The Beta Band
Heroes to Zeros
By Andy Marchessault
Like many, I first got into the Beta Band through that shameless promotion in the John Cusack vehicle High Fidelity. Cusack plays the owner of a hip record store in Chicago, and at one point he drops the needle on "Dry the Rain," the first track on The Three EP's. A six-minute epic that sounds longer, the song introduces the Betas' signature sound, which combines heavy bass, drums, electronic gimmickry, and a knack for a great melody. Cusack says something to the effect of "Now four people will come up and buy this record." And they do.
Such is the effect that the Beta Band has on people. Or at least the old version. On Heroes to Zeros, the band's first album in almost three years, the band recovers from the blandness of Hot Shots II, and the "fucking awful"ness (band's quote) of their eponymous debut LP. This time around, the band has truncated their rambling and gone for the shorter, tighter pop song format, with mixed results.
The Scottish quartet still doesn't sound like anyone else, but now it sounds a little more like everyone else. Songs such as "Assessment," with its rousing horn finale, and "Space," with its tribal psychedelia, vault the band past others dabbling in its sonic palette. But the album lacks consistency, unable to string a few great songs together, leaving a few gems among the rubble of incomplete ideas. The songs aren't always incomplete; rather, what the band once fit in five to eight minutes just can't be contained in four. The Betas certainly aren't zeros, but going pop does bring them a bit farther down the scale.
The Magnetic Fields
By Brad Heffern
It's been a long time coming. Stephin Merritt and companyalso known as the Magnetic Fieldshaven't had a new album out (excluding the Pieces of April soundtrack) since 1999's sublimely/obnoxiously pretentious 69 Love Songs. As the Magnetic Fields have been indie darlings ever since there was indie, it came as a bit of a surprise to fans and critics alike that the follow up to 69 Love Songs would be released on Nonesuch records, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group. Needless to say, I was skeptical that high production values could have any positive impact on the recording process.
Boy, was I wrong. i is cut from much the same cloth as 69 Love Songs, featuring similar acoustic instrumentation (violin, cello, and, er . . . glockenspiel), comparable (if clearer) production, and, on the whole, analogous themes. In fact, it is almost as if i was distilled directly from the 69 Love Songs master tapes. This is not as bad as it might seem69 Love Songs was generally brilliant, and since that album was a bit on the heavy side (weighing in at just under three hours), a condensed version proves more accessible. In fact, i is decidedly the most user friendly Magnetic Fields album to date. It has all the joyous poppiness of 69 Love Songs without the throwaway songs ("Experimental Music Love" anybody?), and with writing that is just as good. Stephin Merritt's monotone on "Infinitely Late at Night" connotes the title perfectly; "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin" showcases the storytelling ability that the Fields have always had (see "Two Characters In Search of a County Song" on The Charm of the Highway Strip); and "I Die" displays all the sadness and emotion I have come to expect from the Magnetic Fields. Some may complain about the apparent lack of forward progress, but the material is strong enough to prove the naysayers wrong.