THE BETA BAND could be Portishead's bratty little acid-dropping brothers. The spacey quartet of Scottish banditos are as likely to make papier-mâché-palm-tree art installations as they are to record off-the-cuff acoustic ditties over beatbox beats and daydream vocal stylings. And even though the Band flirted with the mainstream when John Cusack played their song "Dry the Rain" and immediately sold their album to circling indie rockers in the film High Fidelity, their commercial viability still remains safely dubious.
The recent Hot Shots II, while easily the band's best album, is shockingly introspective for the art-school pranksters. Stylistically, we're talking dreadlocks and Krautrock, and between here and there, almost anything goes. A strong Jamaican dub mentality characterizes each tune: The downbeats and basslines are the most memorable contributions. Elsewhere, the Band builds proggy folk excursions off of a sample, and lets singer/multi-instrumentalist Steve Mason's sci-fi ramblings launch the listener into the outer limits. There's a spare, slightly sinister quality to the cinematic opener, "Squares." Sputtering rhythms and swelling keyboards and choirs characterize "Al Sharp." And a shambling piano and harmonica end in chaotic punk jamming on "Human Being."
Unfortunately, Mason is silly rather than cleverly inspired on the upbeat "Eclipsed," but that's easily forgiven considering the strength of the rest of the album. At his best, Mason is in acoustic-vagabond mode, creating scenarios in which the lyrical "Power Ranger robots in disguise" and the sampled opening of Harry Nilsson's "One" come together. The Beta Band's stir-it-up mentality isn't unique in rock, but their knack for making organic mutations engaging and otherworldly is definitely distinctive, rendering Hot Shots II a space-case masterpiece.
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