As was the case for a lot of people in the pre-hipster age, my introduction to The Beta Band was made through John Cusack and the brilliantly bipolar character he played in the 2000 film, High Fidelity. In one of the more iconic scenes in that movie, Cusack, all 80s club-kid hair and fake swagger, mutters to his fellow music store clerk (remember those) that they would instantly sell five copies of [the band’s early compilation album] “The Three E.P.’s” as he hits Play on “Dry The Rain” and stands back while a musical explosion engulfs their window shoppers. How could it not work?
The Beta Band is one of those acts that captured the attention of other big 90s musicians while never quite finding those artists’ audiences. For this, The Beta Band has been called experimental and ahead of its time. I call them unlucky. If you’re going to find your way into their discography, you best do it through the same collection that Cusack offered to sell you over a decade ago. “The Three E.P.’s” is exactly what it sounds like – a compilation of the band’s earliest releases, assembled in a single album of twelve songs. None of these songs are short; half of the album’s tunes clock in at over six minutes, and one in particular is almost sixteen minutes of hypnotic guitar playing and birds chirping.
The thing that strikes me each time I give “The Three E.P.’s” a spin is that the band never seems to muster much energy in their singing or instrumentation, yet they never come off as boring or bored, just sort of quiet. They also appear to have mastered the same percussive beat and guitar playing because it basically permeates the entire album, however it too never comes off as repetitive or disinterested. So why should I offer such
glowing praise for an album that may seem uninspired? Because deep in my soul, I appreciate the plight of The Beta Band – an act which
managed to impress heavily on Oasis and Radiohead while winning the praise of major critics, yet never reached a greater pop cultural tipping point than when an older version of Lloyd Dobler played them through an entirely different boombox. And, as consistent as their drum loops and weird electronic samples may be, their music has a great lo-fi feel that recalls the noise of warm vinyl spinning listlessly on a turntable in a darkened, musty room.
Sadly, The Beta Band broke up in 2004 after only a handful of albums and no major successes. According to an article in the UK newspaper, The Guardian, their last show was quite bittersweet, played in front of a sold-out crowd in their home country of Scotland while they were more than $2 million in debt to their record label. So it goes. A year after they disbanded, three members formed a group called The Aliens and went on to record two albums. I actually saw The Aliens in late 2007 while working on a major tour at a festival stop in Los Angeles. They played to a completely empty audience, save for me, a friend of mine, and a handful of strung out vagrants and low-lifes. We made up less than 10 people. I sang along to their only song that I knew and the unavoidable and uncomfortable eye contact I made with them made it impossible to chat them up backstage. They deserve better. For god’s sake, go out and buy five copies of “The Three E.P.’s.” You’ll be glad that you did.
Written by: By: Ari Halbkram