THE BETA BAND: THE BETA BAND (1999)
1) The Beta Band Rap; 2) It's Not Too Beautiful; 3) Simple Boy; 4) Round The Bend; 5) Dance O'Er The Border; 6) Broken Up A-Ding-Dong; 7) Number 15; 8) Smiling; 9) The Hard One; 10) The Cow's Wrong.
The Beta Band, quite officially, all but disowned this record upon release, complaining that they were not given enough time or money to complete it properly. Therefore, be warned, future listener: The Beta Band does not, in fact, fully conform to representing the completeness of artist-in-question's creative vision, but merely presents the basic cognitive structures that trigger the process of self-realization without bringing it to fruition. Putting it bluntly, it's a godawful mess, which Steve Mason has admitted himself.
Then again, I cannot help but wonder how exactly the band could have gone about embellishing these creations, given a more generous budget. Turn them into Lenny Kravitz or Ricky Martin was probably out of the question. Hiring the London Symphony Orchestra would be a better idea, but «The Beta Band with the London Symphony Orchestra» would likely only be as good as the sum of its parts anyway. Spending all the extra money on high-class alcohol and adding a genuinely drunken vibe to the proceedings would also have been smart, but that would mean the band actually complained about the record being too normal rather than insufficiently accessible.
Personally, I would say that the Beta's Band initiation into the world of long-playing art is perfectly fine as it is. A little tiresome in parts, perhaps; most of the «songs» hang around for too long, which is confusing, considering that the band members are overflowing with creative ideas — yet they avariciously hang on to them, only dispensing a few per composition. Where a guy like Zappa would have gone for oversaturation, cramming fifteen different melodies in fifty different arrangements per one long track (not a very recommendable approach either), these people take their time, hanging each track on one, at most two, different stable grooves, and then seeing what happens over the course of some whacko improvisations.
This complaint does not apply to the first song, though, which may give a false impression that the whole record may fly under post-modernist banners. 'The Beta Band Rap' does have a rap section, but only in the middle; the first part is fast-paced folksy vaudeville that sounds freshly delivered from the ovens of Sesame Street, and the last one is delirious rockabilly with some mock Elvis/Gene Vincent imitations — but what they all have in common is that the lyrics, rather straightforwardly and not without humor ("Since we've been signed, we eat real good / We always wash our hands and chew our food"), retell the story of the band up to the present.
But the Beta Band's prime purpose of existence is not to confuse and stupefy your mind: like their faraway ancestors from the unearthly paradise of Pepperland, they are here to blow it, and they begin doing this as early as the second track, 'It's Not Too Beautiful' — which it, fairly enough, is not, but it is still trippy enough to guarantee a pleasant journey through the white clouds and bright skies, occasionally interrupted with dangerous moments of turbulence that seem to have been sampled from some heavily orchestrated movie soundtracks.
What follows is almost completely unpredictable — and undescribable. Actually, it is very much describable, but a detailed description of each track would occupy a few weighty paragraphs of space and would make about as much sense as describing Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights to someone standing on the steps of the Museo del Prado. There is a whole swarm of grooves — folksy, funky, hippity-hoppity, even ambient — each one saturated with whatever turns up on the cards: crazy Keith Moon-style percussion outbursts, symphonic swoops, cowbells, whistles, tape loops, white noise, electronically treated vocals, you just name it.
In terms of innovative power, it could be said that the album could have been a direct influence on Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — or, at least, it independently did pretty much the same thing that Jeff Tweedy and the boys came up with two years later. When Steve Mason sings "Once upon a time I was falling apart, now I'm always falling in love" in the monotonous, but seductive refrain to 'The Hard One', he pretty much sounds like Tweedy — but, more than that, what they are doing is taking the age-old folk-pop singer-songwriting vibe and dipping it into a complex psychedelic-electronic sauce, exactly the kind of thing that tracks like 'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart' would be lauded for in a very short while. It's simply that 'The Hard One' is less catchy and more befuddling in its structure — but this should not make it any less deserving of attention.
With albums like these, the obligatory question is always «Would this sound better if I were on drugs?» Fortunately, I cannot answer this based on personal experience; but if there ever was an argument that psychedelic music as such puts together a grander, more diverse and exciting universe than any amount of drugs could ever hope to, The Beta Band are its chief proponents in the modern age. At least, their psychedelia leaves plenty of space for humour, dancing, and basic human emotions. Listening to this on drugs could, in fact, close your mind to many of this album's charms rather than the opposite. It is quite a brainy experience, and so the brain takes the lead in awarding it a brainy thumbs up, while the heart still cannot help but see this as a slight letdown after the pleasures of 'Dry The Rain' and 'Dog's Got A Bone'.