THE BETA BANDHot Shots II (Astralwerks)
Screw Almost Famous. For every record fiend worthy of the title, High Fidelity was 2000‘s mainstream entertainment event of the year. The film contains a very telling scene about the charms of Scotland’s the Beta Band. Record-shop owner Rob Gordon holds up a copy of the group‘s U.S. debut, The Three EPs, and plays it over the in-store stereo. “I am now going to sell five copies of The Three EPs by the Beta Band,” he says. Heads cock. People rush to purchase.
The Betas were that kind of band. They tripped upon the special inevitable — a unique genre-agnostic music that didn’t have to happen, but, hey, the stars just happened to align. The ingredients were, roughly, (1) midtempo boom-bap and programmed beats, (2) chanted multitracked vox, (3) rapidly strummed acoustic guitars and (4) a shake-it-out hippie vibe aided and abetted by copious handclaps. But their vision wasn‘t strictly pop. It also encompassed uncategorizable messes such as “Monolith,” an aimless 15-minute collage of muttering, record skips and ambient frittering. They could tickle the peculiar tastes of discerning record collectors yet remain palatable to normal people.
A potluck effort, 1999’s The Beta Band pissed all those people off. (The Betas too. They pronounced it “fucking awful.”) As eclectic an album as any there ever was, it veered from calypso to minimalist avant-garde techno to comedic attempts at hip-hop, within individual songs. To create a proper venue for the record, you‘d have to combine a circus, a disco, a drive-in movie, a German beer hall, the Rock ’n‘ Roll Hall of Fame, and a Bronx block party during hip-hop’s early-‘80s height. As dense and impossible to absorb as the Beastie Boys’ Paul‘s Boutique, it’ll likely develop as devoted a cult. Yeah, it was brilliant. Or it sucked.
By comparison, Hot Shots II seems an effort to sell out to the progressive-minded music fan. (Comes complete with opening slot on Radiohead tour!) The Betas have combined the modern electronic touches and all-over-the-map influences of the second record with the magic inevitable sound of the first, then siphoned off the annoying parts. (Or the fascinating parts. Depends.) They sound less like a strange gnostic electronica sect, more like a creative alt-rock band using echoes, synths and loops to appropriate dub music‘s best tricks. (Every open space is awash in a mist of fading sound.) What’s left is pleasant but somehow less memorable than the Beta‘s earlier efforts. The Beta Band are no longer an adventure.
Then comes the album’s end. Track 10: “Eclipse.” It begins with lead singer Steve Mason‘s roundabout thought: “The people askin’ questions to the people with the answersThe people with the answers are the people with the questionsSo the people with the questions ask the people with the answersThe people with the answers won‘t tell the people with the questions the answer.” The answer: “So the people with the pizza pie made me very high. The people with the questions smiled. The people with the answers lied. So no pizza for them. Hmmm!” The song includes a cappella patches, a raucous, Ringo-style tom-tom assault, effects that bend the vocal into a one-man round, and a short spurt of dry, slashing guitar and drums — jam-band style. The “bonus track” is “Won.” It starts with a whisper: “Cinematic synergy, a whole lot of energy, virtual reality, doomsday scenery.” What follows is a medley of (1) an extended sample from Harry Nilsson’s “One” beat matched (badly) to (2) a toast from a ragga MC and (3) a rock-rap section fronted by a white boy with no more flow than the chorus from Barenaked Ladies‘ “One Week.” It sounds like shit, a pastiche of three totally incompatible songs spliced together in postproduction. The Betas have pushed their sound so far you can’t tell if anyone from the band had anything to do with it.
In other words, more pizza for them, they‘ve done it again. Hmmm?
The Beta Band appears at the Hollywood Bowl Monday, August 20.