Let the Poison Out
(Hardly Art; 2011)
By Maura McAndrew | 3 November 2011
Juan Wauters makes this look all too easy. As frontman and songwriter for the Beets, he seems to sneeze concise pop songs, with two full-length records, Stay Home and the new Let the Poison Out, released in 2011 alone. On their 2009 debut Spit in the Face of People Who Don’t Want to be Cool, the band created an aesthetic they’ve stuck with in the short while since: lo-fi garage rock with a playful, charmingly homemade touch. Consistent in this vein is the artwork for all three albums, courtesy of Matthew Volz, whose detailed-but-crude drawings of unwholesome-looking people/creatures lends a Daniel Johnston-esque aura to the band. Which is all to say: the Queens-based trio’s unpretentious image is definitely part of its appeal, but Juan Wauters’ gift for songwriting, even when sloppily deployed, is what keeps the Beets on my radar. And on Let the Poison Out the Beets reveal that under their ragged exterior, they’re gelling into an exciting band—one that could be sincerely great with a just a little more effort.
Let the Poison Out is a stronger record than Stay Home, particularly in its production. The Beets are likely never going to sound slick—and who would want them to?—but a little clean-up does wonders. Though they still retain their trademark sunny clatter, Wauters’ voice is finally given the space it needs while the now-standard Beets group-singing is deployed more strategically than ever. This makes for a more grounded, less-shrill texture, and highlights Wauters’ off-kilter phrasing and occasionally surreal lyrics. The standout example of this is “Let Clock Work,” probably the best Beets song yet, more focused than many of its slapped-together counterparts. With a classic 1960s melody, Wauters sings short, obtuse lines like “All your clothes / Have been through the machine” and “I’m cloudy / But inside I’m only sun.” There’s not too much to say about “Let Clock Work” except that it’s a fantastic pop song, the kind about which there isn’t usually much one can say.
Though nothing else on Let the Poison Out quite matches the sharp economy of “Let Clock Work,” this batch of songs is surprisingly memorable. Which partly has to do with the aforementioned change in vocals styles, and also the addition of female drummer Chie Mori, whose voice mixes nicely with Wauters’. This collaboration is particularly effective on the oddball “Wipe It Off,” which imagines the life of a highway cleanup crew. The cutesy boy-girl vocals playfully undermine somewhat gruesome lyrics: “It’s your job / Wiping all the fresh blood from the highway floor / By now it’s like baking / Fishing or raking.” Other highlights include the dizzy early-Beatles stomp of “Doing As I Do” and the Half Japanese-like “I Don’t Know,” which is softened by getting a little too lazy on the chorus. There is actually quite a bit of Half Japanese to the Beets, from the artwork to their jittery approach to garage rock. The band could take a page from the book of Jad Fair and really celebrate their weirdness, however—the Beets have the energy and talent to color outside the lines more often.
Perhaps the best thing about this catchy, super-short record (it’ll take less than thirty minutes of your time) is the balance it strikes between tight songwriting and a loose, improvisational feeling, retaining the delightfully tossed-off sensation of jamming in a friend’s living room on a Saturday afternoon which so many previous Beets efforts reveled in. The momentum the album builds throughout goes hand and hand with this, ending in the frenetic “Friends of Friends” and the shambling “Walking to my House,” representing the woozy tail-end of an exhausted performance. Both of these tracks feature vocals from Wauters, Mori, and bassist Jose Garcia, melody an afterthought to energy. It’s tossed-off but infectious, almost too casual but instinctually honed, and that’s the Beets in a nutshell. They’re a band capable of so much more, surely—but I’d hate to mess with all they are now.