The Beta Band
The Three E.P.s
It struck me as odd to discover that Britain's hottest new "techno" act, the Beta Band (in the States they're on Astralwerks, a label shared by the Chemical Brothers, Air, and many other hip Euro-techno acts), actually sounds more like an older British export. The Three E.P.s, a compilation of the band's complete recorded works to date, features drugged, multivoiced chants, crescendoing ragga-tinged compositions, and nary a shout out to the electronica trendlet. The Beta Band has little in common with the hyperkinetic, beatcentric acts their label favors, beyond using electronic music's tools (bongo-spirited drum loops, tape effects, and samples) to help establish their chosen vibe. That "vibe" seems far more redolent of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett than, say, Fatboy Slim. A major acid casualty of the '70s, Barrett was last heard humming to himself and trying to understand the deeper meaning of straw in some barn in the British countryside, while the boys in the band created stoner alternative soundtracks to The Wizard of Oz. Most of the music on this album indicates a similar level of solipsism.
When they aren't hushed to the point of inaudibility, the Beta Band's idea of vocals are mumbled chants sung in unison. ("I Know," which features a melody that sounds as if the engineer is humming to himself, could practically qualify as an instrumental.) Their lyrics usually consist of repeated phrases; their biggest British hit, "Push It Out," is little more than the title phrase repeated ad infinitum. Musically the band relies on soulful, iterative grooves drawn from early '90s British rock and rave culture. Beta's sound is very dependent on drum circles, densely strummed acoustic guitar that does as much to establish rhythm as it does melody, Zen harmonica, and cosmic samples drawn from a stray deep space probe. Put together, it creates odd and wonderful monstrosities such as "Monolith," a collage of synth squiggles, foghorns, and tweeting birds, and "Dr. Baker," a song that alternates between a simple piano line, total cacophony, and a circular tinkle worthy of Tubular Bells. Who knew navel-gazing could sound so great?
That the Beta Band so skillfully employs instrumental hipness to sell their hippie instrumentation illuminates some of the similarities between certain strains of dazed psychedelia and the newer electronic-music scene. Fans of both genres often enjoy uncoordinated dancing in wheat fields and warehouses, heavy drug use, and music that is more about creating moods than crafting pop hits. Yes, both groups have been known to wear oversize Dr. Seuss hats; both constituencies contain their fair share of nature boys and nature girls. But whereas psychedelia often seems aimless and all too human, and rave music sounds too much like the result of some unfathomable computer-derived algorithmic equation, the Beta Band's mix of acoustic guitar grooviness and swelling looped percussion (unimaginable in a pre-Beck universe) gives inertia and drive to the feel-good sound.
Equally proficient in the musical vocabularies of the past three decades, the Beta Band is gloriously polyglot. This is not to say The Three E.P.s is the pop music equivalent of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Rather the Beta Band speaks a form of Esperanto; their music attempts to communicate with everyone using a sonic common ground on which we can all agree: the love of the groove, the primal melody, the desire to shimmy and shake. Unless they edit their multilingual extravaganzas, the Beta Band may never create a hit of "Loser"-like proportions, but, as evidenced by the near 80-minute running time of this disc, they could keep you dancing until daybreak, even without the drugs.
-- Alec Hanley Bemis
Jerry Dale McFadden
The muddy worms the cover girl unearths on This Girl are as blatantly symbolic as it gets. McFadden is the fifth member of the Mavericks, the respectable Grammy Award-nominated country act with roots in the South from Miami to Texas, and aside from the occasional backing vocal, he's kept in check behind the band's leading lights. One quick spin of This Girl, his second solo album, will tell you why. Unlike the Mavericks' damn-near-wholesome Americana sound, McFadden plays with the plumbing underneath. On first listen his voice could be that of a psychotic girlfriend tormented for the last time, determined to wreak her revenge; it's high and raspy, pinched yet demonstrative of bad feelings. Like David Bowie the fact that this is actually a man singing makes it even more extreme, the leap to the treble register more eerie. Since when does a country star invert gender roles?
