Wrote a review for the underrated self-titled
Me wrote:"It’s definitely the worst record we’ve ever made and it’s probably one of the worst records that’ll come out this year," spoke Beta Band frontman Steve Mason regarding their 1999 self-titled album. In fact, he spoke these words before the album was released. Welcome to the world of the Beta Band: if something isn't making sense, don't fret. Join in. So the story is that the glorious, mind-melting band were unsatisfied with their official debut album, blaming budgetary restrictions and compositional messes in an NME interview. Hot on the heels of the music that comprised 1998's The Three E.P.'s compilation, a masterpiece in its own right that announced the band's colourful, playful intent and unique brand of psychedelic, poppy but arty, strange but embraceable music, The Beta Band were at the peak of their game and at the peak of people's attentions, so to go and write the album off like they did was surely madness. Their label certainly thought the band denouncing the record was madness, and the incident caused immediate tension between them. The band could be touchy and hated promotion, and ugh, they hated this album. Perhaps that's partly why the single-less album only landed at number 18 in the UK charts.
Thing is, they weren't kidding. For whenever their music could be whimsical, the band behind it were serious, even if they were having fun. With the exception of "The Beta Band Rap," nothing here is ironic in that Beck-style. The group's original ambitions were off the scale though, wanting to record this album (initially intended as a double set) in four different continents, as well as producing a flickering ambient bonus disc. Oh, they made the ambient disc, but were too unsatisfied with it. The band's own issues with the album have almost out-clouded the album over time. The other story goes that this album got mixed or negative reviews, letting down music critics who (reasonably) wanted this album to continue the tighter structures that informed The Three E.P.'s. That's not true. In fact, while some critics expressed slight disappointment, this record received acclaim. A nice shiny 8/10 from Q, an admirable 4/5 from the Guardian, etc. And even though the NME gave it a slightly more reserved 6/10, they later included it in their end of year best albums list. History has distorted this album through a strange lens indeed. That the likes of Pitchfork, Mojo and Stylus have written about the record as an underrated album indeed shows there's a puzzle piece missing that was never there. Was it the band dismissing this record so aggressively that has changed history? Probably.
But what was all the hoo-ha about? For an album to live such a strange legacy surely suggests the record is particularly strange itself, and that's not wrong. Whereas The Three E.P.'s melded the band's many disparate influences into gorgeously conceived songs, abstraction plays a larger hand on the self-titled. The songs become more experimental, perhaps more sparse, more random, more all over the place, more inane, more insane, more dense, more detailed, more restless. It sounds like influences and genres fighting for attention at times, and aggressively so. The electronic side definitely shoves the folk side of the band aside for the most part while bringing in bizarre interference from hip hop and blues. There's traditional rock instruments, there's turntables, samples, tape loops, household objects, bells. Its pretty chaotic, no doubt. For this is the eager-eyed sound of an ambitious band given a fair bit of money and a free hand to do whatever they want. Is it messy? Depends who you ask. Some people feel this record is difficult and fractured, while others thing of it as a series of smashed musical pieces stitched together awkwardly but attractively that somehow makes for a delightful, and gripping, whole. I fall into that latter category.
See because while this album is singular in the band's discography in that it's allegedly, according to detractors, the band going "too far" with their psychedelic genre-melting wanderings, if this record does ever meander, the detours are rewarded wonderfully. "You’ll hear furniture laughing and mammals swimming in tinfoil," wrote one journalist of a specific point of this album, and if that doesn't sum up the whole album, i'm not sure what does. If opening track "The Beta Band Rap" works as a mission statement for the album's madness, it exceeds only too well. A three-movement piece that begins with charming, if incredibly busy sounding party music, before seguing into hip hop and ending up in an off-centre rock and roll jump, it's surely unique, and no doubt this mess (and for this track at least, its a sure fire mess) put loads of people off the album before it had barely begun. And those lyrics, where the band introduce themselves and then run us through their history. Is it ironic. "The irony almost made us cry," they suffix to "drinking champagne at EMI". As I said, the band weren't into being ironic. They were the band of the millennium, where the irony of 90s music was left at the door. But this is a practice in bizarre, inverted humour for sure.
