Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
You just know that Steve Mason, lead vocalist and guitarist for trancy U.K. art-rock outfit the Beta Band, has a soft spot for prog-rock vets such as Yes, Pink Floyd, and, especially, Jethro Tull. Though worlds apart stylistically from those paleorockers, the Beta Band nonetheless has a Tull-like propensity for musical wanderlust, indulging in everything from indie rock to techno jamming over the course of its three-LP career. And like Tull’s flautist frontman, Ian Anderson, Mason has the sort of vocal style that can’t help but conjure images of bowler hats, yellow submarines, and John Cleese perfecting the silly walk in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But the Beta Band also has a thing or two in common with the more pop-savvy Oasis, including art director/manager Brian Cannon and a penchant for pretty, post-Beatles psychedelic melodies, though these occasionally wander off to the lysergic funny farm.
Unlike Oasis, the Beta Band never takes itself too seriously, even though the group’s arty ambitions could easily lead in that direction. Live shows are usually audio-visual affairs, with each song accompanied by a short film, and one of the Betas, John MacLean, is mainly responsible for tape loops and samples. Still, the Beta Band once dismissed its self-titled debut LP as “fucking awful,” and the video for Hot Shots II’s “Broke” features a gravity-defying watermelon that shoots like a hockey puck around the band members, all of whom are dressed, naturally, as monks. On “Eclipse,” the new disc’s hottest shot, Mason recites a litany of his band’s (and the world’s) various shortcomings, including his warbling opinion that “the music we make is not particularly good.”
But Mason is wrong on that last point. The chaotically inventive Hot Shots II will probably have you rummaging through the record bins for Hot Shots I, but be forewarned: It doesn’t exist. So unless the band receives a Lucaslike advance for a prequel, this new LP will have to do. And it does just fine, too, channeling and at times nearly surpassing its obvious antecedents, Kraftwerk and early Brian Eno, pioneers who invented a style that the Betas now blissfully take for granted as they create some of the most exciting nonrock rock music currently being made.
You might call that music “ambient/pub rock,” for its casual, soulful melodies, or “synth/folk,” for its occasional hippie-dippiness, or even “techno/classic rock,” for the radio-ready coherence the band favors on Hot Shots II, on which all but three tracks clock in at under five minutes. The chanting “Human Being” skates lightly across each of those hybrids, marrying a lilting tune to a furious and fatal refrain to Deep Purple-style hard rock that’s a guaranteed Ecstasy buzzkill. “We might just break/Can you hear us trying?” asks an excited-for-once Mason; it’s a weirdly appropriate slogan for a band on the threshold of success thatscrew successalso seems permanently committed to an assault on all musical boundaries.
On Hot Shots II, the Beta Band’s attack strategy is characteristically mellifluous. The group got its first big break in the United States with “Dry the Rain,” its scene-stealing contribution to the High Fidelity soundtrack. A standout track on a disc full of them, “Dry the Rain” was the punch line to the film’s joke about how easily Robthe John Cusack charactercould sell Beta Band albums simply by playing the song for unsuspecting shoppers in his store.
Real-life record-store clerks will probably have the same luck with the group’s new LP. “Al Sharp” even vaguely recalls “Dry the Rain,” featuring a seductively throbbing bass line that darts in and out of the track’s gently insistent acoustic guitar and something that sounds like a toy piano. “You and me/Will never be/Fine,” Mason sings bittersweetly over the song’s synthesized strings and requisite flying-saucer atmospherics.
Elsewhere, the more downbeat “Gone” updates (barely) the melancholy neopsych that Pink Floyd etched into rockdom’s collective unconscious with Dark Side of the Moon. The track is a distant cousin of that LP’s “Brain Damage,” all languid sounds and mournful words: “I’d like to know/Will you think of me/When I’m gone,” goes the pathetic, droning refrain. “Broke,” the LP’s first single, percolates synthetically but also comes with a singsong melody and a swirling guitar figure that undercut its studious electronica. And the gorgeous “Quiet” commingles video-game bleeps and whirrs with soaring harmonies and the kind of crafty but loopy songwriting that wafted out of San Francisco in the ’60s. If the Grateful Dead had come of age during the rave era, it’s a safe bet they would’ve made music like this.
Only the group’s take on Harry Nilsson’s “One”here dubbed “Won”rings even the slightest bit hollow. On paper, sampling Led Zeppelin and name-checking Blondie sounds like a can’t-miss one-two punch; in execution, it’s the musical equivalent of name-dropping, forcing a point the Beta Band makes much more effectively elsewhere on Hot Shots IIspecifically, that the group is impressively hypereclectic, capable of leaping wide-ranging musical styles in a single, hook-laden bound.
It’s true that the Betas seem much more interested in the “prog” than the “rock.” And they certainly know how to bring the jam. On the evidence of Hot Shots II, though, the band sounds as if it at least has a chance of becoming one of those rare artists that get to be as outré as they want to be yet still manage to find an audiencelike the Dead or Prince or, especially, U.S. tour partner Radiohead. Also like their Oxonian counterparts, the Betas make hard-to-categorize music that exudes both euphoria and, lyrically anyway, stoner paranoia. “You can go outside/Where the sun and the people blind you,” Mason sings in the anthemic “Quiet.” Coming from a reported agoraphobic, that’s supposed to be an uplifting sentiment. It’s a testament to Hot Shot II’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink sensibility that the Beta Band actually manages to make it sound like one. CP