You Beta, you bet
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.
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.
Of course, The Beta Band's "problems" with the press are also ones most British bands would die for. In a London music scene governed by fads and hyperbolic hype, the self-proclaimed "four-piece quartet consisting of four people" has been the name on everyone's lips since it released its first EP, Champion Versions, in 1997. It was a record reminiscent of Beck, but weirder, moodier, and tremendously less pop. It sounded like what might happen if Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett -- famed for his acid burnout early in the band's career and a string of digressive solo sessions recorded in '69 and '70 -- were produced by the Dust Brothers.
The Betas formed when drummer Robin Jones and DJ John McLean, who had both recently received master's degrees in art, got together with ex-car mechanic Mason. After their initial demo tapes won an excited response from manager and label head Miles Leonard, they recruited ex-carpenter Greentree, the only Brit in the group, to turn themselves into a live band. Though Jones, McLean, and Mason are Scots, Greentree downplays portrayals of The Beta Band as part of some Scottish pop-music renaissance (including everyone from Belle & Sebastian to the Chemikal Underground stable). "My bandmates are not overly Scottish anyway," he says. "I mean, they're completely Scottish, but you can understand what they're saying and they don't drink excessively."
They followed up their first EP with two more, The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos, each filled with all manner of extraneous noises and samples as well as long patches of atmospheric, nearly ambient playing. The EPs were quickly compiled on a full-length called, appropriately enough, The Three EPs. Since then, the band has gotten involved with an oddly disparate klatch of associates: It played on New Orleans bluesman Dr. John's Anutha Zone album, DJed a British aftershow party for the Beastie Boys, and finally signed an American deal with Virgin's techno division, Astralwerks, a label that has managed to gain heavy U.S. exposure and sales for European electronica acts like Fatboy Slim, Air, and the Chemical Brothers.
The Betas, however, are hardly populist electronica. A critic for London's Sunday Times, trying to describe the band, threw up his hands, saying that just trying to classify it was "a critical nightmare, a place where simply identifying what musical ballpark we're in is a task." You can describe the elements of a Beta Band song, but it's nearly impossible to explain the unifying sound.
Most elusive and ridiculous of all is The Beta Band's opener "The Beta Band Rap." The lyrics trace the band's history in bathetic fashion ("Miles gave us an album deal/We said yes and went for a meal/Drinking champagne at EMI"). But the song's disjunctive development means that it transitions from a toothpaste-jingle-like opening into a downbeat funk interlude reminiscent of the aforementioned Beasties, and then into an old-style rock-no-roll rave-up that smacks of Jerry Lee Lewis -- only with pitch-shifted, atonal vocals and incompetent playing. Brash and probably ill-advised for a band looking to break into a market that is notoriously inhospitable to arty pop music, it's an odd, ballsy move for a band whose overall record is generally more accessible than, say, Blur's 13.
Downplaying the hard acoustic strumming of the first album and injecting all kinds of new genre confusion, Mason's steady voice and a carnival atmosphere pervade The Beta Band's entire record. Beyond that there are few commonalities track to track. The songs swing from minor to epic, ornate to simple, electro to pretechnological. "Simple Boy" consists entirely of stun-gun rhythmic pulsing and vocal echo. "It's Not Too Beautiful" seems a Beatle-esque bit of psychedelic rock, complete with Ringo on the traps, until the instrumentation dissolves into a field of cinematic strings, bleeps from an atomic sub, foot-stomping Foley artists, and soldiers trudging through dry grass. "Broken Up a Ding Dong" combines hand claps, bongos, rapidly strummed acoustic guitars, and a mass of vocalists telling us, "It's gonna be all right," casting The Beta Band as hippie rockers trying to take a revved-up version of "Kumbaya" to the top of the charts. The 10 minutes of "The Hard One" play a melody inspired by "Total Eclipse of the Heart" against a minimalist piano line and slow hip-hop beat -- and wind chimes and clanking cans and foghorns, etc.
The initial version of the album also included a second 40-minute ambient disc. "We tried to do an ambient section," Greentree says. "We did it, but we decided to leave it off the album in the end. It didn't turn out exactly like we expected." Of course, one wonders what exactly the band expected of a session that involved holing up in a shack in Northern Scotland with a bare minimum of instruments and an eight-track recorder and gathering song materials the anthropological way. "We had some portable DAT recorders," says Greentree. "We mostly recorded waves and sheep. Whatever."
The most instructive comparison for understanding this record is through the eternally uneasy peace that exists between forward-thinking Caucasian musicians and the black hip-hop nation. "I'm definitely not inspired by English music, but I definitely am by American hip-hop," says Greentree. "At the moment, I listen mainly to rap: Redman's new album, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Wu-Tang. I think hip-hop is probably the only musical art form at the moment that is progressing rather than trying to rehash an old formula," he adds.
The best comparison one can make to explain the Beta's new record is to the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, the group's 1989 Dust Brothers-produced record, which came at a moment when the group was making a transition from rap parodists/piss-takers to overly pious defenders of hip-hop (a reversal that still seems a little ridiculous given their early antics). Essentially single-free, Paul's Boutique came at the nadir of the Beasties career and sold relatively poorly, but critics and obsessive fans have routinely and rightly pointed it out as the group's classic. Similarly single-free, the Beta's new album, like Paul's Boutique, seems completely at ease with the dissolution of the borders between beat-based and pop-rock music. Even more than the Beasties, though, The Beta Band seems to understand and fully embrace every variety of music from the second half of the 20th century -- electronic beats, avant sounds, hip-hop vibes, '60s rock dynamics, punk attitude, and pop sense.
At this point, the band is also clearly in control of its muse and judicious in the respect it pays to hip-hop. "You can't be someone you're not," acknowledges Greentree when asked why the band doesn't try playing actual hip-hop. "If we were all big black geezers hanging around in Chevrolets and driving around in L.A., then we would be. But we're not. We're skinny white geezers in London. But we are getting more and more beat-oriented." He says the beats are getting bigger and better. "For the live show," continues Greentree, "all the songs are a lot more up-tempo, with bigger beats and more concentration on the beats themselves."
As historical and respectful as The Beta Band is, there's also a liberal dose of humor involved. Greentree denies the influence, but there's a giddy comic strain running through the Beta's work that strikes one as distinctly British, almost Monty Python-esque. Live, the group has been known to decorate the stage with houseplants, dress up in jungle gear and Indian headdresses, ignore the audience, and pass instruments around like members of a mysterious pop cult. The live shows also feature long-form videos as backdrops: the band members doing Jane Fonda-like workouts, static shots of flowers, Jones being carried away by a giant parrot.
Between the weird props and strange stage demeanor, it seems as though the band uses performance as just another way to confuse people. The group downplays its obvious pop abilities while emphasizing its greatest strength: the power to surprise. And The Beta Band's desire to baffle is a welcome one in an arena in which most people know all too well what's being tossed at them. As Mason sings at the end of The Beta Band: "I've fucked it up / I've fucked it up / I've fucked it up." Yes, with style.
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