June 27 2012 08:11 AM

Dream-pop duo trades a big licensing deal for emotional complexity

Photo by Liz Flyntz

Beach House doesn’t make simple music.

The Baltimore duo—whose new album, Bloom, came out in May via Sub Pop—doesn’t adhere to pop clichés. Their lyrics don’t tell straightforward stories. While their songs are often dreamy and wistful, they don’t succumb to fits of nostalgia like so many other buzz-bands these days.

“I don’t like nostalgia, OK? That’s for the record,” says singer / keyboardist Victoria Legrand, who founded the duo with guitarist Alex Scally. “When I see the wave of it coming on, I want to throw up.”

So, you can imagine their horror when they discovered in May that a song sounding remarkably similar to one of theirs—so similar, in fact, that many of their fans mistook it for a Beach House song—was used in a cheesy British Volkswagen commercial.

Created by the advertising agency DDB, the 90-second spot follows the life of a protective father and his daughter, opening with scenes of her as a baby and ending with her packing off to go to college—at which point she’s presented with the keys to a brand new Volkswagen Polo. In the background, a female singer coos “I’ll watch over you” over shiny guitar chords, adding to the ad’s misty-eyed sentimentality.

A sound-design team called Sniffy Dog composed the now-infamous song, “Whispers and Stories.” But in almost every way, it bears a striking resemblance to Beach House’s “Take Care,” the closing track on their 2010 album Teen Dream—the same dreamy vibe, the same cymbal swells and the singer’s lyrics even mirror Legrand’s line “I’ll take care of you.”

Of course, the similarities are all the more suspicious considering that DDB made the ad with “Take Care” in mind. According to news reports, the agency approached the band several times with proposals to use the song, only to be repeatedly turned down.

“We’re not making millions of dollars, so we can’t spend that money to sue them or whatever. But I do think that it’s kind of a shitty joke,” Legrand says, speaking by phone from Baltimore. “They think they just monopolized on something that was real and created something that was fake.”

Though Beach House has licensed material for advertising and television before, it’s no wonder the band declined to work with Volkswagen. The commercial’s ham-fisted narrative is downright cringe-worthy compared with the complex magic of “Take Care,” a gorgeous, devastating love song whose sparkling textures and elegant waltz rhythm mask the narrator’s shattered heart. “It’s no good unless it’s real,” Legrand sings, her husky voice on the verge of cracking.

Advertisers have long been known to mimic the sounds of popular bands—including, in recent years, indie bands like Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and Sigur Rós—to capitalize on their hip cachet. But even in cases when bands legitimately license music to advertisers, the music risks losing its power. Ever since hearing Modest Mouse’s song “Gravity Rides Everything” in a Nissan Quest commercial years ago, my emotional connection with the song has been supplanted by images of revving minivans.

Legrand acknowledges that the band happily promotes things they consider “very special,” like vinyl and record stores. But they prefer not to force a certain message—or commercial product—down their listeners’ throats.

“I like the fact that everyone’s going to have their own context and their own stories with the records and the songs,” she says. “That’s one of the most beautiful things about making what we do…. It’s going to create thousands of different types of experiences for people, and they’re going to listen to it in every way possible.”

It’s this openness that makes Beach House such a powerful band—and it’s also what makes Bloom their best effort yet. Building on the expansive sound of Teen Dream, the duo stretches out with a landscape of pulsating synths, rolling rhythms and Scally’s trademark crystalline guitars. Often, the songs feel wide open to interpretation: On the breathtaking album opener, “Myth,” a cascading chorus and Legrand’s drifting vocals capture a mix of hopefulness and dread. “It’s never as it seems,” she sings.

Part of Bloom’s emotional complexity lies in the band’s gut-based approach. When they started working on the record, they didn’t set out with a particular plan so much as a desire to just write.

“You have guides and moments where you get clarity and go, ‘OK, I feel like the song is about this,’” Legrand says. “I think, though, that when Alex and I are working together, there’s not a lot of intellectualizing about it. It’s the language of intuition and instinct and feeling.

“We’re not writing a Sheryl Crow song about meeting a guy in a bar,” she adds. “We still have emotions, and there are scenes, but they’re not so literal.”

This broad-minded emotionality is perhaps also what leads so many listeners to associate the band’s records with feelings of nostalgia, a melancholy longing for the past that’s become de rigueur in garage-rock, synth-pop and lo-fi circles. (The fact that the duo has an album called Teen Dream also probably has something to do with it.) But, Legrand asserts, “that’s what you feel.”

“For me, the present is the most powerful moment,” she explains. Nostalgia “takes away from what’s actually happening and what will happen. It takes away from the beauty of what’s going on.”

With the Volkswagen controversy drawing attention from big media like The New York Times and Pitchfork, Legrand hopes the publicity will provoke some kind of change. But she doesn’t want to dwell on the issue too much. Now on tour in support of a new album, she says she’d rather focus on something that’s actually “real and relevant”: the music.

Beach House’s July 1 show at House of Blues is sold out.

Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.