You're supposed to like the Beta Band, or at least respect them. But after seeing them open for Radiohead back in 2001, I had my doubts the stuff from The Three Eps that sounded so intimate and clever on my headphones sounded like it wasn't meant for live performance. I wasn't expecting stadium rock, but the substance you need for a concert wasn't there. Maybe I'd just been standing for too long, but I think the Beta Band are best when they're a little bit of a secret, something you can listen to with your best introverted-genius friend.
Heroes to Zeros, in spite of a few uneven tracks, makes the cut. While the group has mentioned that politics comes up here and there, there's a more personal story running through the album that hasn't been discussed as much.
A couple is growing apart and figuring out what to do next. Steve Mason's somewhat (not unpleasantly) hollow voice seems to be reflecting sometimes to himself, sometimes to a confidant, sometimes to the partner in crime on what holds them together. The album narrates itself in other ways, too: chords play out in unexpected ways, statements sound like questions, Mason's layered vocals alternately accent and challenge each other. The elements understand each other in a solid example of symphonic structure in a rock album.
"Assessment," the opening track and first single from the album, starts with
an optimistic bang and sets the stage for a louder, more rocked-out Beta Band.
When they get into the chorus, it's like someone else is singing "baby" as an
echo, which happens again with "more or less" in "Space." How often do you get
to say you heard a forte piano crescendo in a pop song? It's a minute from the
end of the song and as the sound hushes, what you hear before the rush back in
is like watching the sun set slowly, then suddenly rise back up four times as
Harmonized vocals like Mason's in "Lion Thief" don't get heard enough these days or maybe they do, because they're so hard to pull off without sounding cheesy. Mason, harmonizing with himself, pulls it off. It's like one man singing with his voice and his eyebrows; one vocal brings out the nuances in the other. He's/they're singing "Where do you go when you hide the love away?" to the same reticent girlfriend, plaintively needing her help getting through the twilight of their relationship. Both the chord suspension and song's sentiment stay unresolved as it ends.
"Easy" reveals more of her difficult-to-please nature. It's hard not to dismiss a lyric like "I'm dysmorphic in doses" until you hear what follows: "Imagine trying to shit out 12 red roses." And then it's hard not to love the whole thing. Beta's funk take on the song has gotten some criticism, and I have to agree that they're better when they keep it British and indie.
From there Mason tries to reassure a friend that she is, in fact, "Wonderful." As he moans along, though, you realize he's trying to convince himself as to whether she's worth all this.
"Out-Side" (named "Pot Pissin'" in the lyric sheet) has a chorus that even the online fan forum can't make out. Are they saying "a rattlesnake a rattlesnake" in between "I love your way" and "Am I dreaming"? "Rhododendron" is mercifully short, as all unnecessary instrumental tracks should be.
"Liquid Bird" starts with a driving, motoric momentum that slows to a swagger, then a shuffle, in a track where both the meaning and the lyrics are layered. When they say "If you don't give them weapons how you gonna get your food/ We never guessed that the world would end/ Drinking on the beach and we're driving on the land," it could be a comment on evolution, the way the relationship changes over time, Iraq, all or none of the above.
When they end with "Pure For" singing "I'm so glad you found me," it sounds guardedly optimistic, like something you and your ex say to each other to make sure neither of you regretted the whole thing.