I swear I’m not just saying this because it’s a band led by a good friend: I’ve been listening nonstop to The Unsustainable Lifestyle, the new album by the Washington, DC band Beauty Pill.
Chad Clark, the friend of mine who wrote or co-wrote all the songs and produced the record, was previously in a highly acclaimed pseudo punk outfit called Smart Went Crazy, and that legacy has been a blessing and a curse for Beauty Pill. As often happens as somebody gets older, Beauty Pill isn’t quite so bursting with ferocity. It’s a more literate, textured record. One online magazine that named Smart Went Crazy’s Con Art one of the best albums of the 1990s has given The Unsustainable Lifestyle a mediocre review. But to me that reviewer must have only listened to the new record once, because Beauty Pill is in its way every bit as good as Smart Went Crazy, but their talents reveal themselves over time, whereas Chad’s old band grabbed you right away.
This is an issue I’ve often thought about with movies, because some take time to sink in, and their greatness only becomes truly apparent after repeated viewings. Same goes for The Unsustainable Lifestyle.
Beauty Pill displays a variety of influences: Fugazi, The Beatles, Stereolab, The Clash. Chad has always had very catholic tastes, which was very influenial me in the days we shared various apartments and old houses in DC. In one drive we might listen to Thelonious Monk, David Sylvian, the Beastie Boys, Shostakovich and so on. That’s what I hear on Beauty Pill records. The Unsustainable Lifestyle begins with “Goodnight for Real”, which bears a strong resemblance to Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians. Other portions of the record show the strong Fugazi influence, while the album’s best song, “Won’t You Be Mine”, is a brilliant homage to Tin Pan Alley.
The lyrics, which Chad has co-written with drummer Ryan Nelson, ex bassist Abram Goodrich (a music partner he’s had since high school) and others, are on the cynical side, but are exceptionally literate and hilarious and moving. Like Elvis Costello, Chad can dance around social issues without spelling things out for you in the way that, say, Sting might on a song like “History Will Teach Us Nothing”. The Unsustainable Lifestyle is actually a very politically charged album, but not in the embarrassingly frank way so many post-9/11 albums are. He’s also picked up a talent from Mark Eitzel: the heartrending nonsequitor. On “Such Large Portions!”, for example, a biting national indictment, he writes: “Pet the bomb sniffing dog/He’s friendly though he’s on the job”.
Because Beauty Pill is signed to Dischord Records, a label that proudly refrains from marketing its bands (hmm…), The Unsustainable Lifestyle is destined to sell few copies. So it’s up to people like me to spread the word. If you have the $10 for this record (now that is one great thing about Dischord—good prices!) and time to give it a few listens, you’ll see what’s been playing in my car, at home and in my head incessantly.