Monosyllabic interviewees that take to the stage dressed as dancing spacemen and gun-toting Mexican bandits. A feverishly-awaited debut album, dismissed as “fucking awful” by its brutally honest creators. If Travis are The Invisible Band, creeping into shopping baskets by virtue of their pleasant anonymity, then The Beta Band have looked like The Impossible Band: a genreless cavalcade of contrariness, blowing kisses of death to the marketing men as they prance off to The Land Of The Bargain Bin.
And now? Why, it’s ‘Hot Shots II: This Time, They’ve Gone Ramp;B’. Sort of. For their second album, these three beardy Scots and a ginger bloke from Portsmouth have left the battered acoustics and penny-whistles to their legion of imitators, choosing to enlist C-Swing – aka Colin Emmanuel, crisp-beated knob-twiddler for pop starlet Jamelia – at the production helm.
Despite its gung-ho name, ‘Hot Shots II’ is a dizzy, magical voyage of self-discovery – concise where its predecessor was unfocused, immediate where the pop urge was once lacking. The album’s original first single, ‘Squares’, is still trumped by I Monster’s incandescent ‘Daydream In Blue’, but beyond that, this sounds practically peerless. Think the organic electronics of ‘Screamadelica’ stripped of glorious Ecstasy epiphanies and embellished instead with towering Gregorian harmonies (‘Al Sharp’), surreal avant-rap segments (‘Dragon’), dysfunctional passages of lingering melancholia (‘Gone’), and, just occasionally, hard-fought moments of revelation.
Throughout, frontman Steve Mason sounds doleful and dislocated, perpetually knocked out of emotional sync. But it’s his small victories that stay with you: the majestic ‘Quiet’ deals with a triumph over agoraphobia, with Mason promising, over a rat-tat of electronics and a gentle sitar drone, [I]”You can go outside where the sun and the people blind you/You can go outside where the love of the people finds you”[/I]. By Zen-like closer ‘Eclipse’, Mason is chanting the phrase [I]”Can’t keep quiet for long/I’m a human being/Can’t help singing a song/I’m a human being”[/I] like it’s the only thing that matters any more. He may well have a point.
You know what? It still
doesn’t make sense. Best call them The Improbable Band: it really, really shouldn’t work,
but history will prove The Beta Band right.