The Beta Band’s story is not a new one: Band makes innovative, uncompromising music, is lauded by critics and more commercially successful contemporaries, and eventually calls it quits when it becomes apparent that critical acclaim doesn’t pay the bills. But during their eight-year run, the Scottish quartet brought a new way of looking at contemporary pop to the world of music, mashing folk, electronica, and conventional rock and roll into one digestible whole.
The Beta Band broke up after the release of 2004’s somewhat disappointing Heroes to Zeroes, and this two-disc collection should leave a much better taste in the mouths of their fans on their way out. A cross-section of their accessibly formless studio work is supported by a pleasant, though decidedly non-essential, live performance from their farewell tour, and though it isn’t perfect, it offers about as good a starting point as you’ll ever get for a band as diverse as this.
With four albums of material that was praised by Radiohead, Beck and Oasis, among many others, it’s tough to pinpoint exactly where the Beta Band’s most influential moments fall. The hypnotic acoustic sing-alongs of the band’s early work from 1997’s The Three EPs, such as “Dry the Rain” and “Inner Meet Me,” certainly proved that the Betas could grab you with a hook. Their self-titled 1999 album seemed, at the time, a risky album that missed its mark, a point rammed home when frontman Stephen Mason called it “fucking awful.” But it’s hard not to marvel at the seamless way they somehow made improbable song structures that combined the catchy and the messy sound so natural on songs such as “It’s Not Too Beautiful” and “Dr. Baker.”
They even thrived when tackling an electronic, almost sleepy sound on 2001’s Hot Shots II with tracks such as the down-tempo “Squares” and the minimal (for the Betas anyway) “Broke.” The obligatory “But you left out” complaints are most glaring here, as the intricately shape-shifting beats of “Dragon” and rhythmic complexity of “Quiet” are cut in favor of the less dynamic “Human Being” and “Gone.”
But those are piddling complaints next to the fact that Heroes and Zeroes is represented by five songs on this sixteen-track compilation. “Assessment” is a solid tune, but outside of that, it’s tough to sell those tracks as illustrations of the band’s work, and an opportunity to show the band at its most creative is missed. The live disc, however, does at least give the Heroes and Zeroes songs a more deserving home in the band’s catalogue. “Easy” plods on the record but pops with energy in a live setting, and “Simple” takes on an emotional gravity that the stuffy studio version lacks.
The rest of the live disc offers little in the way of surprises, though the crowd-only coda of “Dry the Rain” is sure to make you smile. The live album is just a carrot for hardcore Beta fans who’d probably buy this record for completism’s sake anyway; this record is meant to celebrate the achievements of a band that went about doing things its own way and, monetary rewards aside, succeeded in doing so. The record’s only downside is that it’s a best-of comp instead of a new record announcing the Betas’ return to glory. But until landlords and grocery stores start accepting respect and credibility as a form of payment, we’ll have to live with a recap of one of most original bands of the past decade. I can think of greater crimes.