It feels like several lifetimes ago that I was able to see live music. In reality, it’s only been a little over four months. But with no clear end in sight and an industry-wide catastrophe looming, I suppose I might be pre-emptively mourning a part of life that I never could’ve imagined disappearing. Some artists have tried to replicate the thrill of a live performance through live streams — sometimes for charity, sometimes to supplement their canceled tours, and sometimes just out of sheer boredom. But, of course, as we’ve learned throughout quarantine, there’s no true equivalent for the real thing. Without the throbbing of bass through your stomach or the intimacy of sharing a room with hundreds of likeminded strangers, it’s easy to confuse one of these performances with just another video on the internet.
That’s why the Beths’ approach is so refreshing. “Beths TV” is part in-studio concert, part 1990s public access children’s programming, part fundraiser, part Q&A. It’s low-budget and haphazard, but it’s also fun and imaginative and unexpected. It’s not quite the same as seeing them live, but it’s about as close as I’ll get in the middle of a pandemic.
I shouldn’t be surprised that the Beths are one of the few acts to reinvigorate a tired model. On paper, they’re little more than band leader Elizabeth Stokes’s characterization: “It’s a guitar band. We make guitar music.” But the Beths’ iteration of “guitar music” isn’t as simplistic as she makes it sound. Their debut album, 2018’s Future Me Hates Me, was one of the best records of that year. Even though they were far from the only band writing catchy guitar music, they sounded peerless. The combination of Stokes’s self-deprecating lyrics, her band’s responsive four-part harmonies, and guitarist Jonathan Pearce’s beefy, power-pop riffs made for an album that all but demanded obsessively listening.
Fans of Future Me Hates Me will be more than pleased with Jump Rope Gazers, their latest album. Every one of their back catalog’s strengths is not only present but amplified. Loud, sugary tracks like “Don’t Go Away” and “Mars, the God of War” wouldn’t be out of place on their past work, though they sound sharper and more dynamic here. That’s not surprising considering they spent the year leading up to this record touring the world, playing night after night. You can hear the dividends in the precision of album opener “I’m Not Getting Excited” or the final minute of the explosive “Mars, The God of War.” When you’re a fairly typical guitar band, a year of touring will ensure that every stop and start in your set is in lockstep; when you’re jazz majors, it leads to a dexterity that makes even the most senior indie-rock acts feel rudimentary by comparison.
The band’s arduous international touring also affected Stokes’ writing, evident in the album’s recurring themes of distance and miscommunication. In the past, she was more inclined to laugh at her own hangups or offset earnestness with walls of sound, but Jump Rope Gazers has uncharacteristically quieter moments that place Stokes and her words front and center, like the slow and sweet “Do You Want Me Now” or the acoustic “You Are a Beam of Light”.
But the record’s strongest moments are when Stokes marries that perspective with the band’s volume. I can’t think of a finer example than the title track, which would’ve been a shoo-in for “song of the summer” in some other, less dystopian year. The chorus features a wall of harmonies, shimmering guitar, and a blunt admission: “I think I love you / And I think that I loved you the whole time.” At its core, it’s a simple pop song, but in the hands of the Beths, even a simple pop song can feel immaculate.