Beauty Pill’s ‘Blue Period’ Is a Revelatory Take On An Overlooked Classic
By Nathan Leigh
January 20, 2023
One of the hardest parts about being a music lover is that you are rarely afforded the opportunity to hear an album you love for the first time again. You will only ever hear It Takes a Nation of Millions or The ROIR Sessions for the first time exactly once. You will only get lost in your headphones; transported and transfixed to a new arrangement of frequencies exactly once. So it’s a true joy to experience the early work of DC legends Beauty Pill in such a lovingly presented way. It’s not every day you get to hear the music that changed your life for the first time again, but it really ought to be.
It’s impossible to overstate how groundbreaking Beauty Pill were in the early 2000s. Even on the famously boundary-pushing Dischord Records, they were unique. Rooted in a punk rock ethos, an indie rock energy, and a jazz-like fluidity, Chad Clark and his crew were making records determined to break structures my young self didn’t even realize could be broken. Their 2003 – 2004 output is now packaged along with their first full length and a treasure trove of outtakes and deep cuts in the Blue Period double LP.
Blue Period opens with a newly remastered take of The Unsustainable Lifestyle. Let me be clear: this was not an album that I would have thought needed to be remastered. It was never a bad sounding recording. Chad was, after all, a sought after and revered engineer and producer of other artists’ work before Beauty Pill held their first rehearsal. But the new mastering is expansive and warm in ways that are entirely unexpected. The depth on the low end is remarkable. Shame on me for spending 15 years believing that record couldn’t be improved upon. I’m adult enough to admit when I was wrong. Small adjustments abound, turning an album I’ve listened through so many times I can listen to it without pressing play into a gripping novel experience. The small but crucial tweaks to “The Mule On The Plane” and “Nancy Medley” in particular make for essential listening.
The saga of these early records, and The Unsustainable Lifestyle in particular, is a difficult one. Though his earlier band Smart Went Crazy had earned Clark a fair amount of acclaim in the indie scene, the adventurousness of Beauty Pill wasn’t in line with the dumb fun of the era. As Clark recounts, many of the reviews at the time were scathing:
Anytime you run afoul of people’s expectations, you court rebuke. Rebuke came. Pitchfork bit first. “Fans of Smart Went Crazy who just can’t accept the fact that Chad Clark is capable of producing anything short of brilliance should save themselves the trauma…” is how it opens. Normally, this is the kind of square review you read and laugh, but Pitchfork’s cultural weight in our field at that time was gravitational. In the mid 2000s, Pitchfork was a tidal force. The tide had turned against us.
The benefit of hindsight, and the band’s improbably great 2015 return with Describe Things As They Are, have raised Beauty Pill from the kind of band that a small but devoted group of weirdoes speak about in forums with reverential awe to a beloved institution. But when these albums were initially released, they were overshadowed by both their louder Dischord labelmates on one side, and an indie scene far more concerned with tabloid infamy than sincerity, nuance, and introspection on the other. The remastered Unsustainable Lifestyle is a delight, but it’s the second record, where Blue Period works to right history.
You Are Right To Be Afraid was the first release from Beauty Pill during this so-called Blue Period, but hearing it contextualized in reverse shows that it was more than a dress rehearsal, regardless of the early recording of “Quote Devout Unquote.” “Copyists” has never sounded better, with the cracked warmth of Chad’s voice sounding both vulnerable and expansive. The song’s stunning melted wax tonality cuts into the title track, the sole song in the band’s discography to truly be punk-as-in-genre. The shift may have been jarring to some audiences in 2003, but in context it fits neatly within the band’s long established love of stark juxtapositions. Now mastered to sound like a time-reversed continuation of The Unsustainable Lifestyle, the reappearance of “Quote” comes off like a reprise; enhanced effects on the drums call back to “Such Large Portions!” Here, it’s not an extra early version of a classic song, it’s a restated theme.
The same goes for the tracks on the D side, which represent the collections’ cache of new and rare material. Sound quality has always been a major element in Chad’s sonic palette, so the 4-track demos for “Goodnight For Real” and “Drive Down The Cost” come off as just another expression of that. The deep cut Hendrix cover “I Don’t Live Today” features the same hard-panned vocals and restless percussion as the earlier demos, but with the ultra high fidelity of the official releases.
Side D closes out with the previously unreleased “Fugue State Companion,” a single so good it’s actually shocking it was left on the cutting room floor. The wry humor, shimmering guitar work, and mercurial rhythm section that marks the best of Beauty Pill’s work shows up in abundance. The song is worth the price of admission alone. As the jagged rhythms subside, the album leaves a tiny ripple in its wake with the minimalist haiku of a song “My Gen.” The melody floats above a discordant piano line asking simply: “are your parents still together? yeah, me neither.”
After the fallout of the band’s Blue Period, the band underwent a series of transformations. First, Jean Cook joined the band as second vocalist replacing Rachel Burke, then drummer (and album art designer) Ryan Nelson traded places with former Smart Went Crazy bandmate Devin Ocampo. In Clark’s inimitable obstinacy, the band took the press’ suggestions to pivot to a heavier sound and went in the exact opposite direction. Their demo for “Ann the Word” was a complete departure. The synth-driven fever-dream of a song pointed to a new sound that reupped the band’s knack for reinvention. However, Chad Clark’s sudden onset of a rare heart condition put that version of the band on pause. They continued to work and write, but it took 11 years from The Unsustainable Lifestyle for Describes Things As They Are to bring the promise of “Ann the Word” to light.
The period documented on this album was one of astounding creative fertility, first cut down by cynical critics and then by Clark’s own heart. So it’s no surprise that it’s something he views with pain and regret. But what makes Blue Period shine as a record is that it reflects the artist’s process of decoupling the personal pain in the moment from the joy that exists within the work he was creating. This isn’t just a refreshed collection of songs, given the opportunity for a cultural reappraisal. It is the sound of the artist falling back in love with his own work he previously had dismissed. Finally able to see in it what fans have long seen, he takes the opportunity to raise up the band’s Dischord-era recordings into their proper place alongside their more recent successes.
In promoting Describes Things, I learned that people had come to love Unsustainable Lifestyle and You Are Right To Be Afraid (its lofi companion EP). People came up to me and expressed awe and cherishment for those records.
Something had shifted. Or maybe I had been wrong all along? I’ve lost perspective. Or maybe I never had perspective? Maybe I’m insane? I don’t know. You tell me.
Regardless, here we are: reissuing this work and putting this music on vinyl for the first time! I am surprised to be excited about it. I am thrilled about it! I am surprised to find the songs have endured. The songs feel modern and rich with meaning. And Ryan Nelson created an imaginative package design that refers to and expands on his original designs from that period. I love everything about Blue Period now.
Where previously, I wanted this music buried, I now want people to have it. I want people to hear it!
Most reissues exist either to provide a cheap burst of nostalgia or a quick check. Often both. In true form, Beauty Pill smash that expectation too with Blue Period. This is the first reissue I’ve ever heard that stands on its own as a great record in addition to, not instead of, or because of, the band’s extant discography.
Get The Latest
Signup for the AFROPUNK newsletter