All the attention reaped by rock's cocky bastards rarely translates into empathy from fans. Give me a musician who's his own worst critic and I'll show you someone you wouldn't mind talking to at a party. (Compare him to the guy who brags about his killer side project before you even know he has a main project. See?) The Beta Band, a group known for taking serious jabs at their own albums, have released their fourth without self-inflicted slander. That said, it looks like it's my turn to play the bad guy.
The band's self-deprecating comments usually point out that their early songs were highly experimental--beta versions, if you will. On their first two releases they dabbled in collage pop, tuning out samples like stations on a broken radio. They straightened the antenna for 2001's Hot Shots II, focusing on structure and a steady groove of folky trip-hop. On Heroes to Zeros, the band relies on live instruments instead of their usual cache of recognizable samples, cutting the epics into easily digestible chunks. But years of "musical development" have led to a more conventional, less interesting sound.
The opening track, "Assessment," pushes their laid-back song delivery through the tired nostalgia filter with delayed guitar, garage riffs, and a big horn finish. The band maintains eclectic tastes in "Easy," pitting Stevie Wonder keyboards against an out-of-tune piano. The clash is wince-inducing, but the instrumentation feels like a return to the playfully tossed-off tracks fans missed on their last heavily polished release. The same what the hell attitude returns on "Out-Side," a song where lyrics about dogs and trains are punctuated with cheap sound effects. It's a dumb gag, but when it's dropped mid-song, the track proves to be one of the album's highlights, driven by rumbling drums that brake only for cymbal-washed intermissions. Then the carefully built layers drop out so that lead singer Steve Mason can solemnly announce, "I love your way."
On other songs it's "I love you to pieces" or "I'm so glad you found me." Years ago, when the Beta Band stole lines from "Total Eclipse of the Heart," you could almost hear the ironic smirk behind the lyrics. But with their copyrighted influences missing on this release, the timeworn sentiments just feel uninspired.
Heroes to Zeros tries to strike a balance between the Beta Band's mishmash beginnings and their recent adventures in slick production. It often fails--which doesn't stop drummer Robin Jones from calling it "the record we've always been trying to make." Feel free to sip your drink and humor him.
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