The Beta Band
June 22, 1999
On the Beta Band's records, the Scottish four-piece is a hazy cloud of subtle '60s rock and electronic beats. But onstage, they glow. All four members of the Beta Band wore track suits with fluorescent-green runners down their arms and across the width of their shoulders for their New York show at the Bowery Ballroom. When the lights were down, and when the homemade films projected behind them went dark, the Betas looked like disembodied Mummenschanz, the quirky mimes on '70s public television that taught kids about expressive movement. "Yo, yo, yo," announced ringleader Stephen Mason at the start of the show. "We dress to impress."
The Beta Band and their frippery aren't more interesting than their music, but their antics are far easier to explain than their collaborative sound. The trancy grooves and stony lyrical delivery that the band put to tape on their first three EPs sparked a fierce electrical storm of hoo-ha and hurrah in the English music press. To some extent, the glowing reviews and best-new-band proclamations from New Music Express and Melody Maker were unsurprising: Those English rags are as susceptible to the potent cocktails of dance and psychedelia as they are to fleeting pop greatness.
There was more. Like a hundred other great groups, the Betas were art students, and they provided live audiences with art videos that looked like outtakes from "Help!" -- pictures of the silly foursome romping around pastoral England with a camera and too much cheap weed.
A funny thing happened when the Beta Band released their first full-length record earlier this month. The Beta Band appeared on the cover of NME under a banner headline quote from the group: "Our album's rubbish." In the accompanying cover story, the musicians argued for 2,000 words with the hyperbolic writer, insisting against his protests that their new record is terribly produced and that the songs are half-realized.
They're partly right -- and somewhat hysterical for damning themselves before the Brit press stole the satisfaction of bashing the album -- but at least some of the shtick is a just another prank, another piece of what makes the Beta Band fun. "The Beta Band" is far from a solid record, but it has truly wonderful moments of loose drumming and dubby bass lines layered atop phasing electronics and sparkling acoustic guitars. Around the edges of their long, jammy creations are dozens of percussive gewgaws, bike horns, jew's harp, meditation bells, percussion sticks and steel drums. Together, it amounts to a druggy take on kitchen-sink pop.
At the Bowery, it was pretty clear: The claim that the album is crap, is crap. About half the songs in the set came from the new record, from the opening "It's Not Too Beautiful," split by weird outer-space segues of samples and electronics, to the drum free-for-all of the closing "Broken Up a Ding Dong." Someone who abhorred his own record probably wouldn't bother playing it live.
All four musicians traded instruments, of which there were at least 30 on stage, including a huge rack of electronic gear that looked complicated enough to launch a space shuttle. They seemed proficient on all, but masters of none. (Except for ace slack drummer Robin Jones, who was at the center of nearly every song.) Mason's flat, lazy voice was as oddly transporting as it is on wax, muttering quasi-mystical words about falling in love and getting high.
Lackluster moments from the new release, like "The Beta Band Rap" and "Dance O'er the Border," were better than they are on record, mostly because Mason's blanched rap, which is incomprehensible, and worse than Beck's earlier flow, was at a minimum and the crowd loved the fat beats and turntable scratches.
There's something undoubtedly magical about the Beta Band. Like most contemporary rock bands of any consequence, they're simply processing sounds, digging through a bedroom full of albums for unscavenged morsels of sound. But the Beta Band has rhythm, and they've got ambition. You can hear it in songs like "She's the One" and "Round the Bend" -- they believe they are more than the some of their parts, more than hype. They want to go somewhere.