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In a battle of the Dischord bands, my money would definitely be on Beauty Pill to win the prize for most congenial. The Unsustainable Lifestyle, the D.C. quintet’s full-length debut, is just so darn friendly and sincere. We’re talkin’ fetching melodies, stately cadences, and lyrics that run the gamut from overearnest but inspired to too obvious even for your diary—the softer side of the label, for sure. Though El Guapo makes strangely compelling electro-pop, and Q and Not U makes not-so-compelling protest pop, Beauty Pill is the Dischord act most likely to cover Cocteau Twins during the encore.
Or Lush, for that matter. “Lifeguard in Wintertime” opens with an avant-funky riff that recalls Scary Monsters–era Bowie before segueing seamlessly into a tremoloed slice of girl-sung dream pop that comes outfitted with layers of effects-laden guitars and a wispy little melody that’s likely to disintegrate on contact with your iPod. The tune, it’s true, ain’t exactly bristling with hooks. But with sweet-voiced Rachel Burke singing plaintively about diving into dry porcelain and turning the basin floor from “baby blue to dirty cinnamon,” it’s easy enough not to care.
Even better, Beauty Pill leader (and former Smart Went Crazy frontman) Chad Clark is very nearly Burke’s equal when it comes to the art of vocal distraction, particularly on the disc’s toe-tapping opener, “Goodnight for Real.” The meticulously arranged number opens with a steady, on-the-one Stereolab-style beat, a pulsating rhythm that aims for your cerebellum, not your feet. And when Clark opens his mouth to sing and intones in the voice of your favorite work-study slave, you just know you’re in the presence of geek-rock greatness. Seriously, when the guy digs down deep and summons up the least libidinal “yeah” you’ll ever hear, he might as well be affirming your choice of secondary sources.
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So it’s no surprise when along comes a song titled “Nancy Medley, Girl Genius, Age 15.” Or that the track is a jangling heartbreaker, with lyrics sung (by Clark) from the point of view of young Nancy as she gets wasted and promptly loses her crush on her obviously pathetic boy toy. “Now I fit in/With all your stupid friends,” she/he muses with a mixture of guilelessness and contempt worthy of Angela “My So-Called Life” Chase. The catchiest tune on the album, “Such Large Portions!,” shows off the band’s smart-kid tendencies, too, borrowing its title from an old joke Woody Allen retells in Annie Hall and its pitch-shifted guitars from My Bloody Valentine. Elsewhere, the gorgeous throbber “Drive Down the Cost” finds Burke singing backup as if underwater while Clark strives to “control suspension by sipping tea/With my legs crossed”—whatever, pray tell, that might mean.
The band does make a few false moves here, mostly when trying too hard to showcase its Mensa credentials. With its rubbery, dub-happy bass riff, for instance, set-closer “Terrible Things” doesn’t even come close to making good on its title, particularly not with a set of cringe-worthy words that sound culled from the margins of Clark’s no doubt well-worn AP-history textbook: “Idi Amin is born in ’25/A bouncing baby decimation/Boxing career gives him the sad idea/To bludgeon his own nation.” And from its title on down, “Quote Devout Unquote” is obviously too clever by two-thirds, a lame attempt at truism-twisting—“Dog spit is cleaner than human/Same goes for cognition”—that even Burke’s breathy vocalese can’t redeem.
Mostly, though, those same smarts serve The Unsustainable Lifestyle well. The music is pretty and memorable and, most important, just about 100 percent free of indiedom’s too-cool-for-school ethos. Clark & Co. could probably quote from the 99 Records catalog if they wanted to, earning the respect of tousle-haired, tight-trousered dance-punkers the world over, but why bother? Their hearts, obviously, are still hung up on 4AD, and they wear them on their collective sleeve well. And though it sometimes leads to awkward moments, the band’s lyrical perspective seems genuine.
Take, for example, “Prison Song,” an acoustic folk-pop ditty that finds Burke mulling a relationship’s demise from behind bars. Now, in the hands of Liz Phair, say, this particular scenario could get arch and pervy fast. It’s the perfect opportunity to rhyme “guard” with “hard,” after all, not to mention a chance to wax erotic about the joys of solitary confinement. Not for Beauty Pill, though, for which sincerity is apparently the new irony. “Will you keep me believing in our future/’Cause it’s kinder just to lie?” coos Burke before launching one doozy of a romantic couplet: “Honey, what’s reasonable to expect from you?/Sayonara or stayin’ true?”
OK, you gotta admit that’s kinda cute. A little goofy, sure, but a phrase that’s more or less emblematic for this bunch of brainy romantics. Beauty Pill is a rock band that doesn’t really rock, a Dischord act that isn’t really discordant, and an indie outfit that doesn’t wave that fact in your face. To judge by the self-image projected on The Unsustainable Lifestyle, these are nice, well-grounded folks who probably make up the beds and send thank-you cards to their hosts after out-of-town gigs.
Look, if the quiet, polite, kinda arty kids you barely remember from junior high grew up and formed a band, this is what it’d sound like. What higher praise could there possibly be? CP
Beauty Pill performs at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 17, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.