The Beta Band - The Beta Band
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
The Beta Band were their own sternest critics when it came to their eagerly anticipated ‘debut’ album. Following their early EPs and their eventual collection onto a single album, the band famously lampooned The Beta Band as ‘fucking awful,” claiming it was one of the worst albums of the year. In retrospect, it’s easy to see this as a shrewd marketing move, designed to draw further attention to what was for all intents their first record. Unfortunately, for the most part, the critics gave way to their teasing and fans followed suit. By the time they’d wrapped their career up with the brilliant, concise Heroes to Zeros, The Beta Band was seen as unnecessarily difficult, a short side-step in the career of a remarkably talented band that perhaps never really lived up to its hype. Good but not great, riddled with testy experimentation and gorgeous near-misses, the album placed only two cuts on their recently released Best Of. . . comp.
As the Betas have since given in to debts and the impossibility of generating profits under their contract, it’s time to look back at their now-sealed catalogue and reconsider the values of each record. The question then becomes not whether The Beta Band was a decent album that fell short of our own expectations, but if perhaps, in its own willful chase after the wunderkind of sound and design, whether it shouldn’t properly be seen as one of the band’s greatest accomplishments. It is after all a record that refuses categorization, and such battered singularity usually draws praise in heaps.
The Beta Band were always headstrong, and here you see them chasing their own tails in wild-eyed delight, summoning all the fires of the forest and the scattered stars in the sky to cast light on their studio jams. Drunk on their own spirited cacophony, the band assembles not only some of the more singular ‘alt-pop music’ of the last decade but does so in a veiled manner that never shows its hand until you’re four songs deep and still stuck in thought about the first. This is a brave and cohesive record, the latter a term that probably doesn’t spring to mind for most. The fact is that in its testimony to balls-out astral tribalism, they manage to somehow form a whole out of shattered, uneven pieces. It’s awkward, Dalian, almost completely disinterested in closing the circle, and that’s the beauty in its madness.
Sure, you can write off “Beta Band Rap.” I do. I skip it every time, but when did the Betas make a perfect record from start to finish? Every album had its “Monolith” or its “Won,” peculiar experiments that never quite finished. A band this full of frenzy was talented in error. The greatest problem comes in that the album’s bold what-the-fucker comes on its entry, but that’s a mistake you almost have to admire them for. Using this track as intro shows the same effrontery as their pre-release slogging, and makes your wonder again about the shrewdness behind their false steps.
“It’s Not Too Beautiful” however is one of the most stunning tracks the band ever created. Lifting with the same soft swerve of “Dry the Rain,” throbbing guitars push a whished whirlpool sound above their heads before Stephen Mason enters on his own multi-tracked levitation. The song seems to take flight on the whirl of a helicopter, with blades blunted and made soft by the dander in the air. Cascading string samples swallow the track’s rise before the band begins to recreate their groove again, like awaking from a sand-nap to step back into the salt of surf. As with so much of the record, the Beta Band forge songs out of seemingly disparate sets of sound. Each section is given time to breathe in its own raspy air, and then forced to holds its breath and wait while other elements take the fore.
Following these paste-cut theories, “Simple Boy” begins almost like a whispered street-poet dirtying the diag, backed by changes in atmospheric pressure and a storm-front blurring the horizon, before it smacks into the cuckoo-musicboxery of “Round the Bend.” The crew waxes idiotic about the Beach Boys’ catalogue, paying daft homage to one of their great loves. Sterility goes soft here, and the dew-eyed romantic eats his first cheese curd. The juxtaposition is impossibly direct, as though the band has perfected yin-yang in song and sound and they’re too fucking shrewd to point any fingers. These songs weren’t meant to perch back-to-back, and it probably leads to the oft-handed ‘uneven’ label given the record by fans and foes alike. Still, I seem to remember the absurd mish-mash of “A Day in the Life” working quite well.
Perhaps the record’s most reckless screw is “Dance O’er the Border.” Against alternating beats and huffs of breath, the Betas make hip-hop out of step-front beat-boxing. Whistles set an airy backdrop, until suddenly, the band cracks into Beasties’ worthy break-beats. Nonsensical and almost offensive in its refusal to toe the line, the band allows its wild narrative to stop mid-stride, and the song shifts into more of the music-boxing mastered here. “Number 15” is similar in tone and frustration, revolving around monkey-shine dance and odd choral refrains (“twenty-five reasons that I wouldn’t want to”). Listen closely, you’ll hear furniture laughing and mammals swimming in tinfoil. Chains off, the inmates surely doling out the meds, and you seated in place, stuck against the evolution of this other world of place and sound that may well be more inviting than your own.
That’s why you stay; it’s why you listen and look and refuse to turn away. Full of pastiche and the negation of the creative process that the Betas thrive on—it is what it is you know, and this might well be the result or it might not but we’ll thrive on what this moment shows us and go with it full-throttle—it provides the key to its own labyrinth: there is no key and no route but that which you hear each and every time you enter so put away your fucking need for quantification for a minute or two and walk with us. The Betas are breathless in their creativity, and usually most of their gasp and heave is spent catching up with what they just put to tape. It’s an experience, and one worth tracking for the giddiness of having narrowly escaped some fatal loss of sense. You felt yourself tense and sweat for a second, maybe your eyes even closed, but in the end you steered clear and can look back with relief. To fault it for its unevenness is like shying away from David because he’s naked.
By album’s end—after the bottomed out gorge of “Smiling,” the broken-eyed ballad “The Hard One,” and the morning-break ascendance of album closer “The Cow’s Wrong”—it’s clear that six years is too long to hold out on this record. With the Betas behind us and Mason preparing his solo LP under the King Biscuit Time moniker for an early 2006 release, we need to reevaluate this record’s standing, not only in the band’s peculiar oeuvre but in our own peculiar pasts. I, for one, stick this one in with the hunger I hold for the rest of the band’s material. The Betas are to be cherished like few other bands of the last decade. They progressed by leaping backwards and then to the side, like a child trying to hide his tracks through a sand dune, sure that nobody will be able to track him and he’ll have the clean vistas he discovers to himself. The Three EPs is their nascent inspiration; The Hot Shots II, their ‘return to form’ record; Heroes to Zeros, their ‘grown-up’ record, the distillation of their songcraft into twelve songs of dander-soft musicianship. The Beta Band remains the broken-toothed step-child with a little bit of dander on the lip and a tangle of hair on its back, but Christ those eyes, so keen and full of mischief, forgive the ugly parts.