.) Furthermore, he’s described in the press material from label Twin Lakes Records as having spent the last half-decade in a near-constant tour of Down Under, Europe, and the USA. And soaking up a fleeting aural taste of Electric Jellyfish does find them holding a solid grip upon the rock dynamic.

But as noted, Golden Theft is the second full-length Beach has issued under his own name. The first was 2008’s Blood Courses. Visa problems caused Beach to relocate to San Francisco in 2010, curtailing Electric Jellyfish’s activity. That same year produced the “A Horse” 7-inch and following year brought the “Mountains + Valleys” cassette EP.

Luckily for Johnny & Judy-come-latelies (such as yours truly), the above prior work is easily found for perusal on Beach’s Bandcamp page. And the nine songs that comprise the very nice Blood Courses fall securely into the terrain of a “solo” album, the vast majority of the release featuring just Beach and electric guitar (the added texture of accordion and piano does arise on a pair of tracks.)

Describing Blood Courses as being even closer to a folk sensibility is correct, but the lack of topicality and the often assertive temperament of the guitar playing (notably on the track “Pilgrim’s Plight”) lend it qualities that are quite reflective of underground developments which occurred a good while after the upheavals of the punk revolution, even as they avoid being especially remindful of any one direct source.

But please don’t jump to the conclusion that Beach’s music is tangibly indie in nature. While he can be accurately described as introspective, angst-laden he ain’t. In this sense, he’s connected to an older tradition, though again without hounding the trail of any particular performer. With “A Horse” and “Mountains + Valleys,” the move into rockier landscapes made its initial appearance, and if this growth resulted in Beach being more recognizable as a fully contemporary artist, the trajectory of his motions continued to resist any pegging into comfortable holes.

Also of note is that “The Exhilarating Rise,” the B-side of the “A Horse” 7-inch, serves (in an earlier form) as Golden Theft’s opening track. Also, four of the seven tracks that make up “Mountains + Valleys” have been remastered to become part of Golden Theft. While I don’t want to make too much of this, I do think it’s indicative of a musical approach that is less concerned with (frequently quite suspect) notions regarding artistic growth and far more interested with simply making the best record possible.

And part of my reasoning stems from Kushner’s contribution; he’s played with Beach for a while now, and with time comes an increase in communication rather than the less rewarding environs that a mere accompanist would bring. This scenario is quickly apparent as this fresh, superior version of “The Exhilarating Rise” takes shape. Kushner plays like a man who knows the song inside and out, not only bringing the music legitimacy as rock, but also serving as a dialogic spark plug for Beach, who attacks his riffs and deliver his stanzas with even greater poignancy than he did in 2010.

It’s certainly rock infused, and yet the cut’s force stems from the creativity of one author, even as it builds into a rave-up at the finale; as the flailing and bashing rise to the surface, that folk-like undercurrent never totally subsides. And while the four tracks that return from the EP are only new in their mastering, they do blend seamlessly with the rest of the album.

The first forty-five seconds of “Straight Spines” motor along in a scrappy pop-rock zone, only to find brief shifts in tempo slyly undermining the straightforwardness of the situation. And Beach successfully taps into a rock vocal swagger, though he does kinda come off like a Brit (or perhaps Kiwi) post-punker with a refreshed joyousness over the potentiality of melody (and two nostrils densely packed with snot.)

“In a Field” is a brief instrumental prelude to “Dirt,” an extraordinary excursion into rock dynamism that reminds me a bit of Stephen Malkmus circa Pig Lib, except better. And also distinct, in that Beach seems disinterested in getting caught up in the Big Jam. Instead, he builds an intense and tightly evolving structure out of similar elements. A line can perhaps be traced back to the tougher side of Neil Young and the grittier early emissions of California acid-rock (before the need to extend became dominant), but the song ultimately registers as edgier than these antecedents and thusly much more contemporary.

In a blindfold test, there’s no way you’d mistake “Dirt” for the stains of some highly-touted “lost” LP from the Nixon-era. The way Beach splays out knotty guitar tangles around bodacious bass lines and truly maximal drum expressiveness connects as a development of more recent origin, even as it sounds like something you really want to play for your hip older relative, the one that has the Moby Grape’s complete discography in their estimable collection.

A vaguely post-punk guitar-pop tide reemerges with “Static,” a change that works because Beach isn’t digging too deeply into one creative hole. For example, in a fresh twist, his singing briefly inspires a connection to Dylan. But it’s not a case of mimicry. Rather, it comes through in the way he momentarily flirts with overreaching his natural range, and that it’s found on one of Golden Theft’s least folk-inclined numbers, the song’s gist landing much closer to The Clean than The Byrds, makes its effect all the more splendid.

The aforementioned strains of electric folk inform the superb “There is No Edge of the World to Run To,” though the atmosphere is also rootsy enough to lend credence to claims of country-rock for the tune. Throughout, Beach’s vocals are deeply emotional without giving the impression of affected sincerity, and his voice mingles with the instrumentation, which on this cut features added guitar and accents of electric piano, exceptionally well.

From there we jump into “Central San Joaquin,” a building passage of noise-rock guitar texture that serves as a prelude to the magnificent “Mountains + Valleys.” And if I was forced at gunpoint to make a direct association between this tune and the sound of another contemporary artist, I guess I’d pick Will Oldham. But that comparison only occurred to me after numerous listens, and after pinpointing it, the assured beauty of the track, which as it proceeds includes a deftly handled shift in intensity, subsided not one bit.

The largest portion of the song is slowly moving, finely rendered ache, but the last rough minute of the tune brings some ragged soul-purge, with everything achieved through only voice and guitar strings. That Beach works equally well in both “Mountains + Valleys”’s nude zone and in far more rock-derived modes such as “Straight Spines” and “Static” not only lends Golden Theft great diversity (and by extension makes for a powerful listen throughout), but it also serves as a primer in how the non-clichéd need not be concerned with blatant stabs at originality.

That is, Golden Theft impacts the ear like the reading of intercepted letters of well-penned correspondence from two distant acquaintances. Along with a natural mysteriousness, there is also the familiar. And “Queria Ter Ficado” establishes a recurring motif for the album, unfurling as another brief guitar bridge leading into the title track. It’s the moment on the record that most seamlessly combines the elements of electric folk and roots-tinged rock. And its heft is pretty killer, but it also serves as something of a lead-up to what is arguably (at this early point) the LP’s best individual song, “Eve.”

The closer is also the place where the artist is, at least initially, in closest cahoots with prior influences. The lyrical narrative, a highly fanciful one where Beach, Jane Austen, Henry Miller, and Jesus Christ all appear as they make a quest to find Adam & Eve and get some questions answered, can’t help but be reminiscent of Dylan, and yet the association swiftly became a mild one.

This mainly comes down to the graspable fluidity of Beach’s tale. Where ol’ Bob’s references to real life figures were regularly part of a linguistic strategy that in its prickly verve was substantially poetic (in a post-Beat sorta way), Beach essentially takes the tack of spoken prose, spinning a gritty yarn that’s easy to absorb and historically memorable; Henry’s the asshole, Jane’s her proper self, and Jesus is as cool, calm, and collected as ever.

But “Eve” is as sonically strong as it is verbally potent, topping the eight minute mark with some fantastic segments of instrumental firepower, and it rounds out one of the best full-lengths to have crossed these ears in quite a while. Bluntly, Golden Theft is an absolute jewel of a record. The 270 hand-numbered copies of its insanely limited vinyl edition are surely evaporating from availability as I type, but it’s not out of print yet. Hopefully the music will find the audience it most definitely deserves.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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