Beta Band

Heroes To Zeroes

(Astralwerks; 2004)

By David M. Goldstein | 4 May 2004

Like just about everyone I know, I’m in the habit of listening to music before I fall asleep. Selections vary from night to night, but generally tend to be of a relaxing nature, designed to signal a closure of some sort. The last song on the recent Shins album has cropped up very often as of late, as have a handful of tracks on R.E.M.’s underrated Reveal.

Never is the selection of music more important however then when I’m, for lack of a better descriptor, raging drunk. You know the drill; stumbling in at 4 AM on what’s hopefully a Saturday or Sunday, having just imbibed enough liquor in the past six hours to give Hemingway or Bukowski pause. The room is spinning; I’m talking to myself, wondering whether or not I’m truly happier now that I’m single, etc. I need to hear something that’s going to force me to fall asleep while making me feel less sorry for myself than I do at that moment in time. That something is “Needles in My Eyes” by the Beta Band.

Needles in my eyes won’t cripple me tonight, alright.
Twisted out my mind please pull me through the night, alright.

I doubt that Steve Mason and co. purposely designed “Needles in My Eyes” to be a mantra for drunk folk in the wee hours of the morning, but that’s what I’ve adopted it as. “Needles in My Eyes” is my official "drunk at 4 AM" song, and just about the only thing I’ll listen to in said situation. If I feel that an evening of heavy drinking is at hand, I’ll even have it cued up and waiting on pause before I leave the house. “Needles in My Eyes” sounds like a drunken fool feels; groggy, depressed, and yet somehow cautiously optimistic and hopeful. A listen allows me to convince myself that I won’t be a waste of life come morning; a new love is around the corner, and the next Beta Band record won’t take three years to make. It’s relatively conventional structure keeps it from being the most original track The 3 EP’s compilation, but it’s probably my favorite nevertheless.

Suffice it to say however, there’s really very little I don’t like about The 3 EP’s. With that record, The Beta Band gave the listener psychedelic folk-rock, infectious beats, Steve Mason’s exceedingly warm tenor, and even beat boxing; all condensed into non-linear pop songs. Somehow touching upon practically every reason that I listen to music in the first place, The 3 EP’s is easily one of my favorite records of the past ten years, and turned me into a devoted follower of this band. They’ve yet to make a bad disc; The Beta Band’s self-titled 1999 disc never comes close to being as awful as they want you to believe (their highly publicized trashing of it is has passed into legend), and 2001’s Hot Shots II is also excellent, if perhaps a little too laid back.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been feverishly crossing out the days on my calendar leading up to the release of Heroes to Zeros, and was in the process of plotting some sort of elaborate revenge scheme should it suck. It’s annoying enough that an act as talented as The Beta Band makes their fan base wait three years between records, but this also has the side effect of making expectations that much higher, almost to the point where anything less than a fantastic album will be seen as a major disappointment. And when the news hit that the band had fired producer Tom Rothrock in favor of self-production, and enlisted Radiohead guru Nigel Godrich for the final mix, tongues were wagging. You can’t blame the kids for getting a little excited.

Heroes to Zeros isn’t the awe-inspiring, psychedelic masterpiece that many were hoping for, and that this band is still capable of. And though I seldom harp on an album’s length, 43 minutes is awfully stingy considering the three year wait for new material. Funny then that Heroes to Zeros is still the best Beta Band album since The 3 EP’s. It’s far livelier than Hot Shots II and easily their most varied effort to date; touching on a variety of styles while making the most of unsurprisingly stellar production and Steve Mason’s multi-tracked tenor. I wouldn’t fault diehards from bitching about the album’s short length, and the fact that it isn’t so much a step forward as a consolidation of strengths, but the fact remains that tracks such as “Wonderful,” “Liquid Bird” and “Space Beatle” rank with the finest songs they’ve ever written.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about The Beta Band is their unwillingness to sound anything less than hi-fi. Seven years removed from the relatively stripped down The 3 EP’s, they remain the pre-eminent headphone band of the day, and the production on Heroes to Zeros will do precious little to change this. Their songwriting abilities are generally above par, but to love the Beta Band is to love sound. Take for example “Wonderful”, the album’s centerpiece and arguably finest hour. At its heart, it’s a slow burning two chord acoustic love song featuring the mantra “she’s so wonderful” muttered ad infinitum. But this being the Beta Band, the verse portion contains a steady bass pulse, hand claps, the sound of drum sticks hitting snare drum metal, a “Paint it Black” sounding guitar lead, and something akin to the sound you hear when Mario eats a mushroom to become Super Mario. And this also being the Beta Band, the production values assure that your ears will be able to separate each and every one of these sounds. Say nothing of the chorus, in which crashing piano gives way to an unbelievably reverberated Steve Mason intoning “In time, I realize/ It’s all for you, I do.” The sound is literally poured into your ears; and the result is the finest Beta Band love song since “To You Alone” (only available as a UK single, but incredibly Soulseek worthy).

But anybody familiar with earlier Beta Band songs such as “Gone,” and “Push it Out” already knows that lush and slow isn’t exactly a stretch for these guys. “Wonderful” and the similarly sounding “Lion Thief” and “Space Beatle” are merely quality examples of the band playing to strengths that we already knew they had. It’s interesting then to hear The Beta Band attempt to leave their comfort zone on “Out-Side” and “Liquid Bird” by rocking out. The former is the weaker of the two, rocking a little more conventionally than this band should ever have to, but it does earn originality points for using a dog bark as a rhythmic device. “Liquid Bird” however, is unquestionably cool; layering pump organ over fuzzy sheets of “Sister Ray”-style distortion and uncharacteristically buried vocals. And this being The Beta Band (sensing a pattern?), there’s a Timbaland sounding stutter-step tossed in for good measure. There are plenty of moments like the latter on Heroes to Zeros; the sustained piano notes on “Lion Thief” and xylophone on “Troubles” among my favorites. The attention to detail has the effect of constantly revealing new sounds upon repeated listens, but the album never feels overproduced.

It took them a little longer to do it than most would have liked, but The Beta Band has made another excellent record with Heroes to Zeros. And I’m guessing the faithful will agree, so long as they can forgive the short length and fact that this is likely all the music we’re going to see from these guys for at least another three years. The inherently spacey and relaxing nature of this band has led to many of the tracks from Heroes to Zeros cementing themselves into my pre-sleep listening routine, and they’ll likely stay there for quite some time. Genre-hopping space rock with incredible production values and vocals capable of melting butter; thy name is Beta Band.