Like The Three EPs, the Beta Band's new CD, 'Hot Shots II'(Astralwerks, July 17), is rock music to nod to. Over the history of rock 'n' roll, artists have demanded audiences do just about everything: dance, overthrow the government, indulge in controlled substances, fight for the right to party, find God; to obey all of those commands you'd have to be superhuman, or at least George W. Bush. Most people aren't willing to follow rock stars' orders anymore, and that might explain the burgeoning popularity of mellow British groups, such as the Beta Band, who demand only quiet appreciation from listeners. Like fellow Brits Radiohead, Coldplay and Travis, the Beta Band write lyrics too vague to impart specific messages, make music too gossamer to get bodies flailing nodding is the only appropriate response to their work.
But what blissful nodding it can be. On 'Hot Shots II' the Beta Band - Steve Mason (vocals and guitar), John Maclean (samples and keyboards), Richard Greentree (bass) and Robin Jones (drums and keyboards), all in their late twenties - show themselves to be adept with both traditional melodies and electronic special effects. On "Human Being," for example, they open with a skittering drum machine beat that might impress a Jamaican dance hall producer, and, accompanied by piano, horns and synthesizers, proceed to harmonize Crosby, Stills and Nash-style before they let loose with pounding real-life drums and electric guitar. Mason's baritone is only slightly brighter than Ringo Starr's, and his delivery is just as lackadaisical. His voice is merely the cool whipped cream atop the shimmering Jell-O mound of guitar and synthesizer sounds; the words he utters are of secondary importance. "You can go outside where the love of the people will find you," he sings on "Elapsed Time"; "We all live together on a little round ball," he chants on "Eclipse." Don't try to parse the symbolism of lines like these; just write off the vocals as another texture.
In addition to the albums of Radiohead, with whom the Beta Band is touring the United States this summer, 'Hot Shots II' recalls the aesthetic of a dramatically different set of rockers: the unknown English psychedelic bands of the mid- to late-'60s who appear on the compilation 'Nuggets II' (Rhino, June 19), a follow up to 1998's 'Nuggets', which featured American bands of the same era. With obscure titles like "I Can Hear the Grass Grow" by the Move, and "Father's Name Was Dad," by Fire, the four-CD box set excavates a forgotten musical civilization in which the Beta Band, with its goofy lyrics and ethereal sound, might have felt at home. Like the flower power ditties on 'Nuggets II', which contain lines that have comic value today ("My father's name was dad/ My mother's name was mum/ How can I be blamed/ For anything I've done?,") the Beta Band's songs compensate for their lack of profundity with their attention to harmony and tone. Just as most every track on 'Nuggets II' contains at least one moment where all the instruments come together to form a sublime sonic landscape, so does every track on 'Hot Shots II'.
Given that the Beta Band's music embraces both the summer of love and the Tony Blair era, it's only fitting that the showstopping last track on Hot Shots II should be "Won," a cover of Harry Nilsson's 1968 composition "One" with a rap section thrown in. The juxtaposition of sixties pop with contemporary beats and rhymes is silly, self-consciously experimental, and ultimately beautiful the Beta Band in a nut shell. If they and their fellow nod-inducers from across the Atlantic continue to churn out tunes of this caliber, we shall not want for lush, trippy ear candy in the '00s, and so we must be grateful for this miniature British invasion. Cohesive themes? Maxims to live by? Don't scratch your copy of Sgt. Peppers.