Everyone’s trying desperately hard to sound like they’re having the time of their lives. It’s an avant-farmyard jug band jam with steel drums and possibly a few ducks, a ludicrous party. But somewhere at the centre of ‘Round The Bend’ there’s Steve Mason, sounding desolate. “I just want to be left alone and never bothered ever again”, he’s singing, and you can’t help wondering; if even he can’t enjoy this fantasia of self-indulgence, what chance do [I]we [/I]have?
For listening to ‘The Beta Band’ is like hearing a bunch of people laughing themselves stupid at a punchline when you didn’t catch a word of the gag. It’s where these hyper-creative eccentrics start excluding their audience rather than ushering them into their cult, a debut album apparently precision-designed to deflate expectations.
. If their superb singles were the products of a furious and playful experimentation, their album takes the principle of doing whatever they like to its logical and ugly conclusion, with goodish ideas flailing around amidst a great morass of in-jokes, half-arsed messing about and disingenuous whimsy.
At times, it sounds like a bad comedy record, especially on opener ‘Beta Band Rap’ where they stray from barber shop harmonies, through cod-gangsta rap posturing, to a succession of wretched karaoke Elvis impressions whilst recounting their smug history, a kind of millennial rock’n’roll swindle so self-referential it seems a conceptual joke at the expense of the music business. There’s a rumour that The Beta Band were called into Parlophone and sternly told off for making such a shoddy record – the kind of naughty schoolboy mythologising you suspect they’d spread about themselves.
But then, just occasionally, something stronger breaks through. Mason, when he’s not being self-consciously barmy, appears depressive, vindictive and messed-up: whilst his sullen raging against an ex in ‘Simple Boy’ and ‘Number 15’ can’t save hopeless songs, they do at least make them vaguely intriguing. What’s more, this stupid and annoying album ends brilliantly. ‘Smiling’ revives their old trick of organically reconstructing house grooves with whatever comes to hand, in the style of the fabulous ‘The Patty Patty Sound EP’, while ‘The Cow’s Wrong’ is, broadly, The Beach Boys singing ‘Feel So Sad’ by Spiritualized, and very lovely, too. Best of all, the already-infamous ‘The Hard One’ is a dislocated, mournful sprawl, orbiting unsteadily round a twisted motif from ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’, that extracts genuine pathos from an apparently tacky conceit. So much is boring and irritating before these gems materialise, though, it’s easy to miss them. Sure, The Beta Band‘s bloody-mindedness is admirable, their talent leagues ahead of the sort of artless student gumbo (hey, Gomez) they’re often bracketed with. But [I]really[/I]: they just made this record for themselves, and if anyone else genuinely loves every last second of it, it’s not just a bonus, it’s a miracle.