The Beta Band

Heroes to Zeros

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The Beta Band have rarely pronounced themselves happy with their own work, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it's usually quite good. (Once, the public sniping began before an album had even appeared in the stores.) From all reports, Heroes to Zeros, their first complete self-production since reaching a major label, has finally contented the group. And though they've succeeded in their attempts to make their music more direct and compact, the album is still clearly the work of the same methodically shambolic Beta Band of old -- the perfect balance of straight-ahead and ahead-of-the-curve. Beginning with their first three EPs, the group's subversive performances only barely masked their inspired melodies and Stephen Mason's distinctive voice. (If he were a pianist, he'd be using the black keys often and exploring the new notes that arise when striking two keys at the same time.) Their first two full-lengths were beautiful, but stubbornly so, as though the group were keeping a wonderful secret and didn't want it to get out. Bored with the prosy material of the past, the Beta Band decided to focus on their talents at crafting pop music, and fortunately, they didn't jettison their uncommon sound in the process. "Assessment," the opener and first single, begins as a very direct, slightly beguiling U2 castoff, but roars to the finish with a charged horn section. During a perfect middle section for the record, "Wonderful" and "Troubles" begin as warped glosses on a pair of archetypes (the love song and the world-weary song, respectively) but end as majestic, surprisingly tender performances; the group then detours into "Out-Side," a ragged pop freakout worthy of Super Furry Animals, kicked off by sampled dog barks. "Space Beatle" separates its skeletal, haunted verses from the full flower of its precise chorus by a landslide of sludgy tape excess. As producers, the quartet are still heavily influenced by two aspects of the Beach Boys: the cyclical, segmented flair of "Good Vibrations" or "Heroes and Villains" and, at other times, the detached chillout pop of 20/20 and Friends. It's clear why the Beta Band have become their own best producers: their songs and ideas are so intricate that no single production approach could work on the same album, or even the same song. No outside producer could get the best out of them without living these songs for months beforehand. With songs that end up miles away from where they began and excellent pacing (both within songs and throughout the entire album), Heroes to Zeros is yet another triumph for the Beta Band and confirmation that they're at their most powerful and effective when working as a self-contained unit.

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