Well, this isn't a country album. The Bowie feeling that informs the title track gives way to Imagine-era John Lennon for "Let It Go," the album's impressive second track. Wilco member Jay Bennett's warm, overdriven guitar meshes with McFadden's piano, sounding not unlike the lazy Muscle Shoals' sound the Rolling Stones mutated for Sticky Fingers. McFadden's voice twists like Lennon on mild ether, the vocal slapback sharpening the moment.
This isn't a retro album, either. Don't let my references to the rock canon suggest that McFadden is merely unearthing the depths of his record collection. In the same way as studio experimenter Tom Waits, McFadden is not afraid to mix and match disparate sounds if it means revealing something new. A hip-hop beat in his hands is less a cliche than a way of shifting terrain ever so slightly. As for the times when his piano sounds too pretty ("Hope for the Best"), his voice is still too unconventional to allow things to slip into MOR territory. It's impressive stuff and it begs the question, Why doesn't this guy fly solo more often?
-- Rob O'Connor
Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy
The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music
The Distance Between Us
Delightfully audacious in both concept and execution, the new albums by revered jazz avant-gardists Lester Bowie and William Hooker are just the kind of screwball longplayers that are anathema for tight-assed traditionalists such as Wynton Marsalis. And if that's not reason enough to overlook some of the flaws in each set (and it is), the disks are at least challenging and fun, full of unexpected twists and unchartered left turns, things you never hear in the stuffy work of contemporary mainstream bopsters.
On The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music, Bowie (an alumnus of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) turns his trumpet toward songs you're unlikely to find on any album in the jazz racks (unless someone else out there has covered the Spice Girls' "Two Become One"). Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People" becomes a raging, New Orleans-style stomp, with the nine-piece brass ensemble screeching atop thunderous percussion, and the whole band screaming in cacophonous glee. On "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" Bowie redeems the inherent goo and sap of Andrew Lloyd Webber's unctuous weeper by fiddling around with the melody, sometimes taking it slow and sweet, other times sending out a cluster of notes before jump-starting this Broadway bomb with a vaguely Latin groove that's both unexpected and perfectly irreverent.
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Sadly not everything here works that well. The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Notorious Thugs" moves at a fetchingly creepy pace, but ultimately fails if only because guest vocalist Dean Bowman ain't no Big Poppa. Similarly, the takes here of "In the Still of the Night" and "The Birth of the Blues" aren't much better than the dozens of existing versions to be found in the annals of jazz history. Much better is Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," highlighted by some beautiful trombone work courtesy of Luis Bonilla. Oh, and that Spice Girls cover? Gorgeous.
Hooker's The Distance Between Us finds the oddball NYC drummer/poet/bandleader swinging from eerie percussion-laden moans ("The Gates") to a nice little piece of minimalist esoterica punctuated by the stunning piano work of Mark Hennen ("Pure Imagination"). There's also "Sensor Suite," a four-part, nearly 40-minute blast of white-noisy honking, pounding, and string-strangling that might be the best thing the always-interesting Hooker has ever committed to tape. The surprises here, though, are the guitar-soaked covers of Sonic Youth's "Because (Of You): Dimension 1" and "Because (Of You): Dimension 2," which bookend "Sensor Suite." With the two pieces clocking in at just under eighteen minutes, most of them dominated by the quasi-Patti Smith-isms of Gisburg (yep, just Gisburg), it goes without saying that they could've been pared down by about ten minutes. What keeps you interested, though, is the way Hooker controls the beat, driving the song as if the ghosts of Keith Moon and Al Jackson are giving him directions from the back seat.
Is it jazz? Sure, why not? Would it meet the approval of Wynton Marsalis and his white-bread fans at NPR? Hell no. I can't think of a better endorsement.
-- John Floyd