By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
If the London quartet the Beta Band plucked their name from the writings of Aldous Huxley (following the Doors, the Feelies, and synth-goth footnote Eyeless in Gaza), they chose aptly. In Brave New World's preprogrammed, meritocratic caste system, "Betas" are the second-tier citizens, the lab technicians who execute tasks for the decision-making Alphas. Likewise, the Beta Band, an Anglo-Scottish freakbeat drum circle of ex-art-students currently being hyped via the usual U.K. hype channels, don't boldly innovate. Rather, they decant the trends swirling around them, from white hip hop to post-rave hippiedom.
The Three E.P.'s compiles the first three already-out-of-print EPs from the Betas: 1997's Champion Versions and last year's The Patty Patty Sound and Los Amigos del Beta Banditos. All three releases blur pale shades of pop blues and muted strains of mainstream psychedelia in the tradition of the Doors, but with the nonpresence of Eyeless in Gaza. To get a sense of the Beta sound, imagine the na-na finale of "Hey Jude" sampled and mechanically spun out ad nauseam. Imagine Primal Scream's feel-good anthems rehashed by morose Eric Clapton clones wielding bongos, acoustic guitars, and a few extra Y-chromosomes. Imagine a pack of new-age Gregorian monks chanting gibberish mantra fragments like "To be free. On the inside" in droning unison.
If this sounds tedious, and a tad reprehensible, well, it is. And if it sounds weird and far-out, it actually isn't--at least not as far-out as the Beta Band would like to be. Yet it's often damned catchy. Like less efficient versions of Huxley's "scent organs" that appease the masses by pumping out synesthetic blends of heady incense and synthetic sound, Beta songs pile bale upon bale of random sound-stuff, then sputter along at flower-power midtempo until the whole heap spills over. The formula can't fail when harnessed to simple, unforgettable tunes--as on the first EP's "Dry the Rain" or the last one's "Needles in My Eyes." But at the other extreme, the second EP's "Monolith" leaves no knob untwiddled in its quest to pulverize samba snippets, bird calls, foghorns, self-samples (of "Dry the Rain"), and rhythmically challenged bongo solos into nearly 16 minutes of sodden slop.
If it's the sullen-groovy shuffle you seek, Beck does it with more wit and irony. The Betas sound like blokes who have plenty of pleasant noise to make, but absolutely nothing to say in (or with) the process. Even the Verve managed to find transcendence in a canned scrap of pseudo Muzak (though they paid dearly). For the Beta Band, is freedom just another word for nothing left to do? Or will the forthcoming full-length debut finally attain the depth and profundity of Oasis? Stay tuned...if you've got nothing else going on.