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hot shots II
The Beta Band
Hot Shots II
Astralwerks

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Well, honestly. Time and again we've encouraged young bands to go the extra mile and create decent-looking cover art, citing the example of their more successful elders. Trust the Beta Band to come up with one of the crappiest album covers in history. The lesson you should learn here, kids, is that if you simply must create bad album art, make certain that your record is at least as good as Hot Shots II.

Given the Band's shambolic approach to just about everything other than their music, it's not surprising that they thought Hot Shots II's cover art passed muster. They probably -- how shall I put this? -- saw things in the art that the rest of us can't see. Never mind the fact that a group of lobotomized goats with paint-brushes duct-taped to their asses could come up with a better cover after being run over by a six-ton freight truck (and would also know better than to blatantly overuse those Photoshop "twinkle" brushes); this is the cover artwork that the Beta Band liked. Let's move on to the CD, shall we?

If you live in a poorly-lit third-floor studio apartment in a dull, rainy town -- Watford, perhaps, or Seattle -- Hot Shots II may be the soundtrack to the rest of your life. Slow and somnolent, the disc is rarely faster or more lucid than a 3:00 a.m. nacho run. Most of it sounds a lot like the end-credit song from the Monkees TV series played at two-thirds speed (see "Gone" in particular). The beats will keep you awake, of course; as always, the Beta Band favor powerful, hip-hop-derived mid-tempo rhythms that are perfect for swaying drunkenly from side to side, hands in the air, face obscured by your the hood of your anorak.

Beneath all the dubby bleariness, you'll find rock songs dying to get out. "Human Being" holds a raving guitar in check 'til its final minute, when it cuts loose in an organ-enhanced lo-fi punch-up that might've made the Stooges proud. "Broke" dishes up punishing, watch-my-subwoofer-blow-out-this-candle bass, combined with techno-styled keyboard stings and, toward the end, a sinuous, disco-friendly guitar line. "Quiet", one of the disc's strongest tunes, packs in layer upon layer of rock action -- strangulated guitar noodling, tinkly piano and plentiful live drum fills to back up the punishing throb of the looped beat. And then there's the "bonus" track, "Won", which splices a faithful take on Harry Nilsson's "One" (recently covered by Aimee Mann for the Magnolia soundtrack) with a hard-edged rap, breaking up the album's monochromatic sound-blur at the eleventh hour.

It's good stuff, to be sure -- but if Hot Shots II excites you at all, it's probably time to lay off the pot. Vocalist Stephen Mason's delivery -- more nimble sing-song than actual singing -- may be distinctive, but it certainly won't inspire much in the way of physical activity. You might shake your ass now and then, but not so much that you'll need to get off the sofa. There simply isn't much variation in the Beta Band's approach, so a formula-breaking novelty track like "Won" stands out...perhaps more than it should. If, like me, you're among the minority of listeners who liked the all-over-the-map approach of 1999's The Beta Band, you may find Hot Shots II to be disappointingly lukewarm.

As a soundtrack to all things slovenly, Hot Shots II works well; it's an enjoyable way to kill an afternoon. However, if the Beta Band doesn't vary the formula a bit more on future albums, they may well find themselves in need of day jobs. And let's face it, their options are limited. We can rule out graphic design, for starters.

-- George Zahora
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