The Beta Band
The Beta Band can help you relax. They specialize in the kind of slow, chin-bobbing grooves that urge you to dance, walk or water the plants in a cheerful, introspective mood. Call it their Edinburgh vibe: They make music you can dance to in heavy raingear. Everything they play has an amiable, unhurried feeling, a looseness that comes from their confidence that the songs will -- somehow -- turn out all right in the end.
They also have an utterly recognizable sound, thanks to the vocals of Steve Mason and the instrumental work of drummer Robin Jones, DJ/sampler John Maclean and bassist Richard Greentree. The listening experience is a series of small revelations. The fog lifts, the chaos drifts into something more regular, and suddenly we hear the absolutely right melody, lyric or odd bit of noise to assure us that this music is no accident. The Beta Band's music has the echoplexed trippiness of Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd, but is grounded in the beats and sampled textures of contemporary trip-hop and dance music, and topped off with classic Britpop song structures. Yet for all their knowledge and breadth of reference, the music remains emotionally open, largely because of Mason's vocals and lyrics. His voice provides the feeling of calm and continuity that allows the instrumental parts to work their surprises.
Hot Shots II, Beta's third and latest CD, follows the band's excellent full-length stateside debut, the Three E.P.s collection, and the disappointing self-titled follow-up, which even Mason has called "fucking awful." Hot Shots II, however, makes good on the promise of Three E.P.s, and contains some of the band's best songwriting to date. The arrangements show their usual flair for interesting juxtapositions of sounds and genres, but in a far more focused way than earlier CDs: "Al Sharp," for example, matches up the tick-tock of a drum machine with Beach Boy harmonies, Indian tablas, resonant bits of acoustic guitar and a small orchestra of toy percussion. "Human Being" is an even more winning track, because it demonstrates the Beta Band's ability to shift moods by holding onto an odd section of a song until it takes on an entirely new quality. "Human Being" starts with Mason's tranquil voice on top of earnest guitar strumming and a weepy pedal harmonium, a combination that sounds merely pretty until the band transforms the chorus into a righteous rock and roll anthem at the song's end.
Though their music owes a great deal to the recording studio, they should put on an interesting show. Past performances have featured homemade films, psychedelic light shows, outlandish costumes, human beatboxes and strange custom instruments. Count on the Beta Band to produce something equally offbeat and compelling this time around.
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