Fri Nov 2 at the Showbox, $15/ $18.
Corporate indie is the new scourge of the British music scene: guitar bands that come ready-formed, as if to specific consumer designs, bursting into the charts with all the grace of Noel Gallagher skydiving, the image and music specifically tailored to recall certain eras and genres, and never too challenging. It's the post-High Fidelity generation, musicians who in previous generations would've killed to have roadied for Roger Taylor, all of whom take one look at Thom Yorke's "student chic" and whining world-attitude and realize that the charts are theirs for the taking, as long as they pay service to The Man. These are bands that have nothing to say, no need to create, but love the idea of making money.
Unsurprisingly, half of the new breed sound very similar to Radiohead (Muse, Coldplay, Ben Christophers) and half like Tim Buckley (Starsailor, anything white and male released by Creation founder Alan McGee's Poptones label), with the couple of oddments left over influenced by Beck's willful eclecticism (Badly Drawn Boy).
Enter a trio of surprising, sometimes strange Edinburgh boys (later expanded to a quartet) who like to shave in meadows and torment bubbles with razors. The Beta Band makes films, samples owls, and is turned on by King Tubby's dub and Barry White's deep schmooze. It is no wonder the bedsit boys and English music press think they have a revolution on their hands. Beta Band songs throw the post-rave psychedelic strangeness of Super Furry Animals in with the post-coital melodies of Talk Talk and Gregorian melancholia--and that's only 30 seconds of it. Still, there's nothing too exciting or experimental that can't be pigeonholed or reduced to a crap phrase, right?
Case in point: The NME called the Scots band "the kings of hypnotic slack," a portrayal the Betas take with a grain of salt. "We're more the princes of Avant Gospel poop," they told one fan during a live web chat, before admirably going on to lay into Radiohead (whom they supported on tour earlier this year in America) for being rip-off merchants.
Vocalist Stephen Mason explained the Beta Band's "Radiohead phase," referring to a description Yorke himself used during the recording of Kid A and Amnesiac as "the one where you rip off stuff that no one's ever heard of--get raved about by the critics--and then don't bother to take the shit stuff out of your own albums, which in Radiohead's case is the miserable shit."
It was the first three Beta Band EPs, recorded in the year after the band formed in 1997 and later gathered together on 1999's The Three EPs album, that really attracted the attention of the critics: found sound and raw temperate beats with a cinematic feel, helped along the way by the Verve's Nick McCabe, and later used in the aforementioned John Cusack film, High Fidelity. Analog dance music recorded with wit and intelligence that seemed to be making an art of the unpredictable--anathema to the corporate indie groups that were shortly to appear.
And the Beta Band isn't scared to leap among genres, either. This year's Hot Shots II album straddles the middle ground between Kraftwerk and Herbie Mann's lush flute-scapes with a disconcerting ease. It makes you wonder exactly what The Man was thinking of when he decided to give Badly Drawn Boy the Mercury Music Award last year for his dreary, drippy The Hour of the Bewilderbeast instead of to the genuine innovators with their spontaneously recorded debut album, The Beta Band. The group may deride that album now, but it sure sounded fresh then.
Hence the change of direction again, to a much fuller sound and full-blooded three-part vocal harmonies that recall the Beatles on the album's closer, the epic "Eclipse." Old fans might accuse the Beta Band of deliberately turning commercial, but the band is ready for them: "If you think it's commercial you're missing the point. Lo-fi doesn't mean anti-commercial," explains DJ/sampler John MacLean, flipping the argument on its head before it's even managed to worm its way out the ground.
So what can you expect to experience from the Beta Band live? Everything including the kitchen sink, basically: human beat boxes, homemade films, costumes, homemade instruments, and a party atmosphere. So exactly where is the influence on Radiohead?