By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
Downplaying the hard acoustic strumming of the first record and injecting all kinds of new genre confusion, Mason's steady voice and a carnival atmosphere pervade the Beta Band's new record. Beyond that there are few similarities track to track. The songs swing from minor to epic, ornate to simple, electro to pretechnological. "Simple Boy" consists solely of stun-gun rhythmic pulsing and vocal echo. "It's Not Too Beautiful" seems a Beatlesesque 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, 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 "Kum Ba Ya" to the top of the charts. The ten 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, complete with wind chimes, clanking cans, and foghorns.
The most instructive method for deciphering this record is to understand 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.
Beta's new record is best compared with the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, the group's 1989 Dust Brothers-produced record that came at a moment when the trio was transitioning from rap parodists/piss-takers to overly pious defenders of hip-hop (a reversal that still seems a little ridiculous given its 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 Twentieth Century: electronic beats, avant sounds, hip-hop vibes, '60s rock dynamics, punk attitude, and pop sense.
At this point the Beta 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 group 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."
As historical and respectful as the Beta Band is, there's also a liberal dose of humor involved in fashioning the music. 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 new record: "I've fucked it up/I've fucked it up/I've fucked it up." Yes, with style.