Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
It’s collage, yes, but is it crap or is it genius? The folks in the Beta Band are collage artists first and foremost, but they aren’t content merely to reconceive the visual realm. They’re trying to cut and paste together a new aural culture, bounding into popular music without reservations of any kind about remodeling its interiors.
They’ve often been compared to Beck (mainly in the U.K., where L.A.’s Prince of Silverlake receives excessive props), in that their sound could be reduced lazily to a kind of slacker hiphop, with its silly raps, DJ scratching, and folk inflection. However, sonically and in their attitude, they’re more experimental, relying on temporary mastery of a variety of instruments: turntables (barely), bongos, and jew’s-harps to build their valuable oddities. They’re surrealists who seem to exist outside of time—and outside the usual ideas of music.
Three 12-inch vinyl EPs the band released in ’97 and ’98, now combined on The Three E.P.’s, gradually introduced the group and its dazzling art-school grooves, which sometimes stretch out to absurd prog-rock dimensions. The band’s shows were known to be occasionally disastrous but often intense, equally liable to end up ecstatic or embarrassing. Thus the band kept a row of palm trees on the front of the stage to hide behind if things went awry. The EPs have a similar feel, that of a crew of reckless art guerrillas on a tropical holiday adventure, but one involving more lost luggage and loneliness than pina coladas and sun.
The band’s debut EP, Champion Versions, shades its electronic beats and folky jangle in extraordinary ways—especially the jams that build and swell organically, narcotically, on “Dry the Rain.” There’s a lot of cryptic mumbling over acoustic strumming, sampling, and loping bass. Given at times to a faux rootsiness, the band maintains the mix with a careless ease that obscures its nontraditional constructions: There’s little in the way of the verse-chorus-bridge structure to which Brit music makers are oft devoted.
For those willing to listen closely, the band continued to woo with wit and infinite creative flair on its next EPs, The Patty Patty Sound (which really qualifies as an album, at over 37 minutes) and Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos. “Monolith,” an ambient track from Patty Patty, is a tribute to early prog tape-splicing and
-looping exercises. It’s a work of insidious songcraft; you don’t realize it’s there until you find yourself emerging from its dense cloud 10 minutes later. “She’s the One” pops up next and finds the band safe and sober in clear skies. Los Amigos is an otherworldly circus of a record, strange but consistently listenable. It seems as if the band is nearly done with its explorations and has decided it’s high time to prepare for arrival.
Beta’s highly anticipated self-titled album has a sleeve explaining where the band is coming from: It shows a sunny brook scene, with a night sky pasted in the background as if it were some Hipgnosis knockoff for the prog-rock generation. Plus, there’s an insane collage on every page of its booklet.
Immediately, you understand that if the Beta Band had commercial appeal, someone would be pushing it as “post-slacker.” The band plays up this schtick on its full-length debut: The album kicks off with “The Beta Band Rap” which, in mini-opera format, weds a vaudeville intro to a halfhearted mock-G. Love riff, where the actual rap occurs. But it lasts only long enough for you to catch the joke behind it before the Texas rockabilly section comes in—and the rap version of the band’s history continues. It’s hard to understand a word of it, but, thank goodness, it doesn’t set the tone; it only lightens the mood and disarms you before it goes away.
Beta’s LP changes character with each tune. “It’s Not Too Beautiful” takes you on a trippy journey in line with the band’s EPs and succeeds despite its somewhat obvious John Barry samples. “Round the Bend” is a shambly good mess, with unique instrumentation, bells, whistles, and acoustic guitars. “Bend” finds that guitarist Steve Mason, in his depressed comedy mode, can’t make it out to the supermarket, let alone to Egypt to see the pyramids and his gal. “Dance O’er the Border” offers collage art with a taste of hiphop, wherein Mason raps, with his back on fire, about his life on the phone. The acoustic psych of “Brokenupadingdong” degenerates into primal percussive madness featuring a steel drum. “Number 15” marks the Beta Band’s closest thing to a hit; its piano and bizarre sounds (more steel drum) add up to exotica with a New Wave chorus and dubby triphop backing. With all its mysterious, flickering light sources, it sounds like the future of music—sounds for an age of unimpeded time travel.
Beta’s debut crests with the powerful “The Hard One,” which lifts lyrics from pop singer Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”—lyrics that you know, except they’re done differently: “Once upon a time I was falling apart/Now I’m only falling in love.” It’s the record’s deepest track. The bass and piano go in dark corners, and it turns rather spiritual when the organ and horns come in late. This remote side of Beta suggests what it was that got the band invited to guest on a Dr. John album.
This full-length debut is either a masterpiece or an utter load of garbage, depending on where you stand. The Beta Band indulges in quite a few gags that its members found funny in the studio (“The Beta Band Rap” being the prime example) and creates an overall much sillier atmosphere than expected. And they quickly disowned the entire album when the record hit the streets, explaining that they had had to write and record it in six weeks. Leave it to this bunch to make sounds this oddly compelling, craft them into an album with natural quirks and stoner in-jokes, let it fly, and then refuse to take responsibility. It’s a bit like the artist at his Corcoran opening talking about his own work and saying, “It’s a bit offensive, isn’t it?” CP
The Beta Band plays the 9:30 Club Saturday, Sept. 11.