The Beta Band: Xanax Arcade

The Beta Band, a scruffy Scottish foursome who seem to shuttle between their London digs and a hut in the far north of Scotland, have gotten a lot of mileage out of being inscrutable. The irony is that they maintain precious little ironic distance at all. On their second full-length release, Hot Shots II (Astralwerks), they’re nothing if not upfront about their inscrutability. Which is somehow refreshing.

The Betas–guitarist and vocalist Steve Mason, decksman John Maclean, bassist Richard Greentree and drummer Robin Jones–are known on these shores, if they’re known at all, for “Dry the Rain,” the low-key groove-athon from their 1999 collection The Three E.P.’s , which reached a larger audience through the film version of High Fidelity . Barring the occasional tin-can freakout, The Three E.P.’s meandered from one goofy space jam to the next, showcasing a little insouciant wit and a lot of hippie-dippy bongo action, but mostly proving what can happen when a chunk of hashish falls into the right hands. Their first album, the eponymous The Beta Band , also released in 1999, delivered more of the same, plus a cuckoo clock. Now, with Hot Shots II , out goes the cuckoo and in marches Young Werther. Meaning, there’s a whole lotta Weltschmerz goin’ on.

The fun begins with the first lines of the opening song, “Squares”: “I seen the demons / But they didn’t make a sound / They tried to reach me / But I gave the run-around.” What starts as a spare exercise in making a synthesizer sound like a sick duck soon slips into a big, almost orchestral melody. The rest of the album follows suit. Mr. Mason’s simple, plaintive voice sings its way around rudimentary bleeps and blorps (sometimes it sounds like he’s lost in a Pong arcade) until the rest of the band finds the song and they all settle in for the ride.

There are some high points along the way: the luminous, drum-fueled “Quiet,” which is anything but, and the sole nod to Three E.P.’s -style jam sessions, “Human Being.” But Hot Shots II is pretty much an extended trip-hop symphony for gloomy Gomers. “Is this me for life?” one refrain asks. Yes, I’m afraid so, says God. Sad, isn’t it?

Well, maybe not. While there’s a little of that late-70’s Pink Floyd melancholy hanging over the album, on the Beta Band’s dark side of the moon it’s more like “Syd Barrett? Meet Sun Ra; Sun Ra, Syd.” Hot Shots II may end with “Won,” the band’s homage to the Three Dog Night hit about the loneliest number, but it’s the penultimate song, “Eclipse,” that holds out hope for us all. After “the people with the answers and the people with the questions” sit down to hammer out their differences, the world is saved by … pizza. Sings Mr. Mason: “So, the people with the pizza pie / Made me very high / The people with the questions smile / And the people with the answers lie / They lie … / So no pizza for them.” As Robyn Hitchcock once joked about listening to the Floyd, it sounds great–when you’re dead. Just ask Young Werther.

–Jay Stowe

Iggy Pop: Crooning for a Bruising

Iggy Pop can’t help it that he didn’t drop dead, that his core audience now listens to NPR and that, these days, rock ‘n’ roll only makes it as a novelty act in his beloved Detroit. But at least he knows enough to keep Don Was and Bill Laswell off this record. And so, with its professional rock, Beat ‘Em Up (Virgin) stands as his strongest release since 1982’s gloriously trackmarked Zombie Birdhouse .

That doesn’t assure us that it’s any good, however. The strength of Mr. Pop’s body of work has always been considered roughly equal to the weakness of his willpower. The imminence of his demise hasn’t been a hot topic since the mid-80’s, making one wonder what the point of all that glass-rolling and drug-taking was. Because now, after 30 years of preaching rock as destructive, Dionysian excess, his relatively hearty constitution has rendered him little more than a worker in the entertainment industry. But this is a good, even necessary, thing, as it shows us that rock ‘n’ roll isn’t about transcendence, it’s about shopping. We need to drop our illusions that buying the right albums somehow makes us radical and dangerous, that it’s not just another form of consumerism.

And so we applaud Mr. Pop for putting together a tight little band (reminiscent of his Lust for Life days, sans David Bowie’s keyboards and cabaret influences) and taking it on the road, as every vaudeville act must. If he’s a nostalgia act, it’s not a nostalgia for his previous music, but for his previous ideals, which there is no way in hell he can continue to uphold.

