VHS or Beta
They say location is everything, so it should come as no surprise to learn that the aesthetic shift audible on Diamonds & Death, the fourth album by VHS or Beta, was accompanied by a change of zip code. Two years ago, founding band member Mark Palgy relocated from Louisville, KY to Brooklyn, NY. Six months later, his creative foil, Craig Pfunder, followed. From the backroom disco of their favorite Bushwick watering hole, to DFA Records’ Plantain Studio in the West Village, new surroundings exerted a powerful influence on the predominantly electronic grooves of their first full-length since 2007’s Bring on the Comets.
“The pace in New York is a lot faster, and I love that,” says Mark. “You absorb the energy of the people around you here by osmosis.” “Now we’re in a place where we’re learning a lot from other people,” adds Craig. “It’s a totally different dynamic, and it’s been great for us to be in the thick of it.”
The other key influence on VHS or Beta’s revitalized sound is their work as DJs and remix producers. Since 2008, the duo has put its distinctive stamp on cuts for artists like My Morning Jacket, Tegan and Sara, and Hussle Club, garnering significant attention for their remix of The Juan MacLean’s 2008 barnstormer “Happy House.” The pair soon realized their musical roles had evolved far beyond the traditional tags like “bassist” and “singer/guitarist” they accepted when VHS or Beta first formed as a five-piece in 1997; in particular, Mark discovered a natural talent for arranging and drum programming. “We started really enjoying those jobs, so it felt like a natural step that we would begin writing in that vein, too,” says Craig. “There wasn’t a conscious decision to depart from guitar for this record, but sonically, the sounds that were really exciting us were a lot of synthesizers.” Although they recorded primarily in their home studio, using whatever sounds were at hand (“we’re not vintage purists,” insists Mark), they availed themselves of the DFA posse’s cadre of analog synthesizers and peculiar plug-ins while recording the drums and mixing at Plantain Studios.
The album juxtaposes more straightforward dance floor tracks like the jittery “Watch Out” with experimental fare such as “Jellybean,” a trippy excursion pitched somewhere between Pink Floyd and the dark side of Italo-disco, and partially inspired by the records they heard spun in the backroom of Tandem, a favorite bar in their new neighborhood. Indeed, themes of duality permeate the record. While the grooves of Diamonds & Death are among the band’s most optimistic and propulsive to date, it is no accident that they are often paired with dark lyrics, as on the crisp, percolating single “Breaking Bones.” “That’s something I always loved about the Smiths,” explains Craig of this artistic choice. “You had this supremely uplifting pop music, with this somber message, being told in a very interesting way, by a beautiful voice.” Even the making of the record was punctuated by contrasts; as excited as the guys were by their move to New York, Craig initially found himself bested by writer’s block while working on lyrics.
A few songs began life in Louisville—most notably “I Found A Reason,” an uplifting, piano-driven number with echoes of Inner City’s 1988 classic “Good Life” and big group vocals a la Chic—but the majority of the album was written and recorded after Craig and Mark had settled into Brooklyn. Yet even as the pair crafted tunes suitable for club play, they retained their trademark pop sensibilities. Selections like the title tune and “All Summer in a Day” are still anchored by concise melodic hooks—even if they aren’t necessarily found in the most obvious places—and fleshed out with dynamic, unpredictable arrangements. “We pushed our boundaries further with this one,” admits Craig. “Whereas the last record was all about three minute pop songs, this time we thought, ‘Let’s make them six minutes.’ Keep that pop feel, but pick something in the middle and stretch it out longer than we might have done in the past.”
The duo admits that before starting work on this album, they shied away from the natural inclination to explore some of these electronic timbres and different songwriting styles, for fear they’d be unable to replicate the music live. But no more. “With this record, we said, ‘Screw that! Let’s go in there and write whatever puts a smile on our face, and feels right and good,'” concludes Craig. “Diamonds and Death is the direct result of that.”