Famously decried by its creators before release as "Fucking awful" and "The worst album released this year", my ears found The Beta Band's eponymous debut to be an engaging, sprawling mess. There was something addictive about its kitchen-sink production, with every space filled up with some form of sonic trinketry, and it was crammed with songs that, for better or worse, tumbled over each other in an abundance of sheer personality. The band felt that their artistic vision had been compromised by record company pressures and production constraints, so it appeared strange that they should choose British R&B producer Colin Emmanuel aka C-Swing to help helm their difficult second album. And despite the warm critical appraisal "Hot Shots II" seems to have received everywhere else, I cant say that the gamble has been especially successful.
The music on "Hot Shots II" appears to be cleft by some kind of uncomfortable schism between band and producer. The only other album I can recall that suffers so obviously from a similar square peg/round hole syndrome is Jeff Buckley's "Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk", wherein Tom Verlaine's precise, mathematical production strained to compartmentalise Buckley's soaring, rambling songs. Here The Beta Band sound constrained, their trademark musical anarchy forced through a regime of meticulous programming, the result sounding like a glum amalgam of their old sound and the sort of precise, mechanised R&B that clogs up the charts and daytime radio schedules. Possibly a greater crime is that there's nothing truly distinctive, either musically or lyrically, about any of the ten tracks presented here. "The Beta Band" was awash with quotable quotes and hummable melodies; all "Hot Shots II" can offer, by comparison, is a kind of grey, unhealthy pallor. It's not even a given that this kind of musical experimentation is doomed to failure: the new His Name Is Alive album, to pick one example, operates in not entirely dissimilar territory, and it's glorious. Noble though its intentions may be, "Hot Shots II" is, by comparison, dull and drab, two adjectives that it verges on heinous to have to apply to The Beta Band, a group sent to earth to save us from all this workaday tedium.
THE BETA BAND Music (Regal)
Gawd bless em, The Beta Band. Lauded as potential saviours of alternative rock a genre then mired in post-Britpop malaise - on the strength of their adventurous early EPs, they famously dismissed their eponymous debut as fucking awful and the worst record made this year even before its release. They broke up in 2004, citing commercial indifference as the reason.
This double disc package one CD of studio recordings, another captured at their last ever gig - is adequate testament to their sometime genius. When John Cusack got a record shop-ful of browsing tribes to nod along in unison to Dry The Rain in the film of High Fidelity it made for the kind of symbiotic coalescence of story and soundtrack only since equalled by the deployment of The Shins New Slang in Garden State. Inner Meet Me has a pretty kinetic thrust to it for a song by a band sometimes incorrectly perceived as neo-psychedelic slackers, and Shes The One models a dense, mantric groove typical of their early work. In fact at times The Beta Bands sound seems like a curiously British interpretation of stoner rock Kyuss meets The Kinks, perhaps.
Film soundtrack strings swell incongruously out from underneath Its Not Too Beautiful, sort of like A Day In The Life chopped up, thrown in the air and spliced back together wherever the pieces fell. From their self-derided debut album, Smiling seems pretty acceptable to me: with its thumping, stuttering drum programming, chorus of tiny, chattering voices and funky Fender Rhodes licks its everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink excess is all too rarely encountered.
The material from their second album, Hot Shots II, modelled a more contemporary, less cluttered R&B sheen, albeit still cut to their own individual specifications. Squares, for example, is Portishead meeting Squarepusher, but Gone is a twisted attempt at Nick Drake-style doom folk. Their distinctive edge was further blunted on their final album, Heroes To Zeroes: Assessment could be latterday R.E.M. at least until its swampy, brassy finale which owes rather more to the MC5. Wonderful is pitched somewhere between a boozy Beach Boys and the third Velvet Underground album.
But all of this we pretty much knew already. The real attraction of this set is that disc recorded at the final Beta Band performance, which took place at Shepherds Bush Empire on 29 November 2004. A solid set of fan favourites, ten of its thirteen tunes are duplicated on the studio disc, but here theyre shaken ragged, giving a real rock n roll backbone to what some might choose to dismiss as indulgent dabbling.
Those string stabs are still present on Its Not Too Beautiful, but the band hammer out a yomping, swampy sound around them that tugs at the feet like quicksand. Inner Meet Me crackles with verve and precision, and where the strangeness and clutter of the studio recording might obscure their musicianship, here it dazzles, like Gomez through the looking glass. The live Dr Baker is quite a different beast, shedding its whimsical outer skin to reveal a faster, tougher and heavier frame, and the rabidly enthusiastic crowd can be heard singing over Dry The Rain like theyre at a Springsteen gig or something. Broke incorporates what sounds like a Space Invaders solo and some smoky folky fiddling, and House Song closes their recorded legacy much like Abbey Road almost did for The Beatles with a drum solo.
These discs demonstrate time and again that The Beta Band broke ground that few, if any, bands have subsequently capitalised upon. Maybe itll take another few decades until much like the way the spirit of Gang Of Four, Joy Division and the sound of young Scotland are all over modern music their influence is realised. In the meantime, remember them this way.