BETA BAND with KID KOALA opening for RADIOHEAD at Molson Park (Barrie), Friday (August 3). $45. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
rarely has a case of career sui-cide been as successful as that of the Beta Band.In 1998, the British pop jokers really could do no wrong.
The foursome's first recordings, the Three EPs collection, were an instant critical success. A trio of mini-albums that brought together hiphop, psych rock, folk, dub and eerie field recordings, the Three EPs were, as a scene in High Fidelity demonstrated, the kind of record you could drop on in a hipster record shop and immediately see a line form at the till. What, people wondered, would the Beta Band be able to do with a full-length platter?
The band's answer was their virtually unlistenable self-titled 99 disc, an impenetrable slop of in-jokes, half-songs and stupid concepts that work only when stoned. It made the jettisoned companion disc of ambient farting around sound like an opera by comparison.
The response was a predictable mix of disbelief and abject horror. Hype over.
It's presumably with that in mind that the Beta Band went to work on their sophomore album. Hot Shots II sounds like a measured response to the brutal critical and fan thrashing they took. There are proper songs, solid beats and flashes of the casual brilliance that initially made the Beta boys stand apart in the first place, and while it isn't a complete return to form, at least the band have the guts to say they screwed up.
"I don't know what happened," bassist Richard Greentree moans from Atlanta. "I guess we didn't do our homework.
"With the first album, we had a month where we were supposed to be writing, planning and coming up with ideas. Instead, we just screwed around and spent money. By the time we got into the studio, we had nothing to go with and simply made it up as we went along.
"I agree that this new record was a response to that whole affair, but I also think people have these wild expectations of us. They just want us to keep repeating what we did before, and that's understandable. When you're surrounded by so much shit, you'll automatically grab onto something that's good and want to duplicate us.
"We're not about that, though. We want to move forward. Hot Shots II is the best thing we've ever done, and anyone who tells you different is full of shit."
Greentree credits much of the Beta Band's turnaround to their inspired choice of producer.
Pushing buttons and keeping the stupidity down to a minimum on Hot Shots II is ultra-mainstream UK R&B producer C-Swing. If you believe Greentree, it was Swing's work churning out treacly soul ballads that helped prevent another Beta Band studio debacle.
"All we listen to is hiphop, R&B and reggae," Greentree insists. "We wanted to fatten up our sound so that if you listened to it on a car stereo things would shake. Swing helped us get that booming sound. If we'd used just some boring rock producer, the record would have been lo-fi.
"We thought of using someone from the States that we really admire, but it was impossible. DJ Premier would have been brilliant, but we couldn't afford him, and I doubt he would return our calls. Same with RZA. Why the fuck would someone from the Wu-Tang Clan want to work with a bunch of white guys from England? We didn't have a chance."