You don't think rock bands have an inferiority complex in the age of hip-hop? Check out Steve Mason, frontman of the Beta Band, discussing his new album in this week's NME.| "It's definitely the worst record we've ever made and it's probably one of the worst records that'll come out this year," he said. "It's got some terrible songs on it . . . half-written songs with jams in the middle."
The guy's no alpha male.
But was this the Scottish rocker's idea of a joke? Not likely. Judging by the mysterious and elaborate show Mason and his cohorts (drummer Robin Jones, bassist Richard Greentree, and keyboardist/DJ John McLean) unfurled in the Bowery Ballroom, the Beta Band is many miles into a journey toward that most under-appreciated of pop values -- uniqueness. Squeezed into fully zipped black and white flight suits decorated with neon green piping, the Beta boys spent most of the show rocking in the shadows, their faces lost in the soft phosphorescent glow. The stage was draped in gauze to better reflect the lights and images of young Scots dancing through verdant pastures and supermarket aisles that flickered on a screen hung behind the band. But wait, it got weirder.
The Beta Band treat their songs like delinquent parents treat their kids on Mischief Night -- they dress 'em funny and send 'em out to egg the neighbors. For example, "Round the Bend," a song about getting so f---ed up you're embarrassed to run into anyone you know, wore four different costumes in a span of several minutes. First, it bopped along like a mid-period Beatles ditty with a steel pan solo and Mason singing about feeling "Ninety degrees to the rest of the world." Then, as three of four Betas huddled amidst keyboards, the song momentarily evolved into "The Lambeth Walk," a campy novelty song that sounds like the English version of "How Much is That Doggy in the Window?" By the next chorus it had become a synthy concoction with a new wave beat and clangy church bells. Finally, it slowed to a half-time dub groove as Jones slapped his congas to McLean's frothy piano. "Boo-yah!" exclaimed Mason when it ended.
Throughout the set, there was much switching of instruments (Mason's a strong drummer himself) and playing along with beatboxes and programmed keyboards. Songs that began mellow and mid-tempo morphed into wild-armed percussion freakouts. Instead of catchy melodies, the Betas relied on piano and cowbell duets or Jew's harp with marching share drum. Mason can obviously write a pop gem -- the excellent "It's Not Too Beautiful" came early in the set -- but after a verse and a chorus the song devolved into an atmospheric turntable aria. British rock bands have always looked to America for inspiration, but where the Beatles had Little Richard and the Stones had Howlin' Wolf, the Beta Band channels DJ Shadow. Hell, maybe Beta is a typo, and they really meant to call themselves the Beat Band.
Probably not. The Betas are onto something, and credit is due. Mason's no fool, that's why he publicly recognized that his songs suffer under the weight of those supersonic Scottish space jams. There's no reason to expect that Beta won't get betta'. In the meantime, a word of advice to young Scots on the rise -- don't rap in front of American audiences. Your beats are crack, but your flow is wack.