Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: The Beths Expert In A Dying Field

Carpark
2022
Carpark
2022

The Beths do not have a gimmick — not even the ever-reliable “our band has no gimmick.” They’re not part of a trendy subgenre or revival; although decades’ worth of poppy guitar music echo through the Auckland quartet’s albums — recalling a constellation of acts you might call power-pop, indie-pop, pop-punk, indie rock, alt-rock, or just plain old pop-rock — they aren’t channeling one particular scene or era. It’s not that the Beths put no thought into how they present their music or that they’re actively avoiding categorization; impeccably nuanced arrangements and savvy bits of punctuation at the seams of their songs suggest they think deeply about their own craft and have studied at the feet of the masters. It’s just that there’s no real elevator pitch beyond this band writes great songs.

Those songs were strong enough to make the Beths an indie-rock household name and send them touring around the globe several times over, playing increasingly large venues to reliably enthusiastic crowds. That rise was altered but seemingly not derailed by a global pandemic that kept them confined to their native New Zealand for the better part of two years. If their 2020 sophomore album Jump Rope Gazers caught a snag due to COVID, it wasn’t evident when I saw the Beths perform in Columbus two weeks ago. Playing the same club the endlessly buzzy Wet Leg played a few months back, they elicited a similarly giddy response from a crowd of comparable size. This week, they’re back with another collection of tunes that cements their status as one of the great guitar-pop bands of this present moment.

Expert In A Dying Field is no radical leap for the Beths, but its 12 songs find the band at their best, showing off the many aesthetic wrinkles within their wheelhouse. They can do urgent and uptempo rock, as on the nervy “Silence Is Golden,” on which all the chunky palm-muting feels like striking a match for the explosive power chords and unhinged noise freakouts to follow. They can just as readily do soft, freewheeling indie-pop, as on “I Want To Listen,” a song that echoes back to twee greats like Camera Obscura and Allo Darlin’. “Your Side” is proof that power-pop can be dreamy, jangly, and surfy all at once, while “Best Left” shows it can just as readily involve huge, shimmering open chords and shout-along gang vocals. There are songs that adhere to familiar Beths formulas, like “Head In The Clouds,” a hard-charging fast-paced track with a chorus that just wallops you — and then there are songs that show they can succeed by playing against type, like the floating, glimmering finale “2am.”

What’s constant through it all is Elizabeth Stokes writing incredibly sharp and catchy tunes and fleshing them out with assistance from trusty friends Jonathan Pearce (who also produced the album), Benjamin Sinclair, and Tristan Deck. Stokes tends to focus on thrills and anxieties anyone can relate to, usually romantic or at least interpersonal in nature. Her lyrics mirror the music in that she doesn’t get too tricky when simple and direct will get the job done; the metaphor about slowly wading in rather than taking the plunge on “Knees Deep” is as effective as the immaculate, propulsive chorus it’s attached to. The self-explanatory “Change In The Weather” is similarly powerful thanks to a barrage of hooks and harmonies, a plucky rhythm section, and lines like “The winter knocked me out/ Frozen in an avalanche of doubt/ It seemed like every road was buried under snow.”

But she’s able to pull off more complex ideas when the song demands it. Consider “I Want To Listen,” an exercise in delicate plainspoken poetry that resolves into a promise: “So if you want to whisper, I swear I want to listen.” On the dumbfoundingly great opener and title track, Stokes asks, “How does it feel to be an expert in a dying field? How do you know it’s over when you can’t let go?” It’s a song about the quandary of what to do with so much intimate personal knowledge about an ex, rendered in all the bittersweet glory the subject demands. As the band steadily revs up, Stokes’ voice darts from one breathtaking melody to the next, spiraling into her upper register and dancing atop the mix as each sequence reaches its climax — like she’s tightening a drawstring around her own heart and, by extension, wringing every last drop of melancholy memory out of yours. It’s one of the absolute best singles of 2022, a virtuoso showing of both musical and emotional intelligence.

Songs like “Expert In A Dying Field” benefit immeasurably from the Beths’ tendency to tweak all those simple structures with an arsenal of subtly brilliant riffs and fills. Watching them in concert this month accentuated what a finely tuned unit they’ve become and how much those brilliant arrangements elevate their music. They understand when less is more and when to pile on sounds until they overflow. Those intricacies are on full display throughout the new album, which captures the vigor of the live show with crystalline clarity and precision. You’d never guess some of it was recorded remotely during New Zealand’s COVID lockdown; rather, it feels like the work of a band that is completely locked in. The Beths continue to make the difficult task of bringing great pop songs to life sound remarkably easy, even as those songs underline just how much of a struggle everyday life can be.

Expert In A Dying Field is out 9/16 on Carpark.

Other albums of note out this week:

• The Mars Volta’s self-titled comeback album
• Rina Sawayama’s Hold The Girl
• Death Cab For Cutie’s Asphalt Meadows
• Suede’s Autofiction
• Mindforce’s New Lords
• BLACKPINK’s Born Pink
• Mura Masa’s Demon Time
• EST Gee’s I Never Felt Nun
• No Devotion’s No Oblivion
• Pink Siifu & Real Bad Man’s Real Bad Flights
• Whitney’s SPARK
• No Age’s People Helping People
• Young Jesus’ Shepherd Head
Stranger Things star Joe Keery’s new album as DJO, Decide
• Sumerlands’ Dreamkiller
• Jesca Hoop’s Order Of Romance
• Behemoth’s Opvs Contra Natvram
• Crack Cloud’s Tough Baby
• The Black Angels’ Wilderness Of Mirrors
• LeAnn Rimes’ god’s work
• Starcrawler’s SHE SAID
• Gogol Bordello’s SOLIDARITINE
• Armor For Sleep’s The Rain Museum
• Disco Doom’s Mt. Surreal
• Innumerable Forms’ Philosophical Collapse
• Little Big Town’s Mr. Sun
• Bazzi’s Infinite Dream
• Clutch’s Sunrise On Slaughter Beach
• Gloria de Oliveira & Dean Hurley’s Oceans Of Time
• The House Of Love’s A State Of Grace
• The Proclaimers’ Dentures Out
• Horace Andy’s Midnight Scorchers
• Molly Lewis’ Mirage
• The Brazen Youth’s Eagle, Idaho
• Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And The Legendary Tapes
• Fletcher’s Girl Of My Dreams
• Lissie’s Carving Canyons
• Ondara’s Spanish Villager No: 3
• Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot super deluxe edition
• Miles Davis’ That’s What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series Vol. 7
• Lou Reed’s Words & Music, May 1965
• Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Creedence Clearwater Revival At The Royal Albert Hall
• The Joe Strummer box set Joe Strummer 002: The Mescaleros Years
• Codeine’s Dessau reissue
• Pink Floyd’s 2018 remix of Animals
• The Arbutus Records compilation ABT100: The Arbutus Record
• Ringo Starr’s EP3
• Blood Orange’s Four Songs EP
• Dan Wilson’s Dancing On The Moon EP
• Little Dragon’s Opening The Door EP
• Ela Minus & DJ Python’s EP
• Iron & Wine’s LORI EP
• Daniele Luippi & Greg Gonzalez’s Charm Of Pleasure EP
• They Are Gutting A Body Of Water & A Country Western’s split An Insult To The Sport
• Kings Elliot’s Bored Of The Circus EP
• Daniela Lalita’s Trececerotres EP

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