ho would ever have guessed the Beta Band would succumb to its collective drug habits and mental instabilities? Sure, founding member Gordon Anderson left before the band’s relative “success” and spent the better part of the next ten years in a hospital, but, you know, they were all still young! Insanity’s an infirmity of youth. Surely these swirling psychedelic tapestries and not so much alt- but anti-universe Britpop nuggets were the result of a collective reveling in the bounties of bonhomie and creative companionship, no? Well, sure, that was much of it, but that’s really boring. When Steve Mason and the band imploded shortly after the release of 2004’s Heroes to Zeros, he blamed both the band’s insurmountable recording debts and his taste for drugs. There. That’s how you tell a story for the NME.
Thankfully, for those of us who loved them through all of their excesses and blessedly baggy hymns, the Betas’ former members have been hard at work in the time since their collapse. Mason released his debut full-length under his King Biscuit Time moniker, Black Gold, last year, and is at work on a more electronic project as Black Affair. Now Gordon Anderson (who recorded as Lone Pigeon after his departure from the band), the Betas’ drummer Robin Jones, and keyboardist John Maclean have united as the Day-Glo psych outfit the Aliens. But where Mason’s work as King Biscuit Time reverted to an earlier, more stringent version of the Betas’ star-gazing folkaholica and astral dub, the Aliens strive for something more organic, picking up just where the Betas left off on Heroes to Zeros. Astronomy forgoes some of their experimental whimsy, instead cashing in on years raised on mainstays like the Monkees, Canned Heat, the Beatles, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and Dick Dale, while adding the erratic flourishes of contemporaries like the Super Furry Animals and Caribou. Astronomy sometimes sounds like a British invasion LP given the remaster and remix treatment: dance-ready, fit for a plush couch and extra-plush headspace, and oddly misfiled in time.
And, admitting the reference’s tired weight (currently placed at #7 in Stylus’ Journalistic Cliches to Avoid, between the adjectives “simmering” and “chiming”), it’s impossible NOT to mention the band’s well-known Beatles fetish here. “Tomorrow,” for example, may be the best outtake from the Help sessions never to surface, as Anderson and the band turn in a cantina folk nugget almost satiric in its note-for-note homage, and “Glover” shows Anderson back in prime Lone Pigeon form, a strutting, righteous piece of fluff fit for Mr. Kite’s benefit gala. But, as I said, there’s a wider dexterity to their deference than Fab Four-worship. “Only Waiting” mines the Steve Miller Band via Sailor or Brave New World for a giddy, roll-in-the-fields anthem, replete with an “It’s alright now, it’s okay” chorus. “I Am the Unknown,” originally recorded as a demo for the Betas’ The Champion Versions EP and included as hidden cut at the end of Lone Pigeon’s Concubine Rice, emerges from wrinkles of tape and almost noiseless beats into a lush organ jam that lasts almost six minutes.
At times though, Astronomy offers uncomfortably nostalgic peeks at their former life. As members of the Beta Band, they often had a difficult time distinguishing between the progressive and the stilted elements of experimentation, or just sounded like they had too much studio time to fill and no idea what to do with the tape (“Monolith” or “The Beta Band Rap” spring to mind). When Maclean, Jones, and Anderson revert to these full-grin dry runs, Astronomy feels weightless and irritating. Lead single “Setting Sun” can’t possibly justify over five minutes of California shimmer and noisy miasma (“Just like the setting sun. . .just like the setting sun”), and “Robot Man,” from the band’s Alienoid Starmonica EP last year, wheels in absence around a shrill “I am the robot man” chorus and more bubbling organ. Add the Canned Heat on Ritalin jumparound of last year’s single “The Happy Song” and you begin to see why Astronomy’s eleven songs clock in at an obese seventy-two minutes.
Despite its joyful and temporal excesses, Astronomy for Dogs, much like Black Gold, provides a fond look at just why we adored their elasticity in the first place. In separate places and detached times now, under whatever nom de recording they choose, the members of the Beta Band are putting out music again. Sometimes it’s better to give in to their gambles than to argue with them, so clear out a little time for the whatthefuck.