Is it possible that Jeff Beam is an alien? Or perhaps a time traveler? It doesn’t seem to make sense that in the 21st century there could be somebody who operates without an ounce of concern as to what is going on in any current musical environment.
The man has his musical touchstones, and his beliefs, and he creates, and has been creating, for years. He is an artist with no apologies, staying true to his vision regardless of what sort of impact, or lack thereof, his work may have. He is also smart enough to use Portland’s desire to hear, and attend, cover shows to his advantage, paying tribute to Neil Young, David Bowie and Spoon (one of the only current artists it seems Beam associates with but also a timeless conundrum themselves) among others because they help to frame the original material he is creating.
Is Believed to Have Been, his latest full-length, was recorded over a span of two and a half years by Beam himself using a mobile recording unit. All instruments and vocals were performed by Beam except a few string, horn, keyboard and vocal parts (full disclosure: I performed one of these vocal parts). So it is a marvel that this record (1) came together and (2) sounds phenomenal. Kudos to mix engineer Eric Maier of Burlington, VT who must have had a field day working with an abundance of raw material and turning it into an audio dream.
There is an immediacy to this album that has only been apparent here and there on Beam’s previous work (most vividly: “Congratulations on Your Latest Achievement”) which helps increase the willingness to take a ride to another place, another time. Lyrically, I have no idea what Beam is saying with vague, hazy lines about “Everyone at the same time” and “It’s all in your mind.” Here words are less important than vibe and the feel of the delivery. In fact, though lyrics are available on Bandcamp (where you can also stream the album), I would actually prefer to not know exactly what is being said for risk of adding concrete definition to such a pleasurably free-floating element.
The record starts with “Human Clouds” which marches along, adding different instumental elements until the drums kick in around the two-minute mark, establishing a beat to hang the other pieces on but still evolving and playing with feel until riding out on plucked strings? Xylophone? Who cares, it’s cool.
“Clairvoyance” follows and if a song exists that could soundtrack driving in spring, opening your window to let the cool air in while the bright light of the sun shines on you, this is it. Where other tracks on the record have motorik drum beats pumping along while guitars and synth float in a haze, this track is held down by a persistent bass line, circling guitar figure and sense of unease. If you have not checked out the trippy animated, Yellow Submarine-nodding video for this track, I suggest YouTubing it now.
Even wordless cuts like “Revival Song” and stretched out pieces like “Cherryfield” have an energy to them to keep listeners engaged as well as dynamic shifts throughout the tracklist that keep the record constantly moving, shifting, growing. There is also an inherent sense of joy present in these recordings, a feeling that Beam has been set free of any pressure to satisfy anybody other than himself which therefore makes it that much more satisfying to everybody else. It’s also a complete experience – I don’t know if I would revisit many tracks here without revisiting the entire album.
If this sounds like nothing but praise, it is. I honestly believe that this is the best work that Beam has completed thus far and an easy entry point for more casual listeners who don’t really know where to start. The only issue that I take with this record is when it was released: December 18th, 2015. While this end-of-year timeframe may work for massive artists like Beyonce or D’angelo, or returning locals like Zach Jones who can book shows at every club in town for the last three weeks of the year and then disappear until next time, for an artist like Beam, it is essentially asking for the record to be forgotten. The end of the year is always filled with so much commotion, and the new year a need/want for renewal, that a dense, psychedelic (though extremely listenable) record is bound to be lost, and kind of has been, which is a pity due to how good it is.
It appears that Beam has realized this himself, playing a recent string of shows highlighting the material available here. One can only hope that it renews interest in Is Believed to Have Been as he and album deserve it.
Jeff Beam plays with Leveret and Madaila on April 1 at Empire
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