Following the release of three, now out of print, critically acclaimed EPs in 1997/98 (eventually compiled and released as the album length The Three EPs), this Scottish four-piece released their much anticipated and ambitious first full-length album in 1999. There is something of a critical consensus regarding The Beta Band’s problematic self-titled debut. Ask anyone who knows The Beta Band mythology and they’ll tell you: The Three EPs is comparable to talking to God, while the debut full length is something lower than that stuff at the bottom of your toilet. It is such a widely held opinion as to have become almost fact – an indisputable truth if you like; even the band themselves called it “the worst album made this year” and/or “fucking awful”. But here at Pierce’s Press coming in at Number 11 in the 25 Greatest “Worst” Albums of All Time, I am attempting to reverse this trend, to salvage the reputation of one of the most misconstrued, ripped apart and unjustly trashed records of the late 90s.
Of course having said that, there’s no denying that The Beta Band is something of a challenging listen from beginning to end; it’s startling mix of acid-house, motorik, electro-folk, hiphop and stoner-rap (at times all in one song), with numerous rough sketches and studio trickery embedded throughout, it almost defies criticism. The album is definitely lush with ideas, the Betas wandering, albeit aimlessly, through some very strange terrain; and its charms, at times, greater than its predecessor. The possibilities seem endless, and the album captures the sound of a band unafraid to do anything.
When the album could have proceeded in any direction, the opening The Beta Band Rap unsurprisingly produces their most scattershot work. One of the great things about this band was their mystique, unfortunately this track, with the somewhat unlistenable half-Elvis/half-Mr Sandman-barbershop quartet rap, unravels their entire journey thus far and is the strangest thing on the record. Album standout It’s Not Too Beautiful is a pleasing upbeat pop psychedelia oddity with orchestral samples of John Barry’s score for The Black Hole; it’s a fine track if a little weighed down by abstract noodling (something this album is not short on). Band leader Steve Mason’s interest in the plastic r&b come to the party on Simple Boy, Round the Bend and, strangest of all, Dance O’er the Border, all rather inconsequential contributions with improvised lyrics and odd sound effects, generating some interesting textures. By this stage the “beats + indie” formula is starting to wear thin, however the next track Broken Up a-Dingdong begins as a pastoral acoustic guitar piece, then moves into a synth-based krautrock odyssey, with spiralling drum swirls and marimba solos; it’s remarkably effective given the genre. The disturbing ‘Ghost Town’ shuffle of barely-there Number 15 floats on the edges of consciousness, Mason’s vocals unobtrusive, almost mumbled; unlike on the freak-out beats of the chanted Smiling where he isn’t there at all. Clocking in at 8 and a half minutes, it’s possibly the most accessible and the strangest piece on the album at the same time.
The penultimate track The Hard One is sublime, an overlooked gem in the Beta Band canon, a delicate pop song held afloat by firstly a looping bass, then a piano sample of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart (of all things), and the muted refrain of “Once upon a time I was falling in love, now I’m only falling apart” is very odd but touching. The song then shifts into mid-tempo stoner-dub territory creating an unsettling effect, meandering over 10 trippy minutes, it’s nice enough, finally cohering into a song at the end. Album closer The Cow’s Wrong is a deceptively simple track, rewarding the listener who has stuck around this long – charmingly psychedelic.
Despite all its weaknesses and inconsistencies, The Beta Band somehow transcends its fractured construction, and as a full-length album, is layered, revealing its quirks and charms with each subsequent listen. Not only was it a daring move for the band to release such an eccentric debut, but they’ve managed to extract engaging music; and fifteen years later, The Beta Band has aged surprisingly well for an experiment of this nature, its flaws more tolerable and the quirky high points have become better.
- The Beta Band Rap ∗
- It’s Not Too Beautiful ∗∗∗∗∗
- Simple Boy ∗∗
- Round the Bend ∗
- Dance O’er the Border ∗∗
- Brokenupadingdong ∗∗∗∗
- Number 15 ∗∗∗
- Smiling ∗∗∗∗
- The Hard One ∗∗∗∗
- The Cow’s Wrong ∗∗∗∗