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Beta Band

Watch me sell five copies of the new Beta Band album before this review is over.

Apparently the only Scottish combo not currently signed to Matador, the Beta Band has very little in common with its contemporaries Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai and Arab Strap. Well, maybe there is at least one fellow homelander who could be reliably cited as sharing the Betas' open-ended, transgenerational approach to music: the late Alex Harvey, whose rampant eclecticism fronting the Sensational Alex Harvey Band in the '70s demonstrated what healthy, concurrent appreciations of folk, blues, skiffle, jazz, big band, cabaret, oh, and yeah, er, rock 'n' roll could yield for both studio and stage (having his guitarist dress up like an evil mime-harlequin didn't hurt, either).

The Beta Band, recall, kicked off its career circa '97/'98 with a string of three EPs (later compiled in '99 for its first U.S. full-length as, duh, The 3 E.P.'s) whose eclecticism was also, in a word, rampant. Delta blues butted heads with psychedelic hip-hop; ambient electronica with folk rock; African dub with noirish jazz; turntable/sample culture with the cinematic tradition; and so forth. Even the normally thick-witted U.K. press "got it," and there were more American hacks than you could shake a bagpipe stem lining up to sing the Beta praises. When The Beta Band appeared in the summer of '99, there were no cries of "fluke!" to be heard (although the occasional review relied too heavily on Beck comparisons), the album's giddy tour of musicality even more far-reaching than its trio of mini-predecessors. The group's hip cachet was permanently etched in stone -- celluloid, actually -- during that memorable scene in High Fidelity where main character John Cusack, surveying a crowded record store, cues up The Beta Band and, as shoppers' heads start to bob on cue, smugly advises his co-worker that he'll now sell five copies of the album.

It's been a long wait for the second Beta Band full-length. During the layoff, at least one member kept busy. Vocalist Stephen Mason moonlighted under the moniker King Biscuit Time, which was very Beta-ish in sound, issuing a couple of EPs that were subsequently paired for the American market as No Style. But the wait's over, and the good news is that Hot Shots II betrays no hint of the dreaded "sophomore jinx." Flowing at times like a stream of molasses into your veins en route to your brain's sweet tooth center, the album commences with "Squares," a bit of a cappella vocalizing that unfolds into a loping, Portishead-like blues/trip-hop groove. Next comes a three-pack of tunes whose twinkly electronica, ambient shudders and rich vocal harmonies all smear into one another, conjuring images of Beta grooves past. (Speaking of the vocals, if Brian Wilson ever fires the Wondermints, the Betas should be his next logical choice of backing band.) And from there the album's spell is duly cast, tugging the listener into a cocoonlike blur of sensory delight, from Krautrocky tribal psych daubed with Eno-like sonics ("Quiet") and gospel blues whose celebratory vocals suggest the Five Blind Boys of Alabama covering The Dark Side of the Moon ("Eclipse"), to a transmogrified, hip-hop-o-fied cover of the old Three Dog Night chestnut "One" retitled "Won" and an oddly endearing, sampling-era mini-update of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (!) called "Broke."

The bad news? Well, there really isn't any, other than the fact that at 52 minutes, Hot Shots II is too darn short. Tuneage this blissful and intoxicating can, in your humble scribe's opinion, go on forever, and it would have been fascinating to hear some of the experiments that were discarded by the Betas over the course of the past two years (bonus disc time, anyone?). Still, whether your drug of choice is Romilar, loco weed, Peruvian marching powder or a Vicodin/tequila cocktail, the high inevitably must end. Although somewhere, it seems, I read that steady doses of Beta waves increase brain power -- a claim that no controlled substance can reliably make.

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Fred Mills