Bethan's Time Gone By is a Masterpiece of Playing the Long Game
Lazing on a sunny afternoon: Bethan has thrived on a relaxed, organic approach
"Super group" is a term that's prone to overuse. Hyperbole is often too tempting to resist. But in the case of Bethan, a band whose music thrives on an appropriate degree of restraint, it's hard to think of another band in North Texas with a better claim to such accolades. Its five members can boast more than a dozen other notable acts to their credit, including Radiant, the Crash That Took Me, Novaak, and Fox and the Bird.
For all that talent, though, until recently Bethan have lacked a proper full-length record. There have been a couple EPs, Chapter 1 and Bethan Presents: Christmas. Now, after more than four years as a band, they have an LP, Time Gone By.
"Bethan is definitely my main musical commitment right now," says violinist Becki Howard. "In the past I've spread myself over many projects at once, and it's really nice to be able to fully focus on this." Her husband, Kevin, who plays mellotron in Bethan, agrees. "This is the main thing that I'm doing right now," he says. "And considering the people that are in this band, I'm completely OK with that."
The Howards are joined by another couple, vocalist Jessi Hall and guitarist Daniel Hall, as well as bassist Jesse Hopkins. In fact, it was the Halls who first brought Bethan into being. Back in 2010, before Jessi (nee James) and Daniel had married, they began writing together. By 2012, the newly betrothed couple were inspired, living in Oak Cliff and ready to include others in the music they were making. It's been a slow but deliberate building process ever since.
"We knew Bethan should become something different," Jessi says. "We immediately thought of Kevin and Becki. Jesse was already playing with us at the time, and we weren't going to let him go anywhere." Becki says she was thrilled at the invitation. "I'd been a fan of Jessi's previous band, Novaak, and I'd shared the stage with both Daniel and Jesse in the past with other bands," she says. "I thought it would be really fun to collaborate and see what we could create together."
The new album, a fantastic work that can shift effortlessly from ominous to whimsical and back again, was recorded in six separate sessions last summer and earlier this year. Under the watchful eyes and well-trained ears of producer McKenzie Smith, the Midlake drummer who also produced Sarah Jaffe's Don't Disconnect, at Denton's Redwood Studios, things came together nicely.
Time Gone By is a true alternative record, one that's terribly tough to pin down into a simple genre. Perhaps no other song on the record exemplifies that better than "I Need a Pill to Get to Sleep," a theatrical number that soothes as much as it maddens. Not surprisingly, it came directly from Jessi's sleep-deprived mind.
"This one came together almost on a fluke," Daniel says. "Jessi made [a] comment about needing a pill to sleep as we were wrapping up a rehearsal. Meanwhile, I kind of stumbled on the chord progression and guitar riff that makes up the verses right at the same time. It just clicked after that."
On other songs, such as "Honeymoon" and "Don't Be Afraid to Lie to Yourself," the band foregoes the easy, sweeping anthem route in favor of building tension through restraint, which pays off magnificently in each tune. The atmosphere and musical arrangements on this album convey equal importance to the lyrical matter.
"I think that sometimes in music, like in life, I guess, restraint can show a kind of strength in a way that putting it all out there doesn't," Becki says. "The space can be really powerful."
Looking on from the outside, it's a wonder that it took so long for this collection of talent to finally make a proper record together. But for the folks in the band, it's been a question of practicality and the unique demands of grown-up schedules.
"We spent the better part of a year finding our sound as a band, which took awhile to pinpoint," Jessi says. "We all have careers that we love, which unify us as far as priorities go but make scheduling a challenge." What's more, she adds, it was crucial that the band didn't rush the writing process. "In the past, I've written in the studio at lightning speed. This process was organic. We wrote what we cared about and finished ideas we were excited about."
One might expect that a roomful of veteran musicians with such disparate backgrounds might clash. True, the songs on Time Gone By generally developed from Jessi and Daniel's ideas, but in the end they're fully a group effort -- without causing any friction along the way.
"We typically get the songs to a ready-to-share point, which means lyrics and song structure mostly," Jessi says. "The band will listen to a fledgling idea either by iPhone recording or at band practice and give us the 'yup' or 'nope.' Typically each band member writes for his or her instrument, but there are times that we work together on part writing as well."
Bethan seem to have their process down to a mathematical formula -- good friends with fantastic talent make great art. But making a stellar album is far from an exact science. Logical equations don't account for intangibles such as the experiences and the perspectives of each member. Such indefinable factors make Bethan perhaps the most intriguing band in Dallas.
But for Daniel, there's nothing too complicated about why it all works: "It's great that we get to write together and work on these ideas with such good friends who happen to be amazing musicians," he says.
Time Gone By release party 9 p.m. Saturday, October 11, at Three Links, 2704 Elm St., threelinksdeepellum.com.
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