At least until Natalie Portman swore by the life-changing aptitude of the Shins, no more famous fictional words were ever uttered about a band than the following: “I will now sell five copies of The Three EPs by The Beta Band.” So averred John Cusack inHigh Fidelity, a movie devoted two-thirds to pop fetishism and one-third to a crazy little thing called love. The subsequent buzz didn’t exactly make the Beta Band like Garden State made the Shins but it might have calmed Rob Gordon down a mite, had he known and had he, y’know, actually existed. It’s a story made only in rock `n’ roll, although how the Beta Band actually slotted into that category has buffaloed folks since they broke up. What they were was the sort of ragtag, aslant, nigh-invisible band that rock ascetics like Gordon would upend bins of Night Ranger for. In short, a find.
The Three EP’s, shockingly, gathered information from three previous e.p’s by the band. None of the three, except for “Champion Versions” and its innovative, DIY-style art, might have been notable on its own despite generous pimping by critics: taken together, The Three EP’s are a milestone of the ’90s avant-garde. The music itself was so strange and far-flung it could have been sprung from a lucky attic, made and forgotten by some Simon Rodia-like savant. All 12 tracks, some of them six minutes or longer, operate in a sort of no-fly zone for imitators, except they somehow aren’t without references themselves. Elements of Beck, Yo La Tengo, Kraftwerk, Spacemen 3, and ’70s fusion outfits I don’t even know the names of enmesh themselves like the wirework of little bombs. But all the impressionism is seldom at the expense of melody. “She’s The One,” at eight minutes-plus the real epic here, is somehow both small and majestic, moving at Can-like speed through a movie-drenched landscape. “Dry The Rain,” the famed High Fidelity cut, strums chunkily all the way to AM-pop iconicity despite lyrics straight from “Jesus’ Son,” Denis Johnson’s collection of drug-mottled elegia: “walked in the corner of the room/ a junkyard fool with eyes of gloom/ I asked him time again/ take me in and dry the rain.” By song’s end a squad of horns has headed to the rescue and the protagonist finds a measure of relief: “I will be your light.”
On the best of the lot, “Dr. Baker,” Steve Mason even sounds like Sting a little. Don’t worry, it’s harmless. You could argue, which means I’m about to, that “Dr. Baker” is the representative Beta Band track in its miles of sonic trepidation and utter weirdness: the bobbing bells, the ambling bass, and a backbeat that trickles in and out like a creek. To say it sounds like a Radiohead b-side isn’t a disservice. You can hear the Beta Band on the outskirts of Kid A and it’s no coincidence that the two toured together prior to that record’s release. `The House Song,” besides all its mad chanting and casually-lobbed raps, basically prefigures the bassline on “How To Disappear Completely” and there are other comparisons to be drawn, including but not limited to Thom Yorke’s cut-and-paste Kid A methodology. I digress. At any rate the floating eccentricity and marvelous songcraft of The Three EP’s still have the power to stop you in your tracks or turn heads at parties, filled though they may or may not be with Rob Gordon approximations. If ever a record were made for a list this is it.