The Beta Band

The Three EP's
The Beta Band
Hot Shots II
Heroes To Zeros

The Three EP's (Astralwerks 98) Rating: B+
Like many people, my first introduction to The Beta Band was in the movie High Fidelity, which makes brilliant use of the brilliant song ("Dry The Rain") that opens this truthfully titled compilation (it compiles together three EPs). Along with "Dogs Got A Bone," "She's The One," and "Needles In My Eyes," "Dry The Rain" is the best song here, in large part because it is an actual song rather than a groove that's looking for a song. Indeed, when they match their interesting grooves to memorable melodies and singable choruses the results are inspired, but too often the songwriting is inconsistent, resulting in an often-fascinating yet also frustrating and somewhat-overrated album. Yet I can see why The Three EP's is so acclaimed, both by critics and fellow bands such as Radiohead, who toured with the band and admit to being heavily influenced by this Scottish quartet during their Kid A/Amnesiac phase. After all, despite exceedingly long songs ("Monolith" clocks in at over 15 extremely messy minutes) and overly repetitive grooves, at their best theirs is a mesmerizing sound. Their sound often begins simple enough with a single acoustic guitar, but slowly yet surely layers of complexity are added (bongos, horns, etc.) as the main melody loops around itself. Throw in some electronic touches and a psychedelicized Middle-Eastern influence, add vocals that are often chanted or mumbled in a Monk-like fashion, and it's easy to see why this band's sound, which improbably enough is earthy yet futuristic, is all but impossible to pigeonhole. Still, too many "songs" contain mildly interesting grooves that don't really go anywhere ("I Know" and "B+A," for example), are bad ideas in the first place ("The House Song"), or are atmospheric enough but are much longer than they need to be (the decidedly druggy "Push It Out"). So even though there's the anthemic ("Dry The Rain," "She's The One") and lovely ("Dogs Got A Bone," "Needles In My Eyes") aforementioned songs, as well comparatively modest, pleasantly melodic numbers ("Inner Meet Me" and "It's Over") and a sparsely moody piano-led song ("Dr. Baker"), the patchy songwriting and indulgent editing makes The Three EP's a tantalizing tease rather than the terrific album the band seems capable of creating.

The Beta Band (Astralwerks 99) Rating: B-
Given that The Beta Band have themselves all but dismissed The Beta Band, I was tempted to simply skip it and head straight to Hot Shots II. And though I think the band was being a bit hard on themselves ("it's shit" said singer Stephen Mason without a hint of irony or false modesty), this album is somewhat disappointing. They still sound like The Beta Band, which means that they don't sound quite like anybody else, and that their (increasingly hip-hop reliant) grooves can still make your head bob. However, despite some good grooves and interesting experimentation the band has written far too few memorable melodies and included far too many bells and whistles, as there's a bit of a "kids let loose in a candy store" kind of feel to too many of these songs. The Beta Band gets points for ambition, but they try to cram too many instruments and/or samples within each song, and as a result the album often lacks focus and direction. For example, "The Beta Band Rap" begins with a cute carnival-esque revamp of the '40s novelty song "Mr. Sandman," moves onto a bad rap section (really, any time The Beta Band directly embraces hip-hop as opposed to being indirectly influenced by hip-hop, the results are usually rather weak), and then ends by swiping the melody of "Jailhouse Rock." Unfortunately, what sounds fascinating on paper is less so in reality, and though the album contains a few good songs ("Round The Bend" being the obvious standout) and fewer flat out disasters (certainly their surprising use of the lyrics to Bonnie Tyler's "A Total Eclipse Of The Heart" is quite clever in its sheer unexpectedness), The Beta Band seems like a somewhat confused (and possibly rushed) effort by a talented band who are capable of better.

Hot Shots II (Astralwerks 01) Rating: A-
Hot Shots II was more favorably received by both critics and The Beta Band themselves. And though The Beta Band are still more masters of sound than songs, some of which come and go without really leaving much of an impression (even if they're perfectly pleasant while sticking around), The Beta Band have shored up some of their weaknesses. Shorter songs, less mumbled and generally much-improved vocals, and a lush, sumptuously mellow musical canvas are strong starting points. As for the songs, I'd say that Hot Shots II lacks the obvious high points of The Three EP's but that the songs are more accessible and consistent overall, even though the album loses steam towards the end (still, their ill-advised hip-hop expansion of Harry Nilsson's "One" is the only song I actively dislike). Elsewhere, songs such as "Squares" (lush trip-hop) and "Gone" (a haunting piano ballad) could best be described as mournful, while "Human Being" is notable for its jam-based, hard rocking finish. The rest of the album is mostly mellow and upbeat ("dreamy" would be an apt description), however, and though the band still meanders a bit it's easy to groove along to the trippy music and sing songy chants of "Quiet" and "Alleged." In fact, if the "yes it's true I love you" section in the latter song doesn't lift your spirits it's likely you're a serious grouch, and "Dragon" has a catchy, Beatlesesque melody that's also altogether charming. That adjective is appropriate for a large majority of this album, which does a good job of playing to the band's groovy strengths while eliminating much of the excess that had somewhat limited their appeal in the past. Alas, 2004's Heroes To Zeros (which I hope to review soon) kind of came and went, and the band then broke up.

Heroes To Zeros (Astralwerks 04) Rating: B
Well, a little later than I had anticipated, here's my review of this talented but frustratingly inconsistent band's latest (and apparently last) album. Pity they broke up before delivering that one classic album they always teasingly seemed to have in them, as Heroes To Zeros is too often unfocused and unmemorable, though this laid-back album is rarely unpleasant and has quite a few cool moments. The album's best song by far is the leadoff track, "Assessment," an atmospheric and accessible psychedelic pop song that's classic Beta Band, led by a cool jangly riff reminiscent of current bands like Interpol. Yet even this exceptional song overextends itself on its horn heavy, groovy ending, and the next song, the at times funky "Space," too often coasts on "la la la" vocals and atmosphere alone. Likewise, the rhythm based (as usual), low-key (as usual), and sing songy (as usual) "Lion Thief" also kinda comes and goes. "Rhododendron" and "Pure For" are even less memorable, while more rock oriented tracks like "Easy" and "Out-Side" fail to live up to their potential, a charge that could often be leveled at this band and this album on the whole. Much better are a pair of dreamy ballads, "Wonderful" (which pretty much is) and "Space Beatle," while "Liquid Bird" is also impressive, with whispered vocals and a neat riff in the background. "Troubles" and "Simple" are other "nice" if nothing special tracks with differing sentiments; "it's about time we fall in love" versus "I tried to do my own thing, but the trouble with your own thing is you end up on your own." That's where the members of The Beta Band are now I guess (musically, anyway), and on second thought maybe it's just as well, for their chance for the big time seemed to have came and went, as Heroes To Zeros again (forgetting how fine Hot Shots II was) has plenty of scattered creativity without ever coalescing into a focused and cohesive whole.

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