The Beths Rock Philadelphia
Inside the New Zealand band’s electrifying show at Union Transfer
My favorite band is Sonic Youth, so you won’t see me complaining that a song can’t be good without its four hooks and rigorous editing.
But the critical establishment has been writing checks that the vast majority of more experimental rock can’t cash for a long time, even when it’s by festival headliners — sorry, but I don’t want to listen to Arctic Monkeys’ lounge music — at the expense of, say, the Replacements-style roots-rock powering Tommy Womack’s astonishing I Thought I Was Fine. New Pornographers albums selling the whole craft and nothing but the craft are somewhat taken for granted. But this cycle may have 180’d to the point where the narrative-based hype economy is making no-backstory-just-music a trend.
Last year, that was the hook for two albums that found themselves on a ton of year-end lists, including ours. Alvvays’ Blue Rev, which topped Stereogum’s list and came close on Pitchfork’s, came with more of an elevator pitch, hailed by the latter as a sui generis synthesis of power-pop songsmithing and shoegaze production. It worked, mostly in the first half (give me the shimmering “Many Mirrors” over P4K’s more pro forma song of the year “Belinda Says”), but power-pop wasn’t quite right. There weren’t really ba-ba-bas or shout-along choruses, but rather Johnny Marr-style sophisti-jangle (see “After the Earthquake”) and new-wave tempos. Molly Rankin sang loud and smart, and guitars careened dynamically, but these Canadians’ selling point was still more sonic. (2017’s previous Antisocialties, which can match Blue Rev note for note, really had no textural signature, just songs on songs on songs.)
The other 2022 rock album that got critics juked anew about the wonders of verse and chorus was the only slightly less celebrated Beths’ third outing Expert in a Dying Field, and now we’re talking. These New Zealanders really do make power pop, though lead axeman Jonathan Pierce does establish at least three or four guitar ideas you’re jealous of on their fantastic 2018 debut Future Me Hates Me, and Tristan Deck is possibly the most propulsive drummer in formalist verse/chorus-core since the Old 97s’ Philip Peeples. That is to say, they deliver on the power portion more than Fountains of Wayne ever did. Both Alvvays and the Beths are capital-R rock bands above all else. They just happen to be leading whatever wave of songful rock we happen to be riding, whose apotheosis must be Paramore: an arena band that’s Actually Good and Actually Popular and Actually Banging on Drums and Slashing at Guitar Strings.
The only thing these three bands really have in common, though, besides frontwomen and backingmen, is that all three are currently taking some kind of instruction from Britpop. Besides the nervy Smiths energy running through Blue Rev, Paramore’s new This Is Why succeeds best when it indulges its prevalent Bloc Party fandom (“Running Out of Time”), and the Beths by default are simply doing something so anachronistic to predominating North American (or Asian) pop that by default it’s kind of Euro. It’s even more akin to excellent Australian counterparts like Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Stella Donnelly, and the late, great Goon Sax, who’ve all decorated jangle-pop with a bright new sheen in the last five years.
Last week at Philly’s Union Transfer, I didn’t have to wrestle long with the question of how the Beths could turn the spotless arrangements of their three long-players into something else live. The first hint was Boston-based opener Sidney Gish, whose droll synthesis of Frankie Cosmos and the Roches came alive onstage with the glue of jabbering comic timing between songs. The second was the headliners letting a toy-instrument Muzak version of “Future Me Hates Me” play them on. The volume stayed a little polite for the entire night, and the theatrics were limited to a giant inflatable fish prop (dubbed “Sidney Fish” in a hat-tip to their warm-up), so the songs really were, non-fetishistically, left to fend for themselves.
There are people who believe hooks are just the parts you don’t miss, and then there are people who understand a great pop album often has too many hooks to recall when it’s over, and plenty that still need to be excavated after six listens, once the most familiar tunes become part of the wallpaper and fuzz over into ambience so new noticeables can bloom. The Beths’ evening reminded me of, like, my twelfth play of Sebadoh’s Bakesale, hidden tunefulness bulging through the walls.
So it wasn’t the superior openers “Future Me Hates Me” or “Knees Deep” but the third song, 2020’s “Out of Sight,” that made me notice its “Come Together”-on-espresso drum-fill jitters. Then I finally registered the post-grunge chords giving “A Passing Rain” its liftoff. And Pearce isn’t the only guitar god in the Beths. He grounds 2022’s “Best Left” with his tremolo pedal but the big guitar hook blooms after that swirling setup, bending and warping like a Horsegirl track but within reason, within power-pop discipline, and it’s Elizabeth Stokes’ riff. Meanwhile, the whole band harmonized without missing a target. Without changing an instrument, all four Beths worked double shifts. As a singer, Stokes actually has more surprising hooks than quotable lines, though Expert, especially the title track, certainly portends more spectacular ones. Barnburners like “Not Running” and “Dying to Believe” felt four-dimensional bringing all those harmonies off, while a ballad like “Jump Rope Gazers” achieved its intended shoegaze Wilson Phillips gravitas.
The Beths go to great lengths to treat each other as equals, introducing each other live in a round-robin that provided the most banter of the night (“We forgot to introduce the fish,” “Isn’t he great”), and who knew Benjamin Sinclair’s uncle shared Vin Diesel’s real name or that he runs a breakfast blog? They’re so polite they thanked the light and sound techs by name. I wish we got the plausible “Happy Unhappy” or sugar-rush “Whatever” instead of the encore’s somewhat deflating “You Are a Beam of Light” (or the less plausible “Rush Hour 3,” an ultra-charming early goof that propositions a date with a download of the title flick). But that was the only interruption in a knockdown finale of “I’m Not Getting Excited,” “You Wouldn’t Like Me,” the frenetic Deck-Stokes showcase finale “Little Death,” and, just before they briefly left the stage, the two greatest rock songs of 2022.
“Silence Is Golden” and “Expert in a Dying Field” are the yin and yang of what anyone could ask for from a guitar band that keeps things reasonable-length. The former rips harder than anyone should expect past or future from this band, their “Pedestrian at Best” kinda, all tight-coiled herky-jerk precision giving way to that rare thing, minor-key harmonies (or minor-key anything with this band), Sinclair’s nasty fuzz-bass bends, a squealing, electrocuted Pearce solo, and Stokes’ repetition of the title is almost another rhythm element in the torque to build to the stops and explosions. It didn’t make my heart pound like Soul Glo per se, but they recreated every sculpted second of it. Formalists don’t usually rise to such challenges.
They may also never top “Expert in a Dying Field” past or future, but few others will either. The metaphor doubles as a great marketing gimmick for graduates with honors of the alt-rock Ivy Leagues seeking an audience in 2023, and it’s a classic breakup tearjerker with enough heft to both title their most acclaimed record and kick it off. They’ll be signing off with it for years after their field is really dead. I couldn’t tell you if it took any detours from the studio version, but sometimes perfection is worth hearing twice, full stop.
VIDEO: The Beths perform “Expert In A Dying Field” on CBS Saturday Morning
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