The Beta Band were featured prominently in the film version of High Fidelity when John Cusack’s character said “I’ll bet I can sell five of these Beta Band EP’s” by playing “Dry the Rain” in his store. The band also, more importantly, enjoys the coveted opening slot on Radiohead’s Amnesiac tour. So why, with all this exposure, do The Beta Band still have to prove if they’re any friggin’ good or not?
Well, for starters, they’re not like anyone else out there. Mixing funk, pastoral balladry, hip-hop, pop, ambient, and anything else you can name, it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what they’re doing. Is the Beta Band so brilliant that they’re weaving a stylistic quilt that we can scarcely comprehend? Or is it a case of Short Attention Span Theatre rearing its head in yet another promising group?
Ultimately, it may just be a case of the band needing some time to find a comfort level with the niche it’s carved out for itself. The early E.P.’s (collected as, appropriately, The Three E.P.’s) showed a band with a startling breadth of styles and ambition, even if the ideas didn’t always gel. The band, in retrospect, likes The Three E.P.’s but is prone to call its follow-up, The Beta Band, “the worst record you’ve ever heard.” That seems a bit strong, but I’ve got to agree that it’s not good; it’s an album that seems to veer into weird corners just for the sake of doing it, and it’s a frustrating listen.
Hot Shots II, by contrast, realizes a lot of the band’s obvious potential. There’s still hardly anyone else doing what they do, but thankfully, The Beta Band are finally doing it quite well on their own, finding the right mix between eclecticism and accessibility. Gone for now is the almost pathological sense of weirdness that marred earlier work. Melodies course throughout Hot Shots II, and quite a few songs even teeter on the brink of being moving.
“Squares” opens the disc in catchy and restrained fashion with the slightly ominous lyrics “I’ve seen the demons but they didn’t make a sound.” The song is both catchy and restrained, with a brief interlude of piano backed by vinyl record pops and a solid bottom end throughout the rest of the song. In fact, the Beta Band’s rhythm section really comes to the fore on Hot Shots II, making sure that a groove exists even among the most intricate and spacey arrangements. “Al Sharp” even features a throbbing keyboard tone that immediately drops the song from typical Beta Band airiness to an intimidating earthiness, reminiscent of Depeche Mode’s darker material. “Broke”, with its pulsing bass notes, could even conceal itself on a primo John Hughes soundtrack from the ’80s.
Likewise, the low key and effective “Gone” quickly makes the leavening transition from “fell from a spaceship” to “would very much like to fall in love with you” to “will you think of me when I’m gone?” The pace is slow, meditative, and thoughtful — it’s one of the album’s strongest moments, although it won’t be enough to sway critics of the band who say the music lacks humanity. The Beta Band’s one failing is probably the distance that’s an integral part of the music. It’s not only Stephen Mason’s largely monotone and affectless vocals — it’s also a slightly academic vibe that runs throughout the whole record. Still, there’s plenty of immediacy to cling to, from the funky piano, drum, and guitar interplay of “Quiet” to the almost tribal intensity of the drum coda that ends “Gone”.
The bonus track, “Won”, is even a bit of a goof that mixes Harry Nilsson’s “One” with surprisingly proficient rap. As the bands shifts back and forth from Nilsson’s familiar piano melody to some pretty heavy Dirty South bounce, you can’t help but envision the band having a blast as they namecheck Dr. Zhivago and Joan Baez. They even show how to incorporate a faux Zeppelin riff that Puff Daddy/P. Diddy could well use as a model of sampling restraint.
Despite that odd coda, Hot Shots II isn’t like the Beta Band’s earlier records, screaming its eccentricities in some mad bid for attention. The feel here is more of a creative primordial ooze, bubbling away, with the occasional strong vibe escaping into the air. They might not be the second coming of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd (who seem to be their closest creative peers, and whose production vibe the Beta Band have down with eerie accuracy), but Hot Shots II finds them being both funky and intricate in ways that no one else really approaches — not even their brilliant sponsors on the Amnesiac tour.