The gorgeous "It's Not Too Beautiful" works as a rescue operation for those scarred by the first track. More like The Three E.P.'s than anything else on this album, its no wonder its the band's favourite, working through some truly lovely vocal melodies and lyrics among a sky-wide, panoramic sound of all sorts of noises. "Simple Boy" is a contrast in sound to most of the rest of the album, being bare and minimal, but that oh so Scottish accent, and refrain of "she's a coward, she's a cheater and she stinks," reinforces the band's defining strangeness. The peculiar, jaunty country journey that is "Round the Bend" sees our hero nervously recounting the story of a strange night out (without much of a narrative, so much for lyrics matching the music, hey). "I try to function as a normal human being," he sings, and suitably enough then, throughout he adopts a conversational, casual style that nonetheless sounds uneasy and fast. "I found myself at ninety degrees to the rest of the world." So what does he do? Talk to us about The Beach Boys' Wild Honey. Can we converse, or would he prefer us not to?
This odd little record, and people's perception of what it must sound like, is perhaps best summed up with "Dance O'er the Border". Particularly rhythm heavy, it nonetheless still adopts the busy and layered production that defines this record. Random sounds and bounce in and out of the track which largely consists of all manors of beats and, later, turntable scratching accompanying another irreverent, but at least narrative rap. This is a very random track, and sounds like a series of musical non-sequiturs, with no sound in the song really sounding like it logically follows on from the next. Its part of the appeal, of course, and in that sense its partly a late 90s cousin to New Order's "Fine Time," which was similarly an exercise in random, musical non-sequiturs. Besides that though, the two songs couldn't be more different, seeing as how "Fine Time" is able to cram an album's worth of catchy hooks and melodies into its 5 minutes, whereas there is barely any hooks in "Dance O'er," and the only musical melody (despite some whistling earlier on) arrives briefly over four minutes into the song. It reminds me a bit of early LCD Soundsystem (musically, vocally and lyrically), but generally this song exists in a world of its own.
"Brokenupadindong" is similarly focused on wonky rhythm, but in a tropical, yet folky way that ultimately ends in a frenzied, heavy rave-up. Everything in this song is rhythmic, the vocals, the guitar and, um, those tin pan sounding things that lend the song a gradually building, slow-burning intensity. But fun. Fun intense. And It's the best track in my ears. "Number 15" claims the album's best bassline, but the defining feature here is the strange bell melody that accompanies the, uh, chorus. "Smile" is the hookiest song on the album, which doesn't feel like it runs for eight and a half minutes. A series of direct accusations ("you lost it, you stole it, you bought it, you found it...") form the lyrics, but given the happy sounding music and helium harmony vocals, this is certainly no threat. "Thank heaven when you smile," assures the song frequently. "The Hard One" is quite minimal at any one given moment, but for ten minutes, a lot actually happens in this "Total Eclipse of the Night"-riffing oddity. Swapping the original's opening line around so that it forms the new refrain of "once upon a time I was falling apart, now I'm only falling in love," it strangely, but surely, sounds like what I'd imagine a cozy night in with a loved one would feel like, despite its trippy, open air feel.
And after "The Cow's Wrong" finishes this album, one can certainly see where both the positive and negative camps lie with this album, and why the band would return more to, uh, pop structures and less crowded production with Hot Shots II. It is certainly busy, and offers up a kaleidoscope of bizarre sound and bizarre structure, but oh my oh my, if this isn't just one of the most amazingly, and effectively, unique albums of its time. It's mischievous, but it embraces you and keeps your interest. The record practically reeks of the band's personality and sense of humour, and their subtler emotive side, which gives this album a creditable balance that is often overlooked. The Beta Band are one of my favourite bands for many reasons, and this album is one of them, showing the band working at extremes. This is not placid music, but if you're looking for an album that plays like a party full of misfits that nonetheless breaks down into some enjoyably goofy but surprisingly moving moments, this is the record for you. As it turns out, Steve was wrong. This was one of the best albums that came out that year.