It takes skill to throw everything but the kitchen sink into a musical career and still come up with an instantly recognizable sound, but skilled eclecticism is the Beta Band’s stock in trade. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt, yet these (mostly) UK-based-Scots have managed to avoid the dreaded “novelty” tag. The group was formed in Edinburgh in 1997 by John MacLean (decks, samples, piano), Steve Mason (guitar, vocals, percussion) and Robin Jones (drums, piano, tape loops); after a move to London later in the year, Richard Greentree (bass guitar, percussion) joined the fray. Since then, they’ve toured and recorded regularly while making the short films shown at their gigs, put out a fanzine (The Flower Press), served as DJs and done session work for the Beastie Boys, Maseo of De La Soul and Dr. John (on his 1998 album Anutha Zone).
The four-song Champion Versions, an auspicious debut, includes the group’s best-known composition, the hypnotic, insanely catchy trip-hop folk song “Dry the Rain.” Punctuated by trumpet and slide guitar, the lyrics are repeated in an insistent dreamlike manner: “If there’s something inside that you wanna say / Say it out loud it’ll be okay / I will be your light / I will be your light…” The mostly instrumental “B + A,” which also exceeds six minutes, builds in intensity, gathering samples and handclaps into its sonic whirlpool, like something off Can’s Ege Bamyasi or Beck’s Odelay.
The Patty Patty Sound boasts the sublime pop of “Inner Meet Me” as well as the eight-minute, acoustic-guitar-embellished “She’s the One.” At twice that length, “Monolith” takes an entirely different tack — a rambling cut-up extravaganza like the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” as interpreted by Pink Floyd or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The Betas even cannibalize themselves as the piece includes a sample of “Dry the Rain.”
Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos hit the streets a few months later and includes another “Dry the Rain”-type number, the darker, but just as catchy “Needles in My Eyes.” That completed the trilogy of UK releases which formed the group’s American debut, The Three E.P.’s. Although it’s sequenced identically to the EPs it compiles, the album plays like an original, organic recording. The Three E.P.’s may be eclectic, but it doesn’t sound like a hodgepodge.
In 2000, “Dry the Rain” was featured prominently in the film High Fidelity. Most bands would give their eye teeth for that kind of exposure, but the Betas discovered what a curse it can be to hit one out of the ballpark too soon (and too far). As with their pals Radiohead, who had long since put “Creep” to bed, the Betas would make the same decision in 2002 regarding “Dry the Rain.”
After The Three E.P.s, the Beta Band had nowhere to go but down, so down they went. Despite three studios (in the UK and the US) and six months of recording, things didn’t come together as smoothly as they had with the EPs. Even before The Beta Band, their first official full-length, was released, they were badmouthing it in the press as “rubbish” and “the worst record made this year.” It’s a wonder they didn’t scrap it altogether. In fact, it’s not that bad, although “The Beta Band Rap” and “Dance O’er the Border” are misguided forays into hip-hop, while “The Hard One” quotes Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (“Once upon a time I was falling in love / But now I’m only falling apart”). The soaring “It’s Not Too Beautiful,” on the other hand, sounds like the Betas channeling the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (a good thing). Throughout, the group’s unique electro-pop sound is in full effect; the songs are just weaker (and sound as if they were written in the studio) and too many of the vocals come across as afterthoughts.
For their next album, the Betas had nowhere to go but up (as if they’d planned it that way all along). Hot Shots II, inexplicably named after the Charlie Sheen film, was widely seen as a mea culpa. The quartet is at their most accessible and least self-indulgent (no “Monolith” here), but the results are still a slight step down in breadth and quality from The Three E.P.s. A few lyrics even have a Philosophy 101 flavor to them (notably musings about questions and answers in “Eclipse”), but there are some genuine songs here, and “Squares,” the first track, is a winner. As with Portishead’s “Sour Times” in 1994 and I Monster’s “Daydream in Blue,” released the same week the Betas intended to issue “Squares,” it samples the Gunther Kallman Choir’s easy listening classic “Daydream” (“Daydream…I fell asleep beneath the flowers”), but still ends up sounding like the Beta Band. Nonetheless, they withdrew the single in the wake of I Monster’s UK hit (it pays to know that Britain’s Radio 1 won’t playlist two songs that sample the same track). The timing was unfortunate as “Squares” has the sweep of an Isaac Hayes opus — funky yet cinematic — with the addition of melodica and a typically subdued vocal. The US edition of Hot Shots II includes a fine dub-psych cover of the Three Dog Night/Harry Nilsson chestnut “One” (spelled “Won”) — a British B-side — as a bonus track.
King Biscuit Time is Steve Mason’s solo project. The eight-song No Style CD consists of his first EP plus four new tracks. “I Walk the Earth,” which sounds like the Troggs’ “Anyway That You Want Me” set to a shuffling hip-hop beat, is the set’s showstopper.