Posts from 17th October 1999

17
Oct 99

MESSTHETICS: The Beta Band – The Beta Band

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Why? The Beta Band is the most troublesome record of 1999 – its makers disown it, its few disciples adore it, a whole lot of people hate it, and a whole lot more like me just don’t know what to make of it, but keep playing it anyway. While there are certainly good bits and bad bits on The Beta Band, it’s not always possible to work out which is which, let alone pull them apart. And the funny thing is that after a few months you stop caring and just take the whole damn lot as it comes.

What did the Beta Band do? Their releases haven’t followed an upward curve so much as an outward one. “Champion Versions” was relaxed, wide-open and catchy and rendered Gomez irrelevant in a couple of bars, but it was still pretty much place-able. “The Patty Patty Sound” was just that, a set of stoned percussive meanderings which showed quite how loose the band were willing to get. But even so, if you knew your stuff it wasn’t exactly unprecedented. And “Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos” sounded like a compilation of the best B-Sides ever and suggested the group could do ‘focused’ if they wanted.

What have the Beta Band done? And now this – The Beta Band takes what the group had achieved so far and gleefully smashes it up, draws a big fat moustache on it, plays it backwards and sniggers over the top. It’s one of the goofiest records I’ve ever heard, but it’s also quite dark and there’s a mania to the giggliness which stops it being just insufferable. It’s no wonder the band aren’t happy with it – I’d be frightened if I’d made The Beta Band, because it’s the sound of a group looking for an edge and suddenly finding out that there isn’t one. The reason it sounds unfinished is that there’s no possible way it could be.

Why aren’t the Beta Band rubbish? Charm, the key to any terrific band. And the Beta Band are terrific – they’re not yet a Great Band, and I hope they never become one, but they have impish forgiveability in spades. Most tracks here careen out of control, fall head over heels, and right themselves grinning. A couple go off the rails totally – only a confirmed miseryguts could love “Number 15”s dour thump (and even here the grumbling is leavened by jackal cackles and kitchen-utensil gamelan) – but the inevitable pressing of ‘skip’ is accompanied by no heaviness of heart.

What do the Beta Band know? Groove: they know how to roll it out and keep it up. “Smiling” and “Broken Up A Ding Dong” are the centerpieces of the album Julian Cope’s been trying to make all decade, ramshackle campfire clapalong jams with a powerful communal momentum that taps into the free-spirited dervish vibe of Amon Duul I, the playful tactility of mid-70s Can, and the cheap rhythms and party atmosphere of late-80s Brit house.

What are the Beta Band capable of? The Beta Band write songs, then hold them up to funhouse mirrors which stretch them or shrink them or pull them sideways. It’s very rare for them to lose a structure entirely (even the stoner bobbins of “Dance O’Er The Border” pulls itself together for a glorious 90 seconds at the end), and the best tracks here often sound like strange nocturnal improvisations around half-familiar themes – the Black Hole sample on “It’s Not Too Beautiful”, or the notorious use of Jim Steinman’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”. They’re also a lot sharper than you might think – “Round The Bend” is the best thing they’ve ever done, marrying a rollicking tune to lyrics which are a finer and more humane pen-portrait of mid-twenties depression than anything else I know. And you get a bit of useful advice about the Beach Boys, to boot.

Who doesn’t like the Beta Band? There is no band in operation who could get away with “The Beta Band Rap”, let alone open their debut album with it. A winning kamikaze combination of audacity and idiocy, it segues singalong chanting into karaoke hip-hop, turning the band’s unremarkable backstory into infectious doggerel. I’ll let you into a secret: I rarely get past two minutes in, but I’m very glad it’s there, because in it’s own way it’s as neat a fuck-you as any monochord punk holler or breakbeat splatter. The people with most to fear from the Beta Band are traditionalists of any stripe, obviously, but also people who think bands should play music and not play with it (or just play), and people who like their experimentalism and variety meted out to them in nice marketable chunks, who’d prefer a smoothly organic progression in pop music to the every-which-way splurge of the Betas. They know who they are and I hope they choke on their godawful power pop records.

Why do the Beta Band matter? The Beta Band matter because they’re originals, and we’re living through times which have been all too keen to write that off. At the end of last year I wrote this about them – “their whimsical, garden-shed experimentalism would be even more charming if they were just one part of a whole new explosion of unpredictability that had swamped British indie in ’98. As it is, let’s hope their influence is viral” – and sure enough this year has seen a gallop of British records owing little to anything except themselves. Uncaring of commercial success, contemptuous of indie rock cool, concerned only with the noble task of creating their own words of sonic or songwriting logic. Some of these albums have been made by older bands hitting form (XTC, The Auteurs), some have come from out of nowhere (Position Normal), some have been curate’s eggs or noble failures (All Seeing I, Campag Velocet), some have set themselves about revitalising neglected styles (Basement Jaxx, Spearmint), some I’ve not yet heard (Piano Magic). None of them have anything in common with one another, except that they’re all intelligent, mostly playfully inauthentic, and they all contribute to my personal optimism about British music right now. It’s been ten years since the Stone Roses, and we need another Roses, and then another decade of increasingly plodding indie populism, like we need a second arse. What we’ve got – this ungraspable variety – is more interesting, more affirming, more personal and more filled with potential than any ‘scene’ I can remember, and the Beta Band are right in the thick of it. What on Earth are they going to do next?

51. THE SUNDAYS – “Goodbye”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

A synthesis, but what a synthesis: the plummy ballerina swoop of Kate Bush, the exotic drift of Liz Fraser, and – the real genius touch – the sensible suburban pleasantness of a hundred Sarah Records sad-eyed shufflers. One foot in the stars and the other in, I don’t know, Croydon, Harriet Wheeler is a uniquely likeable singer, bringing breathstealing grace into the service of the everyday, taking pop out of the hands of the poets and letting it sing the kitchen sink. One of her girl-next-door songs of defiance or desire is worth a thousand Tori Amos conundrums, easy.

Like, for example, “Goodbye”. Often Wheeler sounds tongue-tied as much as tongue-talking, but here she plays it faiely straight, breaking into flight in the lovely middle eight, but otherwise giving a typically understated performance. What gives her the edge over almost every other indie-pop singer is her phrasing. Even at her most gorgeous and baroque, Wheeler somehow still sounds conversational, like she’s sitting at a kitchen table, hands comfortably clasped around a hot cup of tea, and suddenly this impossibly pretty sound flows out where there should be chatter and gossip. So she sings “Those stories were a good read / But they were dumb as well” with a commonsense forthrightness even as she’s turning “These stories” into a rich, heady lunge and “dumb as well” into filigree.

David Gavurin, excellent songwriter though he is, is considerably simpler to pin down: Johnny Marr, only somewhat feyer. Unassumingly melodic, his careful, intricate guitar pop is an ideal backdrop for his partner’s cartwheeling. “Goodbye” is a top piece of craftsmanship and all credit to him. But it’s the voice that makes it. The Sundays’ lack of output, and their essential gentility, have made Harriet Wheeler probably the most underrated singer of the 90s. “Goodbye” is a pearl, and she is a marvel.