THE BETA BAND – Hot Shots II
It’s a fantastic summer day, a Saturday to boot, somewhere between warm and hot on the heat scale. Me, I find myself in the midst of suburban splendor, laying on a deck chair beside the pool. Mom, Dad: Love ya. It is, in fact, the kind of hazy lazy day of summer memorialized in song since the dawn of popular music.
A song, yes, a song, that’s exactly the thing I need to withstand the torture the sun is unleashing upon my body as my unwilling skin attempts to make a break for it. I do it for vanity — it brings out my eyes, they say *eyelashes flutter* — and for nothing else; something to pass the time is mandatory and, given the intensity of the sun, reading would be a quick and yet, I imagine, painful way to go blind, so music it is, a fine opportunity it’d be to catch up on recent purchases.
After an initial listen to the Beta Band’s Hot Shots Part II, I formed a theory about said album, namely that it’d be perfect for a warm, stifling summer day. In an upcoming article for Freaky Trigger, I will write about the phenomenon that is synesthesia, an “affliction” I am burdened with. What is synesthesia? My dear reader, that would be getting ahead of ourselves, though if you click on the word you’ll be whisked away to a definition. For now, I’ll say only this: Go outdoors, preferably on a cloudless day. Now, close your eyes and look toward the sun. Notice how it’s kind of black but with a glowing red hue that increases with the sun’s brilliance. That is the color of Hot Shots Part II, a color it maintains throughout its duration which offered visual confirmation, if you will, to what I’d already suspected: Hot Shots is a coherent album. “Coherent!” The Beta Band! Co-existing! While the album is a marvel, this is the most shocking revelation: Though it retains the eclecticism the Band have become known for, the new album sounds like just that, and not like a really long EP.
If one were to ask the members of the Band what their least favorite album ever was, it’s still quite possible that they’d say The Beta Band. It’s really not that bad, though; to the contrary, it’s quite good. On “Round the Bend,” lead singer Steven Mason describes how he was listening to the Beach Boys’ Wild Honey which, according to him, isn’t their best album, but it’s still pretty good. Meta-criticism maybe? The Beach Boys are a good reference point: At their most endearing, the Band have the shambolic charm of early 70s Beach Boys records. If The Beta Band was their Friends – brilliant, schizophrenic, and patchy in equal doses – then Hot Shots is their Sunflower – shimmering, meditative, of a piece.
The man responsible for this coherence is British R&B producer C-Swing whose claim to fame (?) was producing an album for Jamelia. This marks the first time that the Betas seem to actually collaborate with their producer, which is not to disparage Chris Allison, but on The 3 EPs and The Beta Band, his input seemed limited to explaining to the band what the red button does. And for all of C-Swing’s skill, I’m still not ready to order Jamelia’s album on import. While he does give the album the requisite R&B touches – makes it bump & grind where needed — it’s more like the Band present him with their toy pianos, harmonic choruses, ragged sensibilities, and video game soundtracks and said, “Here. Now make something out of this.”
The end result of C-Swing’s labor is a gorgeous album of lullabies, varying in tempo and sound. Even when the Band rocks out on the likes of “Human Being,” it still seems strangely hushed, perhaps due to Mason’s resounding yawn of a vocal or the mantra-like quality of the refrains. Typical are songs like “Al Sharp,” “Gone” and “Dragon,” tracks that hypnotize the listener with their vocals and beats, even tricking them into believing that there’s more to song than is really there. A statement like that would normally be considered pejorative, but not in the case of Hot Shots: The songs are outstanding as it is, but they entrance, my mind so that they begin to develop a life of their own there, where layers and sounds that don’t exist in the songs as recorded are born. Like a great novel or film, it hints at potential resolutions while never giving a concrete answer, instead leaving it to the imaginations of the audience. (Note: This is what prolonged exposure does to one’s brain.)
The quality of the songs across the album is even, lending strength to the album’s constancy, but there are standouts. “Squares” is nostalgia for 1993, what we used to call trip-hop, but with the mystery and strangeness that style aspired to but rarely achieved. Hot Shots is the sound of your unconscious, somehow committed to tape, beckoning you to close your eyes and dream along with the music. “Broke” is a Playstation love song, an ode to Lara Croft, unspeakably delicate and heartfelt despite the somewhat oblique lyrics. The trait that these songs and the others share in common, the album’s real strength, is the Band’s understanding of the importance and the many uses of silence. On “Squares,” it enhances the unsettled mood; it emphasizes the sense of detachment in “Gone”; it brings an almost unbearable poignancy to broke; and on “Quiet,” it serves to delineate the trepidation of the verses and the forced optimism of the chorus. In short, it displays how far the Band have come as songwriters in such a brief amount of time, today’s studio masters only four years removed from the callow Scottish bairns that made the EPs.
The final track on the album, “Won,” is for all intents and purposes a remake of Nilsson’s “One” with New York rapper Sean Reveron doing his thing o’er top of it. It says a lot about where the Beta Band find themselves at today: A few years ago, it would’ve been placed in the middle of the album, purposely fucking up the flow. Now, not only is placed at album’s end, but it’s labeled a “Bonus Track” – all that’s missing is the 15 seconds of silence between it and the last “proper” track, for continuity’s sake. For me. baking in the sun while listening to the album, it couldn’t come at a better time because, after being seduced by the album’s cradlesong, it jolts enough to remind me to turn over. For the Betas, “Won” couldn’t come at a better time either: It proves that, in the mold of “Smiling” and “The House Song,” the Beta Band can still rock the house, but that they’ve matured enough to realize that there’s a time and a place for it.