Listen to this track by Anglo-Scot folktronica collagists The Beta Band. It’s “Human Being”, the second single from their second album, Hot Shots II, released in the summer of 2001.
This record was the follow-up to their first full-length and self-titled debut, a record that felt like a false start to the band themselves, who called it “shit” in interviews. That’s a little strong. But, it is an unfocused work, albeit with some great tracks on it (my favourite: “It’s Not Too Beautiful”, with its kind of a wonky nu-psych quality).
I personally think that the lukewarm reaction to their debut was because the compilation Three EPs had done so well, featuring a bona fide hit in “Dry The Rain”, a song that would go in my own top 100 of songs I could play over and over and never get tired of. Needless to say, expectations for their first album were very high when it came down to full-length records.
So how did they do one better with this one, after the lacklustre results of the first? Well, they revealed something about themselves as a band which had been a little lost on that debut record that is noted for its ecleticism, and not much for focus. I’m talking about songwriting.
Apparently, the band had been pressured by their label to put out the record before they were able to hone it. But, with that first record out of the way, it felt like they’d worked through the pressure and their own process of creation through the high expectations of labels, critics, and fans. By their second effort, they just got down to business.
This follow up record held a better sense of balance between all of the elements that defined them. These were their affinity for roots music and indie rock, mixed with trip hop, orchestral pop, and downtempo textures, and all rounded out with a sort of Gregorian chant-like vocal placement in the mix. Instead of the flurry of samples and experimental approach that characterized their first record, this one is more straightforward, and the songs are allowed to breathe a bit more. “Human Being” is one of the best examples of this.
The song’s lyrics are much like the Betas’ approach to music – a collage of images, and layered on top of each other. On the surface, they sound like a nursery rhyme, with days of the week laid out in a row. But, this song isn’t called “Human Being” for nothing. This tune is about the human condition; “Daytime seems to last too long, at nights I scream and live alone”. And even if this grim snapshot of existance isn’t the case for everyone all the time, then surely “It’s never very clear just who’s in control, it’s all so beautiful, what’s the point of it all?” is.
“Human Being” is a song about the essence of what it is to be a human being; full of conflicting thoughts, feelings of isolation, a need for peace of mind, and a need to be heard. For me, this song added extra gravity to the Beta Band’s music, separating them from their reputation as being two dimensional collage artists who worked material sheerly out of jams, and revealing them to be songwriters with something to say.
Despite this extra sense of dimension that made Hot Shots II their strongest original full-length effort, the Beta Band never really rose up past cult status. Their final record Heroes To Zeroes was critically acclaimed in some quarters, and in others not so much. They’d lost their momentum. But despite the critical returns that were fed on indie cred, with that also served as a ceiling to limited widespread success, the Beta Band were more than just indie darlings with a genre-defying sound.
Their music was for human beings, whether those humans were critics or not.
The Beta Band broke up in 2005. But for more information about them, here’s an excellent fan site that covers their oeuvre, along with subsequent Beta offshoot projects including King Biscuit Time and The Aliens.