By Jacob Katel
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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. Beta's music bears some resemblance to the hip-hop folk of Beck, but the group 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 Beta hardly belongs alongside the new wave of independent-minded acts emerging from that nation (Mogwai, the Delgados, Bis) that sound as though they have only college-rock ambitions. 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 depends 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 new record, The Beta Band. "It's not much fun/You can take it from me." That lyric, from the song "Round the Bend," encapsulates the Betas' world view pretty well, though if you listen to the rollicking spirit of the song, you'd question just how little fun they are really having.
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, a xylophone, the cuckoo of a madcap grandfather's clock. In what sounds like an afterthought, there's also wildly strummed acoustic guitar and a bass somewhere in there. The traditional instruments help keep the song focused, but they hardly dominate the mix. Percussion helps: The tempo is like that of the oompah band from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, seemingly 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 in a style that has become de rigueur in the group's work. His voice is 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 trail. The melody is simple -- barely a melody really, more an easygoing speaking/singing that slides comfortably between a handful of familiar notes. It shares a certain set of qualities with chant, a somberness appropriate for sober occasions. "Trying to function as normal human beings/I washed my car earlier on this evening," goes "Round the Bend." 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.
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."
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 mid-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, and turned themselves into a live band. Although 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 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 The Three EPs. Since then the band has gotten involved with an oddly disparate klatsch of associates: It played on New Orleans bluesman Dr. John's Anutha Zone album, DJ-ed 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 such as Fatboy Slim, Air, and the Chemical Brothers).