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When Beauty Pill holed up in summer 2011 in a converted recording studio in Rosslyn’s Artisphere arts center, one of the tracks the band honed and recorded was “Near Miss Stories,” a haunting, spindly song that addresses a heart infection that almost killed the experimental pop group’s frontman, Chad Clark, in 2007. The sessions helped bring Beauty Pill out of hibernation, first by allowing passersby to observe the six members as they made their first full-length since 2004, and several months later when the band presented nine of those recordings in surround sound as a kind of album-as-art-installation. But a version of the album that folks could listen to at home never followed.
Finally, the band is releasing the fruits of those sessions next May on Butterscotch Records. The title, announced last week: Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are. And the delay? The album has a few near-miss stories of its own.
After the January presentation, the entire recording session was lost in a digital-storage snafu. (Luckily, member Jean Cook made a backup, but the band did have to rerecord some vocals and other parts.) And worse: Last year, Clark got sick again—a complication of his earlier coronary ailment—and, for the second time in six years, underwent some pretty serious surgery. “The virus that fucked up my heart was no joke,” he says.
Now he’s healthy, his band is rehearsing, and he’s eager to talk about Beauty Pill’s return to touring and its new album. Describes Things as They Are has 12 tracks, most of which will be familiar to fans who dropped in on the Artisphere project. One peculiarity: Two songs are titled “Ann the Word.” The first is the song Beauty Pill released on MySpace in 2006, revealing a sharp, more electronic shift in the band’s sound. The other is a cover of an older song with the same title by Baltimore art-punk mystics Lungfish. Clark is a Lungfish fan, has worked with the band as a mastering engineer, and knew about its “Ann the Word,” but didn’t have it in mind when he picked the title in 2006. “It’s a really disturbing song,” Clark says. “They’re both pretty dark.” When Clark first showed the new album’s tracklist to Butterscotch Records founder Allen Farmelo, “he said, ‘you have “Ann the Word” on here twice,'” Clark says. “It was great to see him react. He was like, ‘Ooooooh.'”
Clark is excited to join Butterscotch, a largely experimental-music label that hadn’t worked with a rock band before Beauty Pill (which in addition to Clark and Cook includes Devin Ocampo, Basla Andolsun, Drew Doucette, and Abram Goodrich). “This fall, they’re releasing an improvised theremin and piano album,” Clark says. “They’re not too interested in rock ‘n’ roll at all.” But Clark says Farmelo felt Beauty Pill would be a fit for the overall project. “I feel like what [Farmelo is] trying to do with Butterscotch is kind of like an early ECM Records or early Nonesuch or early 4AD, where there’s a visionary guy who’s kind of the main creative force, and guides the aesthetic of the label and it has a particular flavor,” says Clark. “He’s trying to build up a catalog of great works. He doesn’t care if they’re obscure.” In that, Clark says, Farmelo is kind of like Ian MacKaye of Dischord Records, which released Beauty Pill’s album and two EPs (and was the home of Clark’s previous band, Smart Went Crazy, too). Like MacKaye, Farmelo wants his albums “to sell as much as they can, but wants to build a catalog that will last.”
Asked if he had a favorite track, Clark said he was extremely pleased with the recording of “Ain’t a Jury in the World Gon’ Convict You, Baby,” which might be especially emblematic of the sonic leaps the band has made since 2004’s The Unsustainable Lifestyle. “There’s some programmed drum-machine stuff that I did with an MPC in the music [on “Jury”], and Devin is playing live drums against that. He’s playing in a swinging, careening way against the electronic pulse”—-exactly the organic/electronic tension Beauty Pill is going for. “The album is saturated with details, with color. It definitely hits you with a lot of information,” Clark says. “Some people may find the music overwhelming, and I would understand that. There’s a lot of information in the music, and I just felt we should lay it out.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery