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Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Beta Band: Hot Shots II


1) Squares; 2) Al Sharp; 3) Human Being; 4) Gone; 5) Dragon; 6) Broke; 7) Quiet; 8) Alleged; 9) Life; 10) Eclipse.

A strange band indeed: first, they complain that the industry people would not let them turn their unfinished demos into fully shaped songs — then, finally given complete creative freedom, rele­ase a collection of songs that really sound far more like demos than songs. I guess if this reminds you of the typical behaviour of a capricious little kid, that's because The Beta Band have always had this capricious little kid inside them. That's an essential part of their recipe.

Hot Shots II is crazy, spacy, and seriously minimalistic. This time around, there is no getting side-tracked from the main groove, which is very sharply pronounced on each individual track. There is also no more fair use for the term «post-modern» when discussing this music. Regardless of the actual personal beliefs and values of the band's members, the music they create no longer confounds genres and challenges the rules for the sake of the challenge: yes, it is an intentional merger of trip-hop rhythms with old time psychedelia, but it feels like a sincere synthesis, a heart­felt attempt at blowing the minds of the young generation by giving them a familiar setting stuf­fed with acid-fuelled idealism from days long gone by.

The younger generation did not buy into it as energetically as they hoped, but Hot Shots II still climbed reasonably high up the charts, and why shouldn't it have? Most of this stuff is attention-grabbing, and also pretty accessible. Why deny something like 'Squares', when its head-bobbing rhythm, astral guitar hooks, and singalong vocal melody are as commercial as they come? The opening lines — 'I seen the demons, but they didn't make a sound / They tried to reach me, but I lay upon the ground' — show signs of an uncozy disturbance, but rarely over the course of this album does it become uncozy to the point of putting the record in a different rating category.

There are traces of darker darkness, but timid ones, and also beautiful in their timidity — e. g., the gloomy ballad 'Gone', where the «deep»-sounding guitars and sparse minor piano chords define the very idea of light, but pervasive sadness. Check the lyrics and you will find that the protagonist "fell from a spaceship" and "was taken for a little ride" — of course; this whole al­bum was, most likely, created by people who fell from a spaceship and bumped their heads real hard — but, truth is, the song would have just as easily fit onto a Tim Buckley album, to name but one old-timey candidate. Just a good old moody ballad.

Timid, yes, but if there is one particular direction in which the Betas were evolving, it is «doom and gloom». In terms of instrumentation, the entire album is light, but the mood it sets is anything but; on one side, the record is bookmarked with 'Squares' and their "I seen the demons", and on the other side we get pricked equally hard with 'Life': "I went to look for shadows, but the sha­dows they found me... I want to be somebody else, I feel I won't be free — is this me for life?" and they loop the last question to the sound of rough, unpleasant synth grunts, too. 'Dragon' gets us high in the sky, cooking up images of psychedelic revelations ("I never been the type to sing all night but AAAAAAAAAHHHHH!"), but midway through dissolves into a sea of growling keyboard noises accompanied with the telling refrain: "How the West was won is a lie — but it's made to sound like fun...". So when the record finally comes to a close with the bright, innocent, seductively deranged 'Eclipse' ("We all live together on a little round ball, we all sing together when the cuckoo calls"), it is almost like an apology for the pessimistic vibe of the rest — one that smoothes the side effects, but does not wipe them out entirely.

It should, however, be noted that all these things only float out very slowly on repeated listens. With all the minimalism and subdued atmosphere, Hot Shots II defies, denies, and self-parodies its title — this album is as far removed from «hot» as the average portrait of America's First La­dies. To some, it will rather be «tepid» — devoid of aggressive, rousing moments, but not nearly quiet enough to truly count as «ambient»; and «tepid» is clearly a negative assessment. Give it a little time to sink in, though, and you just might get to like these strange furry animals from outer space showing signs of troubled longing for their original homeland. They got the bug, see? Spot the bug, and see why it has forced me to give the album a thumbs up. Unfortunately (or, rather, for­tunately), I don't have the bug myself, so it is only the brain part that reacts positively. But who knows — you may have it, and then Hot Shots II will no longer be just «tepid» to you.

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