The trendy buzzword that everybody seems to be using to describe The Beta Band is “shambolic.” “Pleasantly shambolic.” “Methodically shambolic.” “Beautifully shambolic.” It’s everywhere, a bastardized English colloquialism that has made its way permanently into the rock journalism lexicon. As writers we should have resources to better terms: quirky, ramshackle, hodge-podge or even bohemian. But alas, shambolic.
It’s a tragedy. There are so many better things that could be said about the Band. The Scottish quartet is certainly guilty of some sub-par material (Hot Shots II could have been a great nine song album), but they’ve also put out some of the best songs of the last ten years (“Dry the Rain,” “Needles in My Eyes,” “Squares.”) And their latest release, Heroes to Zeros leans more toward the latter, offering some of the band’s most interesting material to date. But it’s highly likely that someone else will tell you that it’s “shambolic.”
The first single, “Assessment,” immediately shows a new side of the band — The Beta (Rock) Band. Featuring some of the most prominent use of electric guitar to date, “Assessment” is the closest the group has ever come to straightforward Britpop. And later on, in “Liquid Bird” they delve further into more rock-oriented sounds, having recorded what sounds like a remixed, though slightly louder, version of The Cure. It’s a welcome change to hear them exploring fresh, inventive territory. Yet still, this is The Beta Band and there’s a “shambolic” somewhere, waiting for them just around the corner.
When the band does folky trip-hop pastiches, for which they’re known best, they can do no wrong. “Space” is the sound of The Beta Band that we all know and love — bumpin’, crunked-out beats and trippy vocal effects. “Easy” begins with a funky clavinet melody, easily a cousin to Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon,” before the Band throws in an unexpected bouncy folk-pop beat and some acoustic guitar. Even prettier material, like the mellow “Wonderful,” prove how versatile and inspired The Beta Band has become. But don’t get too excited, because, after all, they’re simply “shambolic.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not averse to slang, nor do I mind American writers adopting British jargon. But I have yet to see a Spin writer comment on Britney Spears’ “undercrackers” or the “yobs” in D12. But if writers in the US or the UK want to continue waxing poetic about The Beta Band, they’re gonna have to do better than “shambolic.” Heroes to Zeros proves that the band isn’t a one trick pony and that their inventiveness has stood the test of time. Bob’s your uncle.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.