Graded on a Curve: Michael Beach,
Gravity/Repulsion

The Aussie native and Oakland transplant Michael Beach’s Golden Theft came out in 2013 and was rated by this writer as a masterpiece. Achievements of that level can be hard to follow up, but along with playing in the Melbourne-based Shovels and undertaking numerous solo tours of his home country, the USA and Europe, Beach took his time in crafting a follow-up, and the results are worth the wait. Gravity/Repulsion’s trim run-time initially unwinds as a solid if somewhat more modest continuation of man’s stylistically broad yet tightly focused melodic rock objectives, but with time spent, the disc connects as a wholly worthy successor. It’s out now on LP and digital via Spectacular Commodity.

Time does fly. It seems like, well, not yesterday, but not a terribly long time, since Golden Theft made my Best of 2013 list for this website. In fact, it has been a while; indeed, the smidge over four years is a longer gap between records than is the norm. If I weren’t constantly inundated with new music for review (this is not a complaint), it’s a sure thing the wait for Gravity/Repulsion’s emergence wouldn’t’ve snuck up on me.

Now that it’s here, I’m pleased to report the LP is no disappointment. Part of the reason stems from Beach’s retention of aspects from the prior album that clearly worked, foremost the drumming of Utrillo Kushner (Colossal Yes, Comets on Fire) as they’re joined by bassist Muslim Delgado, with the trio having honed their skills over a two-year period.

Like the album that preceded it, Gravity/Repulsion was recorded by Phil Manley in San Francisco and was mastered by Bob Weston, so the results are again full-bodied, with a warmth and clarity that feels “classic” as Beach continues to avoid easy categorization. But that deserves a finer point; like Golden Theft, the songs here reach back to the ’60s, with clear ties to folk-rock and psych-rock, though it’s integrated with sustained verve reminiscent of ‘80s Flying Nun and the subsequent indie scene’s more rock-focused acts.

To further elaborate, Beach’s sound is clearly derived from practice/ performance and is then documented in studio; on the prior album, there were moments vibing like Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, a similarity that’s muted on this new batch of songs as the propensity for rocking (in a thoroughly smart manner) is increased. Golden Theft is a masterpiece, but it now also connects as a transition from the truly solo territory of his 2008 debut full-length Blood Courses and toward this full-on band scenario.

After a succinct prelude on guitar, opener “You Were a Mirror” kicks up ample dust, the rhythm galloping as Beach delivers a smoking acid-kissed solo, the ’60s aura enhanced by touches of organ as the urgency suggests the A-side to a self-financed single anytime from ’83 up to right now. But the good news is that the impression of a talented singer-songwriter hasn’t diminished.

It’s through the vocals and lyrics that the cut reaches full flower, and these aspects are only sharpened on the album’s first standout track “Never Had Enough Time with You.” The track’s writing is malleable; it’s not a bit hard to imagine it reconceived as a crisp power-popper, and sure enough an undercurrent of such is still present in its instrumental section.

In the foreground are words that, to borrow a phrase from William Gass, are splendidly not simple, and just as importantly, they’re articulated through a distinctive, personal vocal approach, his pauses worth more than some singers’ full album’s worth of utterances as they reinforce Beach’s strength as communicator of his songs.

Now, some of the man’s converts might quibble that the title track and “Big Sky,” each an approximately one-minute long instrumental that bookend-bumper “Endless Plain,” reduce the tuneful impact of Gravity/Repulsion at little too much. At first, I thought the same, but the song they surround is such a beautiful doozy that the sentiment was promptly quashed.

Golden Theft has a few points bringing New Zealand’s The Clean to mind, but the piano in “Endless Plain” makes me think of another contemporaneous Kiwi band, specifically The Verlaines, especially around the two-minute mark and again as the cut instrumentally rides to conclusion. Icing this cake is Beach’s singing, which conjures images of a young troubadour drunk on the brilliance of Cohen and Dylan. It’s a goddamn wonderful thing to hear.

And hey, “Big Sky” might be short, but it’s still a killer psych snippet heading into “A Vision of Modern Love.” That one features a long instrumental buildup and then a sharp redirect, and as vocals enter the fray, the song’s velocity gradually increases; Kushner’s kit-flailing and Beach’s stinging solo are highlights. It’s followed by “Water–Wealth,” which like “Big Sky” exudes a psychedelic disposition, in this case contemplative in a manner redolent of Neil Young as it sets up the finale’s unexpected twist.

“Freddie Dreams of Mars” begins with just vocals and piano, and for the first time Beach’s voice reminds me a bit of Richard Hell, although the thrust isn’t punkish but nearer to post-glam balladry and with a lingering bit of Dylan-ish word gush. Then the rest of the band joins in, with the effect heavy but not disruptive, so that both soaring guitar and a coda of just piano fit together perfectly.

If leaner than its predecessor, Gravity/Repulsion is ultimately nearly its equal, and sounds like it would go down a storm live. Ah, something else to look forward to…

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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