Review Summary: There is only one Beth.
A couple of months ago, I was taking The Beths' music for granted. But oh how we grow—on the 16th of September, the closing track from Expert In A Dying Field
made me weep like Dan Carter watching Wayne Barnes single-handedly strip a nation of its hopes, dreams, and self-worth.
The Beths are talented enough to yield incessant praise from a largely ignored local media apparatus, and they seem to easily sell out gigs wherever they set foot in God's Own. Yet, while I've scarcely left their home country of Aotearoa since they dropped their first record in 2018, I've never heard one of their songs play on the radio or at a social gathering. Until I went full boots-to-ground mode in the name of Sputnikmusic's peerless journalistic integrity, I'd never spoken to a single person about the band. Why the cold shoulder, whānau?
Beats me. Even a perfunctory perusal of 'Knees' will have you belting that chorus the second time it rolls around. It's the kind of shit that seems geared for radio success to my three decade-old brain, and maybe this is the problem. It could be that The Beths' earnest intentions and inclination toward the occasional power chord ring hollow to the modern ear. Maybe The Beths belong to a different era.
Well, rogue socialite and average journalist that I am, I set out on a mission to find some homegrown fans of The Beths and hash this whole mess out. My most likely set of leads were those who I knew listened to stupid amounts of music, maybe even scrobbled. I thought I knew just the guy.
Big Gazz from Christchurch told me that they don't listen to that shit down there, that their only annual gigs are Beast Wars and Ulcerate playing at dilapidated taverns with a decent gang presence, and that they'd like to keep it that way. He referred me to Ruby from Eketāhuna, who admitted her ignorance in full: “They're a Wellington band [[**they're not**]]
that I thought were all girls because of the name but only one of them is a girl. Pretty successful as far as NZ bands go. Haven't given them much of a listen.” While this wasn't very insightful, my correction to her geographical error did at least bear some fruit in response: “Ah classic Aucklanders trying not to look like Aucklanders coz everyone hates them.”
Well, fuck. Dead ends and JAFA chat; it's just another day in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. It was time to put the call out to the Sputnikmusic userbase. Most of my compatriots on this website cold-shouldered me, but Mr. Tales from the Happy Valley at least gave me the temperature: “I have somewhat intentionally never listened to The Beths due to the amount of press/NZ music drool they get, and funnily I don't know anyone who is into them. Not a slight to them tho probably good band but not appealing to me aye.” Jocular Jas from Rakiura also hit my shoutbox with a buzzer beater that further proved my own hypothesis, admitting familiarity with their work, but also stating that he “do[es] not know a single person who knows who they are”.
Meanwhile, I was further falling in love with the band and their back catalogue. The strength of the opening trio of tracks on Expert In A Dying Field
is a potent reminder of their best attributes.The title track sees Stokes weaving our awkward accent into a voice that sounds seriously sweet, battling the endless battle to lift the Curse of the Conchords, projecting pop melodies filled with enough earworms to start some kind of musical compost. While 'Knees' successfully follows this up with its anthemic lead single energy, it's 'Silence Is Golden'—the actual lead single—where The Beths remind us that they're not afraid to push against parameters. Its quickfire kick-snare pattern, guitars that flop between ringing distortion and choppy dead beats, and some unusually messy bass underscore Stokes' lamentation that she'd rather be somewhere quieter as the music itself denies her that right.
Later on, 'Best Left' provides a similarly thematically tight cut in the tracklist with its patient dynamics, heavy tremolos, and hearty group vocal performance. Its message—that scabs are best left unpicked—is all the more effective for The Beths' mature decision to let the track unfurl rather than force it to explode.
As the lyrics begin to gel together, taking on meaning personal and universal, working toward album-wide themes while being succinct and track-specific, I lose all track of my theories regarding the band's elusive fanbase. “But here I go again, mixing drinks and messages
” opines a self-deprecating Stokes, reflecting my own investigative trajectory. “You can scream at the void / But it never replies
” arrives later on, and I lose all hope.
My phone buzzes. It's Dave from Huntly, and he's keen on a Waikato Draught and a yarn. Fuck it, I've got nothing else on.
The tavern is a looming hotel in a cracked stucco jacket, TAB sign flickering, tradie's laptops clattering and coughing up the occasional meagre jackpot, codgers filled with however much piss can fit inside a pensioner without them dying. Dave and I drink in silence, grumble whenever Wayne Barnes sends up a straight arm, his whistle pinging from the tinny TV speakers. Full-time, we've lost again. Dave sighs, then necks a whole fucking staunchie. He slams the empty bottle down on the table and eyes me intently. “Do you listen to The Beths, Milo?”
An unexpected and altered reprise of a refrain I'd almost forgotten begins to ring out, this time littered with backing vocals and sweet licks. The fluorescent light unaccountably brightens directly over Dave, and he carries on unprompted. “I've been to one of their shows. The demographic was mostly mid-twenties to thirties with a healthy level of gender diversity. Judging from the fashion choices on offer I think they were mostly soy mocha latte sipping, The Spinoff reading, Chloe Swarbrick worshipping Green party voters. Though this was a couple of years ago and their appeal might have broadened since then.”
Once the cherubs clear my headspace and the trumpets fade, I manage to stammer out that I also like The Beths.
“I'm glad someone else likes them. Their guitar solos kick ass despite the fact their lead guitarist looks like David Bain with a telecaster.”
Dave and I take advantage of this rare chance to talk openly and vulnerably. We try to dial in on The Beths' faults in order to figure out what it is that seems to put people off, but every cloud we conjure up is lined with silver. There are lesser tracks on Expert...
, but all of them are loaded with clever little songwriting tricks that beckon you back for repeat listens. Sometimes it seems like the band insert an odd chord every now and again just to remind you that they went to jazz school, but they also, uh, did go to jazz school and it shows. The arrangement on 'I Want To Listen' probably makes the song a little too busy and makes me pray for an eventual acoustic rendition, but it's kinda endearing. The production at large doesn't have a lot of bite, but it allows for a smooth appraisal of the constituent elements.
Finally, it hits me—who the other Beths are. It's us. There's only one Beth in the band, s-sure, but in the accounting of her own flaws, in her anti-social confessions, her stories of love and its painful termini, all the detritus it leaves behind, the scars and the hurt and the way we just carry on—it's us. It's all the shit that we talk about at 2am, drunk in the kitchen after pounding the pavement home, finally feeling courageous enough to confront ourselves. More than that, it's the reflection that comes afterward, realising that once the light fades from the blinds and the engine is no longer audible that you might never see that person that you once loved, that you'll always love, ever again.
And who really wants to talk about that?