The beach has become a popular theme for band names. The Beach Boys. Beach House. Beach Fossils. Horsebeach. Usually these are American; and usually they are bands whose buoyant pop vibes reflect people who have grown up near waves, surf and sunshine. Manchester, though, is not known for its beaches.
But Horsebeach have clearly been influenced by the North-West’s indie pop. This record and previous ones have channelled some of the melancholy of Morrissey, the jangly dream-pop of Johnny Marr’s guitar, and even brief echoes of The Stone Roses. However musically, the band are more New York than Manchester: reminiscent of the lo-fi indie and dream pop of the U.S. The breezy, zippy guitar of Real Estate and Beach Fossils, of vocals washed in a haze, and a DIY ethos.
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Ryan Kennedy, the lead singer of Horsebeach, has acknowledged Ducktails and Real Estate, in particular, as influences. Kennedy apparently works at Piccadilly Records in Manchester as a day job, but takes time out to record music at his home studio. They’ve moved on from the first bedroom recordings in this their third album. Here the band have added some electronic parts, some bass, drone bits, electronic beats and drums.
As you might imagine, this is a concept album. Beauty and Sadness. It’s a name you would expect of a modernist painting: maybe a single squiggle you frown at for an hour in the Tate. The band, as the cover art suggests (a grey and beige block), are clearly trying to paint an emotional landscape. The problem on this record is that it is telling us about feelings rather than letting us interpret this picture. Where Morrissey, for example, weaved memorable stories – evoking the touch of a car seat or kissing beneath an iron bridge – on this album the sadness is just kind of told to us, without much of a story to relate to. Even the song titles (‘Theme for Sadness’, ‘Beauty and Sadness’ and ‘I Must Work & I Must Die’) are a bit too matter of fact.
We see this on ‘Alone’. Here Kennedy sings about an inability to connect with a woman, and the walls he has made for himself. There’s a pretty interplay of warm synth and guitar and his voice underneath. Lyrically, though, it’s not that imaginative: there are a lot of overused phrases, and a few too many clichés about being alone (“hanging on”, “pulling me down”). Despite this, it’s clear that it is when Horsebeach are at their poppiest that they are most appealing, as on this song and the title track ‘Beauty and Sadness’.
In terms of catchiness – there’s nothing here to rival ‘It’s Alright’ from the band’s sophomore release. The main problem is that they have moved into more electronic stuff, rather than the Brooklyn and California influenced dream-pop. They are less appealing without this delicate, sunny, interplay of guitars. And the almost Star Wars-y interludes, used to create atmosphere, just have no tangible hook.
This makes the album quite a long listen for its 35 minutes. Particularly when the band moves towards purely instrumental soundscapes, it can become lugubrious. Instead of the gloom of Piccadilly Gardens and Manchester skies, the band are best when they are at their dreamiest and just, simply, playing catchy guitar tunes. Rather than anything too conceptual. Just finding their indie sound, and some beach.