Astralwerks (ASW 10446-2)
For most of us on this side of the Atlantic, any awareness of the Beta Band most likely starts with the film High Fidelity. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes record store owner Rob Gordon (played by John Cusak) boasts to one of his employees that he will sell several copies of a Beta Band EP in the next several minutes. Not long after “Dry the Rain” begins to flood the store, jaded, know-it-all record geeks are asking after the band and picking up copies of the EP for themselves. “It’s really good”, one of them says to Cusak, who responds with “I know”.
Well, thanks to the movie’s success, not to mention the soundtrack’s, now a lot more of us know too. As much as I love the song myself, I must admit that when I got my hands on The Three EPs (the CD compilation of the EPs the Betas released in the UK) I was a little disappointed. I guess it might be expected from a compilation of EPs, but the disc was a little hit and miss. Great songs, like “Dry the Rain” are certainly in evidence. Epic, sprawling, classic rock tinged masterpieces which manage to sound fresh, innovative and original. Also refreshing was the patently obvious fact that the Beta Band did not take itself in the least bit seriously, indulging in equally sprawling, rambling, often quite bizarre excursions which, after an amusing first listen, got skipped on subsequent listenings.
With Hot Shots II, however, the band has put together a record which, in comparison to earlier efforts, might be best described as cohesive. The humor and occasional silliness are still very much present, but the tracks are more disciplined, flowing into each other much more smoothly and logically. The fresh, sample rich sound of the earlier work is also well preserved, although some might miss the unchecked irreverence of The Three EPs. There’s no shortage of fun though, the album full of lyrics which make me grin every time I think of them: “I don’t want to be the type of guy/ that sits alone reading books/ and never eats a pizza pie”. The mellow, laid back, often double-tracked vocals of Stephen Mason are certainly a key component of the band’s unusual sound, becoming all the more distinctive when he tries to jam extra syllables into a verse, suddenly rushing his tempo as if he’s thinking up lyrics on the fly and shoehorning them in to the existing space. The Beta Band takes what others would consider mistakes or abject sloppiness and melds them effortlessly into their sound.
What else can I say about the band’s sound? Well, it’s hard to pigeonhole. If you can imagine a Scottish born Beck on a Quaalude or two, with an extensive Pink Floyd collection, and more than a passing interest in bands like The Stone Roses, and Spiritualized, then you might be getting close to the sound of the Beta Band. Some people associate them with electronica, and, while they do use a lot of samples and electronic beats, there’s a lot of classic rock influence in their sound, especially when they start stoking the fires of tracks which grow to epic size and end up rocking very hard indeed; “Human Being” being a great example from Hot Shots II.
Earlier work has shown a heavier Hip Hop influence, which, with the exception of the very last track, “Won”, is largely absent from Hot Shots II. Perhaps the Betas are trying to distance themselves from this influence. “Won”, a heavy Hip Hop reworking of Harry Nilsson’s “One” with lots of samples from the original track, is left to the very end and is described as a bonus track. This tendency, combined with the overall slicker feel of the record in comparison to earlier efforts, may cause die hard fans of the earlier work to consider Hot Shots II something of a watering down of the Beta’s sound. The corollary however, especially after a stint opening for Radiohead this summer, and a record as consistently fresh and captivating as this one, is that they’re likely to find a legion of new fans in North America.