Led by singer-guitarist-producer Chad Clark, DC-based outfit Beauty Pill made a fair amount of experimental pop headway back in the 2000s. Much has transpired since, including serious health issues for Clark, but in a positive turn the band has returned with Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are. Originating from a two-week project commissioned in 2011 by Arlington, VA culture hub Artisphere that allowed visitors to observe the creation of the album, it’s a rigorous, gripping work out now on CD and digital via new label Butterscotch Records. A limited second edition clear-vinyl 2LP is available for order and will ship in June, and Beauty Pill will be performing at Artisphere on April 30, May 1, and May 2.
In purely quantitative terms, Chad Clark biggest achievement is as a studio wizard. His name has appeared in dozens of credits, a sizeable number from the District of Columbia and surrounding regions, e.g. The Dismemberment Plan, Mary Timony, and Bob Mould, with his mastering skills helping to shape a considerable amount of classics in the catalog of Dischord Records.
As Dischord was the home of Beauty Pill’s first three releases this isn’t a surprise, and in fact Clark’s relationship with the label spans back to the mid-‘90s through the ensemble Smart Went Crazy. More than just a precursor to Beauty Pill, they recorded two LPs, ‘96’s solid Now We’re Even and the next year’s impressive Con Art, both assisting in widening Dischord’s scope as they established the leader’s sonic diligence and stood as an early example of the fruitful union of indie rock and cello.
It took a few years for Beauty Pill to emerge after Smart Went Crazy’s dissolution; initially a trio, they debuted with “The Cigarette Girl from the Future” in 2001, the EP recently lengthened to long-playing status with five additional tracks and nifty packaging by Butterscotch. In ‘03 an expanded quintet produced follow-up EP “You Are Right to Be Afraid” and ’04 brought The Unsustainable Lifestyle.
Activity persisted throughout mid-decade, but in ’07 Clark was stricken with a near-fatal viral infection of the heart that required major surgery and a long period of recovery; there were complications including a second surgery, but also creative productivity; performances of literature and music founded, curated and hosted by Clark under the banner Story/Stereo in ‘09, Beauty Pill’s score for the play suicide.chat.room in ’10, and the Artisphere instillation Immersive Ideal effectively setting Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are into motion.
It’s been a while in coming, but Beauty Pill’s latest is easily worth the wait and displays significant stylistic progression, enough so that the switch of labels feels totally appropriate. To elaborate, Butterscotch is essentially an experimental label (preceding Describes Things in the discography is a platter of improvisations for Theremin and piano by Carolina Eyck and Christopher Tamow), though Beauty Pill hasn’t ditched the exploration of song structures.
It never registered as a particularly good fit to portray Clark’s output as guitar-based, but with these twelve selections that terminology becomes downright inapt, and the album opens, fittingly given its background, with echo-laden informal conversation and a lively hi-hat. Kicking into gear, “Drapetomania” is upbeat, even accurately evaluated as cerebrally funky, driven by keyboard and clean guitar lines as electronic overtones deepen the whole.
Later, the scenario dissolves into abstraction, and it’s the sampled speech of a child that rejoins the threads for the close. But if notably different from prior Beauty Pill efforts, there’s familiarity deriving in part from the recognizable nature of Clark’s vocals, and neither is he neglecting his axe; rather, Clark weaves it into a fresh aural fabric more reliant on studio technique than ever.
He’s also in the company of bandmates long associated with Beauty Pill and in the case of Devin Ocampo and Abram Goodrich (who returned to help complete songs initiated before his departure), Smart Went Crazy. Jean Cook, Basla Andolsun, and Drew Doucette round out the lineup, all vets, and the adeptness of the collective weave is quickly striking as the extended “Afrikaner Barista” turns a ramshackle beginning into a prickly groove accented by synthetic and organic elements.
The track’s middle gradually ascends into cinematic brilliance (imagine a spacecraft departing a desolate lunar landscape) then deftly settles down toward the finale. The above considered, Describes Things’ strongest connection with Beauty Pill’s past is “Ann the Word,” the Cook-sang piece that became a small sensation in the mid-‘00s on the band’s MySpace page.
Post-rock electronics blend with motifs borrowed from Japanese music, and “Ann the Word” fits in seamlessly here, a signpost pointing straight into the spring of 2015. Following is the succinctly pop-focused “Steven and Tiwonge,” Clark’s voice and guitar stepping to the moody fore as Ocampo provides the rhythmic punch.
“Ain’t a Jury in the World Gon’ Convict You Baby” maintains the adroit mingling of programmed and acoustic instrumentation; it’s difficult to tell what’s Ocampo and what’s a machine, and perhaps the most appealing aspect is the guitar figure getting enveloped in electro additives and later on, swells of faux-symphonic grandeur. And “Exit without Saving” underscores how medium tempos advantageously promote Beauty Pill’s multi-dimensionality.
It’s the third in a procession of relatively concise cuts, but tossing in a twist is a cover of Arto Lindsay’s “The Prize,” the source’s avant-pop warmth astutely adapted to the present mode of operation. It leads into “Dog with Rabbit in Mouth, Unharmed,” the other track sung exclusively by Cook. Retaining a touch of the instrumental inflection from “Ann the Word,” it offers an outstanding combination of Cook’s calm assurance and some of the record’s densest layering.
“For Pretend” picks up the pace, an unwavering drum line injected with tandem voices and loads of ornamentation. It segues into the tidy art-pop of “When Cornered,” one of the set’s hookier tunes, right down to a minute’s worth of slowly faded-out sing-along. An attractive proposition, and even better is penultimate entry “Near Miss Stories,” a mix of crisp buoyancy and Clark’s deliberate vocal delivery. It happily lacks a hint of quirkiness, frankly a familiar snag in experimental pop territory.
Describes Things’ culminating gesture illuminates the ambitiousness of the entire atypically-conceived and highly welcome affair, specifically a cover of Lungfish’s “Ann the Word” (found on ‘98’s Atrifical Horizon and a wholly different song from the one detailed above). It retains ties to the original in the pacing and Clark’s singing, but as it progresses gets infiltrated by glitches and looped fragments so that it gains a distinct personality. After an increasingly disruptive flurry of stuttering tech arises, the final 90 seconds feature femme vox repeating the Daniel Higgs-penned verse to a superb finish.
Like other instances of art-pop, Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are is at first more intriguing than captivating, but it rewards attentive time spent by revealing numerous facets through the accumulated listens. Ushering in a new phase, it’s the group’s most vigorous and satisfying work.
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