The very idea of rock and roll invokes an impulse to burn the rulebook. The songwriting adage endures: proceed without a map for greatest results. Yet in prepping his troupe of six for album number four, Beulah ringmaster Miles Kurosky issued a strict edict of no-no's. No "ba-da-ba's", No staccato horns (fewer horns everywhere in fact), Record live as much as possible. Darker chords a must. "You get to that point," he says. "Where you're like, 'Well, what do we do now?' Do we keep making the same record? Is that worthwhile? I was sick of reading 'sugar-y this' and 'sunshine that.' I like the Beach Boys and all that, but I don't want to be seen as this lite pop band. I've never thought of us like that."
It was a pre-meditated, totally by-design blueprint for change, conceived as the band wrapped their touring cycle for 2001's warmly embraced The Coast Is Never Clear. And you're about to find out that it worked. Yoko is not twee and not really ideal for that summer picnic or coastline-in-a-convertible cruise (well, maybe at midnight). It's a dark, late bloom and a flag atop the mountain of great American bands - Wilco, Spoon, The Flaming Lips. It is a hook-rich vision from a moody headspace, pregnant with man-sized heartache.
"We were together for two and a half years," he says of a certain girl. "We broke up right smack dab in the middle of writing this album. The first song ("A Man Like Me") is me saying something to her and the second song ("Landslide Baby") is her saying something back. It's like a conversation where you eventually realize two people are just not on the same page...and we both know it."
Prior to rolling even a yard of tape, Miles, Bill Swan, Pat Noel, Patrick Abernathy, Eli Crews and Danny Sullivan labored like prisoners for seven cold months in their San Francisco rehearsal room, making certain they had an album they could not only record, but play. Accordingly, producer Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney, Roseanne Cash) tracked the bulk of Yoko live, and Miles (whose rabbit ears required SIX mastering sessions to satisfy) was kind enough to abandon the more-is-more ethos. "I wanted more space, less clutter," he says. "I've kind of cursed myself to always stack part after part on every single song, but I wanted this one to breathe. I wanted to feel that power in the spaces."
Power is the operative word. Not brute power of the macho order, but rather the emotional power of a peaking band, finally absolutely confident in every strum and stroke. Grown men absolved of pretense or fashion, laying cathartic words on rich textures of sound.
"At some point, you gotta stop playing cowboys and Indians," he says. "Three of the Beulahs got divorced this past year. We've got wives, kids, all these strange 'adult' things. You don't take anything for granted anymore." And what then of this name, Yoko? It might be an acronym for track three, "You're Only King Once." Or does it reference the obvious - a woman whose name has become a synonym for breaking up? And what then are we to infer? Rumors and whispers abound and why not after seven years and four albums, each a mammoth step from the last? Why not after outlasting Elephant 6 mania and rocking Conan O'Brien and making corps of devotees from Walla-Walla to Wales? Why not after this mother fucking sorrow-hearted masterwork?
The frontman is typically cryptic. "People should know that Beulah made a special record, that we've made an evolutionary leap. Lend an ear. These things don't last forever."