THE BETA BAND: THE THREE E.P.'s (1998)
The Beta Band's first batch of EPs is frequently considered to be their finest, or, at least, most «seminal» (actually, I hate this word) — and it is fairly convenient that, before going on to LP-length material, they bothered to package all three of them together on one disc, delivering me from the bother of thinking whether to review them all separately, or not to review them at all.
These guys are Scots, but they actually represent the kind of Scots who are fairly happy to get away from their Scottishness — at the very least, bagpipes are notoriously absent from these recordings. Their most deep-reaching influences would probably include the likes of the Holy Modal Rounders, the Fugs, and the Incredible String Band — «psych-folk» outfits who found fun in adding various kaleidoscopic pebbles to basic folk melodies. If you think hard, you will discover that the approach, for the most part of the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, was all but dead: folk music went its own way, striving for rigidity, solemnity, and authenticity, and the «psych» bit tended to connect with poppier or hard-rockier stuff instead.
Thus it is that Steve Mason and Co. try to revive this spirit — take the folk vibe and marry it to whatever else comes along as long as it's modern and «relevant»: avantgarde, electronica, hip-hop, trip-hop, whatever works. And, for the most part, it works, because it's fresh and fun, and at the same time solidly bound to traditional harmony structures. Do they have a point? No. They are post-modernist goofballs. You are supposed to make that point for yourself.
The first of the EPs, Champion Versions, is the most accessible. It is bookmarked by two relatively straightforward folk songs, 'Dry The Rain' and 'Dog's Got A Bone', that are catchy, «toe-tappity» and almost obnoxiously friendly — but saved by the lazy, nonchalant, seductively static vibe. 'Dry The Rain's opening lines ('This is the definition of my life: lying in bed in the sunlight, choking on the vitamin tablet the doctor gave in the hope of saving me...') could just as well be taken from some obscure Kinks song, and, in fact, there are nuanced parallels between Mason's singing style and that of Ray Davies — even though the Kinks as such could only have been a relatively minor influence on the Beta Band.
In between these two tracks, however, they sandwich something a bit more challenging: two odd constructions that combine trip-hop rhythms with folk-pop guitars (feel the ever increasing magic of the hyphen!), and eventually become psychedelic jams where anything is liable to happen. But the challenge is worth living up to, because somewhere in the middle of 'B + A', everything clicks, and the trip is activated without any additional substances. The rhythm will never get you off the hook, and the addition of keyboard, percussion, and vocal harmony levels might unfurl a few extra cosmic dimensions if you are willing to take them.
By the time of the second EP, The Patty Patty Sound, the band has already gone off the deep end. This is full-blown unpredictable psychedelia, also bookmarked by cute folksy ditties ('Inner Meet Me', 'She's The One'), but this time they rather function simply as brief enticing intros / relieving outros to the reign of absurdism. Case in point: 'The House Song', which begins with an incessant loop going 'Put it in your pocket for a rainy day, sing your song and you know you're wrong now', then adds extra vocal countermelodies reminiscent of Gentle Giant, and then just throws it all away in favor of a (possibly improvised) rap in pseudo-Japanese. The fifteen-minute 'Monolith', for the most part, dumps the rhythmics altogether, and ends up hanging on a deep, brain-drilling bassline while organs swirl, drums crash, guitars reverberate, tapes roll backwards, seagulls whine, and records scratch. It is easy to hate the thing, but there is so much going on that I find myself constantly interested — it is really one of these love-hate-relations that people can have with unpredictable escapades like the Stones' 'Sing This All Together', or certain sonic panoramas by Amon Düül II.
Finally, the third EP, Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos, tries to find some middle ground — all the songs are weird again, but they are generally shorter, and less strikingly innovative. For instance, 'Dr. Baker', with its ringing vocals, echoey instrumentation swooping at you from high above ground, kiddie chimes, and mantraic chorus, would not have felt out of place on Nuggets II, while the free-jazzy, repetitive 'Push It Out' brings on memories of the early days of The Soft Machine... well, actually, it is not nearly as retro as it all seems: with modern production, modern approaches to rhythmics, and modern ways of genre-mixing, you could never accuse these guys of wanting to exclusively reproduce the styles of old.
But, in reality, it does not matter all that much to what exact extent The Beta Band are innovating, and to what extent they are merely making us remember the well-forgotten past. What matters is that these three EPs do a killer job in mixing pretty melodic ideas with odd arranging ideas with totally whacko ideas about sectioning and developing the songs. If you want catharsis and sentimentality and find yourself here, you got seriously sidetracked; but if you are looking for the old psychedelic vibe bottled in a new, vibrant, ironic post-modernist type of container, you came to the right place. It does not exactly make your brain think, but it does split it in the middle, and that sure as hell deserves a thumbs up.