Which is why Beat ‘Em Up ‘s caustic lyrics, which detail one rich asshole after another, might be considered hypocritical if Mr. Pop’s history hadn’t shown him to be one of rock’s great reflexives. If you call a song “The Jerk,” you’d better walk it like you talk it. Mr. Pop is painfully aware of the irony. What’s harder to determine is whether he’s aware that irony renders his work meaningless. Worse, when Mr. Pop goes into what might seem like a stream-of-consciousness rant against humanity, it feels awfully rehearsed. There’s a telling moment during “Drink New Blood” when Mr. Pop exclaims, “Infantile violent outburst!”–as if the history of rock’s raised fist was one big Mad Lib. But just as John Coltrane practiced the same saxophone riffs 10 hours a day, anger is Mr. Pop’s instrument, and even if he isn’t really feeling it, he’s a virtuoso. So while the repeated squeals of “I’m fucked up” in “Go for the Throat” don’t have us shaking in our boots, they still beat Kelsey Grammer’s Macbeth.

Mr. Pop is at a point in mid-middle age where he does something well and gets paid for doing it–just like my mailman, whom I consider more dangerous. I want to like my mailman, just as I want to like every Iggy Pop record that he brings my way. I’m a professional, too.

– D. Strauss

Built to Spill: Modern Maturity

Although it was once their curse, it is now Built to Spill’s blessing that they never became Pavement. Although the two bands, which first reared their shaggy heads around 1992, shared some surface traits (Northwestern provenance, oblique lyrics and a chaotic guitar sound often called–because they were not Pearl Jam–”fuzzy”), schlubby B.T.S. frontman Doug Martsch seemed destined to trail in Stephen Malkmus’ shadow. While Pavement attracted a disturbing following that was equal parts indie geek and frat boy, Built to Spill eventually settled into a buzz-less existence on a major label, releasing two albums that were challenging but sex-and soundbite-free. In the last year–which saw Pavement’s breakup, followed by Mr. Malkmus squeezing his skinny sternum into ironic logo-T’s for every magazine from Elle to Entertainment Weekly Malaysia –Mr. Martsch contented himself with marriage and reproduction. And the buzz bin yawned.

In an irony that tops the litany of ironies presented on Mr. Malkmus’ slightly kitschy solo album, Built to Spill’s sixth LP, Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros.), has accomplished what Pavement never could. It’s as confident and un-self-consciously a pop record as Terror Twilight was Pavement’s last-ditch attempt to become a pop band.

Their arrangements have stratified into messy layers; Mr. Martsch’s ricocheting guitar is more expansive than ever; and nearly every song has a perfectly calibrated hook, if not three. Mr. Martsch has opened up his nasal delivery, achieving Fables of the Reconstruction -era beauty on “You Are.” But unlike REM, whose last three albums have careened between overambitiousness and atrophy, Built to Spill has genuinely benefited from sticking it out. Mr. Martsch has been stringing together lonely metaphors since before the boys in Death Cab for Cutie could drive, and he pulls off a convincingly cheeky pose in his refrains (“Yeah it’s strange / But what’s so strange about that?”), in part because the sound around them is still engulfingly huge. Yet for all its application of a successful formula, the album ends with the heretofore unthinkable: three minutes of pop bliss (“Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss”) and quiet familiarity as Mr. Martsch sings, “As long as it’s talking with you / Talk of the weather will do.”

There’s something satisfying in knowing that Built to Spill has made it long enough for their music to grow up and settle down into something solid and rich. Who would have guessed that, in the contest for king of the indie-rock alumni, the geeks–who’ve never been revolutionary or very sexy–would trump the captain of the tennis team just by showing up at the reunion?

–Michael Martin

Roxy Music: Pay the Ferry Man

Forgive me for bestowing “event” status on this particular reassemblage of aged British musicians at the Theater at Madison Square Garden July 23 and 24, but consider the following. By restoring camp to an English rock scene oddly devoid of wit or style, Roxy Music appeared in 1972 as the one ostensible progressive-rock band that a) you could dance to, and b) devoted songs to exploring romantic intrigue instead of stupid hippie fantasias. From 1973 to ’75, with the likes of “Street Life,” “A Really Good Time,” “Love Is the Drug” and “Just Another High,” no white band–save Led Zeppelin–could touch them. After a hiatus, they reemerged in 1979 and implicitly instructed every “New Romantic” act how to conduct all aspects of their careers. I don’t want to suggest that attendees will experience anything other than a particularly rarefied variety of nostalgia, but surely a visit with a reunited Roxy Music is a damn sight more interesting than, say, yet another audience with Jimmy Buffett.

– Rob Kemp The Beta Band: Xanax Arcade