THE BETA BAND – Heroes To Zeros

“What on Eart will they do next?”, Tom asked, on this very site, way back in ’99. If you had told me then that the answer would be “release a straight up indie rock record” five years later, I’d have spit in your eye. Okay, so it’s not as bad as all that. This isn’t Starsailor. Or The Shins. There’s still a certain…weirdness to many of these tracks. But there’s still a feeling in listening that this the straightest thing they’ve ever done, the first thing that hearkens back to an older version of themselves, terra cognita. If I was being kind, I’d say they finally made a record which mashed up all three of their original EPs. If I was being unkind, I’d call it their Hail To The Theif. (It’s an imperfect metaphor, especially since their last album was the tightest, least pretentious thing they’ve ever done. [Certain people, including muggins here, tried to damn it with faint praise later for the same tightness. Wrong: it’s my favorite album of the 00s.])

But “weirdness” was never The Betas primary reason for existing, though glancing through their discography you’d have a hard time proving otherwise. (I certainly wouldn’t hold myself to any of these grand pronouncements in court, for instance.) After all, Kid A and Amnesiac are both “weird”, and people bought them in droves. And there’s nothing the Betas have ever done as “weird” as, say, “Kid A” or “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” that didn’t collapse into stoner wheezing and giggly pointlessness. (Though there’s an argument to be said that the same applies to Radiohead, minus the giggles.) This is their main charm, as much as it is a failing. The Betas’ failings are so inexorably linked with their charms, in fact, that picking them apart seems a fool’s errand at best. They’re too low-key to move Radiohead units. They have no statements, except for perhaps that the rapidly aging generation who grew up in the 80s and 90s is kind of fucked (which makes them no different from just about every other rock band around right now, including Radiohead) and that Wild Honey is superior to Pet Sounds (a slightly more minority opinion). When they’re a joke, they’re a private joke. And when they make your heart soar, you might as well be alone anyway. I can’t imagine going to a Beta Band concert, because I can barely imagine listening to them with more than one person in the room. Who the hell puts on a Beta Band record in a crowded record store, like those gimps in High Fidelity?

In a way, though, Heroes To Zeroes is just another step in the Beta’s continual “fuck you” poke-in-the-eye aesthetic journey from “Champion Versions” on. Having determined they could wallop the then-new wave of post-triphop indie plodders (if you don’t remember them, don’t worry, you’re not the only one), they released an EP so Kraut-addled it was the record Faust should have recorded in the 90s. Having proven they could go “out”, they released an EP so low-key it sounded like a slow, rainy afternoon looped for eternity. Having gone low-key, they released their debut album, a record I love more each time I dig it out, which is not often, because it’s still the stupidest, most simultaneously self-infatuated and self-hating record a band of any stature has made in the 21st century, a record I could never love with a thousand years to listen. Having gone round the bend and stared their demons (and bankers) in the eye, they released the tightest record possible, itself a poke at both the expectations that had accrued around the Band and the context of the time, namely rock being full of neo-garage throwbacks and post-Radiohead bathos and doe-eyed emo and bands for whom the future of “rhythm-in-rock” was to transform it full into hip-hop, down to the sensetive thug date rape lyrics.

And now Heroes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want 10 more versions of Hot Shots, with it’s luscious R&B-dancehall-hip-hop-indie composite. But anyone expecting that (truly expecting, rather than just wishing) hasn’t been paying attention. It seems slight on first listen, and maybe a little dark. But then all of their records seem a bit slight on first listen. (Hot Shots great ruse was fusing that pop-rhtyhm-tightness with a patina of stoner delirium, like a golden fog, until the songs just sort of washed over you like a kitchen-sink Shek’spere Neu! remix.) And they’re all a bit dark, in their way. But there’s also something undeniably “rock”-y about it. “Assessment”, of course, which is like an indie rock version of filter-disco, looping the guitar from U2’s “I Will Follow” to mantric (if sludgy) effect. But also “Out-Side”, where the video-game-blip-and-distortion middle eight is followed by a (mercifully brief) guitar solo (!) in a recognized post-The Bends stylee. But the more I listen to it, the more I can hear how they disrupt their “songs”: John Denver guitars that sound like loops, stuttering at the end of the bar just to drive the effect home; an incongruous “funk” bassline under a trifle of a pitter-pat indie jaunt; hallucinatory 303 blips; live drums that go all technoid just to wheel back as quickly; an instrumental interlude that sounds like the music they play at rides in Disneyland. It is a pretty weird record, I guess. Face it, Jess, you got suckered too. You just wanted more sleepy eyed 2-step. You got blinded by your preconceptions. Haven’t you been listening to anything they tried to teach you?

Already, this seems like the ultimate sort of “grower”. I can see it sneaking up on me, steadily, until it makes my top 10 by the end of the year. But don’t expect a glowing reversal in six months, a flailing “I was wrong!”. They’ve all been growers. (The odd bit here or there that knocks you sideways the first time you hear it notwithstanding: “She’s The One”, or “Round The Bend” or “Sequinizer” or “Won”). But “growing” can equal “growing away from” too. Right now I’m just gently baffled by it, and that seems the right place to be with the Beta Band, as per.