You Beta, you bet

The elusive Beta Band turns cuckoo clocks and laser gunshots into definition-dodging sounds that -- somehow -- make perfect sense

The Beta Band fits approximately nowhere. Signed to a label known for spearheading the pop-electronica invasion in America, the band's records feature nary a danceable track. Although the group's music bears some resemblance to the hip-hop folk of Beck, The Beta Band doesn't even try to traffic in singles -- and now it appears to have largely left its acoustic guitars behind. Three-quarters of the band are from Scotland, one from England, but it hardly belongs alongside the new wave of independent-minded acts now emerging from that nation -- Mogwai, the Delgados, Bis -- who sound like they only have college-rock ambitions. (Besides, the Betas haven't resided in the land of sheep and kilts for years.) Dressing up like Mexican bandits and biblical monarchs for the press, the band's image is a humorous one. Yet it is an absurdist humor, not the kind of comedy that's dependent on the knee-jerk irony of pop stars.

"I find myself at 90 degrees to the rest of the world," sings The Beta Band's guitarist and vocalist Stephen Mason on his group's recent self-titled record. "It's not much fun / You can take it from me." That lyric, from the song "Round the Bend," encapsulates the Betas' worldview pretty well -- although, if you listen to the song, you'll have your doubts about how little the band's enjoying the opportunity to be bent on record.

On this song, The Beta Band members, who live in London, deliver a strange tangle of sounds: steel drums, toy laser guns, clicking New Year's Day noisemakers, a bassoon, xylophone, the cuckoo of a madcap clock. There's also wildly strummed acoustic guitar and a bass somewhere in there, almost like an afterthought. The traditional instruments help keep the song in focus, but they hardly dominate the mix. Percussion helps -- the tempo is that of an oompah band from Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, composed entirely of madly thrashing street buskers and the children from Lord of the Flies. Essentially, it's a mess. The Beta Band paradox is that there is a coherence to the madness.

Sounds of science: The Beta Band throws everything at the wall, and occasionally, some of it sticks in your head.
Katrin Geilhausen
Sounds of science: The Beta Band throws everything at the wall, and occasionally, some of it sticks in your head.

Not that Mason doesn't try to express his exhaustion with the world: His vocals amble along in a style that has become de rigueur in the group's work. They are double-tracked, but neither take is allowed to dominate, and each is slightly off-kilter. The takes don't so much fight for dominance as trip along, bumbling over one another's trails. The melody is simple -- barely a melody really, more an easygoing speaking-singing comfortably sliding between a handful of familiar notes. It shares a certain set of qualities with chant; a somberness appropriate for sober occasions. What follows is a quotidian variety of ennui: "Trying to function as normal human beings / I washed my car earlier on this evening." Then a burst of words in one breath: "And now finally I'm going for dinner to cook a little meal before I go out for a drink with my friend." Then it swings: "But I got no food / I got no time." Ba-ba-ba. Mason can't help but goose it. He sounds like a monk, but a monk on probation for bad behavior who organized the panty raid at the nearby convent. He's the brother who intones his devotions to a skiffle beat.

There's more melody in this song than any number led by such a voice should have. The cacophony is good-natured and pleasant, and the whole shebang is less intimidating than any song with a cuckoo clock as a lead instrument deserves to be. You almost want to sing along, "I got no time / I got no friends," with a smile on your face, following the song to its joyous conclusion: "I just want to be left alone and never bothered ever again / Never again / Ever again."

Although nothing indicates that the song has a particular target, paranoid journalists might worry the song's sentiments are aimed squarely at them. "Not so much the international press, but the English are normally way off the mark with us," says the band's bassist, Richard Greentree, from his bedroom in London. "Because a lot of English journalists, especially music journalists, aren't aware of what they're actually doing. They're trying to write some sort of bizarre novel instead of reporting about music." In the end, he can't understand what they're saying about his own music. "There's never been anything really that's explained to me anything about what we do," says Greentree.

Granted, The Beta Band has to deal with a particularly annoying press corps -- in London the tenor of music journalism is at a constant fever pitch, and papers like Melody Maker and New Musical Express have sensational appetites similar to those of grocery-store tabloids. But the group has hardly made a journalist's job easy. Whereas Oasis' Liam Gallagher gleefully has public feuds with his brother Noel, and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker quibbles with reports that he hurt a child in an unprovoked attack on Michael Jackson's Brit Award stage show, The Beta Band chooses to deal with the press by playing Dadaist jokes.

For an interview in the magazine MOJO, the band's cooperation was contingent on their being asked the same questions put to the Beatles when they played Shea Stadium in 1966. When NME wanted them to appear on the cover, the band asked to be styled as African dictators -- in the Betas' minds, full military dress a la Idi Amin. Although a slight misinterpretation foiled the concept (the stylist gave their request for the garb of "African kings" a Biblical reading, dressing them in robes and turbans, with frankincense and myrrh), one gets the feeling the Betas didn't mind very much. It only amplified the group's parody of how rock stars are allowed their excesses.

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