The Beta Band
Heroes to Zeros
don’t know many hippies—the ones I do know are seventeen years old. But a few of them are really smart; they do their reading and are sort of idiot savants at a few things, be it the Civil War or Daoism or moe. or pot butter. The Beta Band hate being called hippies, but I mean, dudes trade instruments onstage and jam.
Now, the good thing about hippies is that they never have anything to say—so it’s really easy to ignore what they say in favor of how they say it. This one kid I know delivers the facts with such verve, looking me straight in the eye and gesticulating just so, hammering his fist directly into the cusp of his hand. He holds it and it unfurls in his hand, twisting and pulping until it’s just three fingers, edging toward my face up and down as he tells me exactly what he means. He is brilliant and lost. But he has these blinding moments of vitality that assure me he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’ll be a public speaker one day, or someone so invested in that perfection he’ll become unapproachable.
The Beta Band, however, don’t know what they want to say yet. Their returning single, “Assessment,” is one brilliantly divisive tune: instead of playing to the ‘eclectic’ field they’ve laid stake to—hip-hop dub psychedelia jam fry egg hopscotch blend—their three-year absence is ended by an entrance into surefooted rock par excellence. Guitars abound in a plain Jane rock anthem and they spew some dribble about feeling things. But then they stop the song and drop the guitars for a minute of chest-pounding horns. You gotta give them credit for trying!
The group’s uncertainty couldn’t be found in a better album title than Heroes To Zeros. Because where “Assessment” finds The Betas becoming too confident—trying to cover every base really obviously and embarrassingly in one slapdash opener—the rest of the album is too unsure of itself to climax with a single piano note (see: “Rock and Roll”). Each song works in that timid shell, in reverb-laden Godrich space for the rockers and reverb-laden Godrich space for the naive folkies. The band is as direct as they can be, in that songs have discernable beginnings and ends.
It’s unfortunate that this band is so unsure of themselves, least of all lyrically. It’d be nice if I could believe this is a concept record about lost love, but like his permanently dazed forefathers, lead singer Steve Mason gives up in his sea of hackneyed love epithets. “Start is the end / More or less / The Milky Way results from the crowding / Of extremely faint stars”, he sings in “Space”. His soporific voice, yearning for some sort of honesty in the emptied world—rather, the universe, or some shit, and maybe he has a toss at Blair—isn’t content. Hippies need a mate, too, don’t they? “I’m so blind, I can’t see / What’s going on behind me”. The band thinks about reading up on Spiritualized and makes love in space on “Pure For”: “I’m so glad you found me”. Mason just points his fingers at me in a million lost directions.
And sure, they can really swing. But every track that they should be doing more of—the bullshit party jam “Easy,” or the indie rock Basejaxx—Heroes indulges itself equally elsewhere. Inexcusable songs about cloying heartwrenching trouble (“Troubles”) and being alone like a simple man (“Simple”) manage to pop up next to hugely climaxing rock attacks about being outside (“Out-Side”). Too often The Betas lock into that time-tested groove of theirs—uneasy moodiness with a pinch of messy kick-drum here and many, many harmonized voices for good measure—which is really unfortunate; the hippies I know are all about breaking conventional rules, like homework.
“Homework this,” the motherfuckers say! “Liquid Bird” might be the greatest thing they’ve ever done for the same reason this album ultimately bores me: it’s like everything they’ve ever done, but louder, meaner, faster, slower—it’s genuinely surprising. Chunks of the song start and stop, guitars bake like those aforementioned hippies, vocals are muddier than usual. For the first time on this album—ten tracks in—they fly into the danger zone and don’t crash like Goose.
Like that other band they toured with back in 2001, The Beta Band’s new album is a “synthesis of all the band’s previous ideas”. For a band whose sound changed so much from album to album—jam folk to orchestral pop to hip-hop folk, they said!—it’s disappointing to find that they haven’t changed much since I was in the eighth grade. I would rather die than go back to the eighth grade. I assume that you would too.
Reviewed by: Sam Bloch
Reviewed on: 2004-04-27