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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).
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.