The Beths, Jump Rope Gazers
Album Review: Doug Keith – Rock at Night Contributor
On their sophomore album Jump Rope Gazers (Carpark Records), The Beths are of two minds on many subjects – love, success, and life in general. The New Zealand band’s breakout 2018 debut, “Future Me Hates Me,” brought them to a global audience, so now they find themselves transitioning between a small world they know and a big world they can’t decide if they want to be a part of. Divided also fits their musical style: equal parts punk, power pop, intricate melodies and soaring Carpenters backing vocals. Layer on top the understated vocal musings of Liz Stokes, whispering in your ear while the musical cacophony screams in the background. It all makes you pay attention-and anxiety clearly rocks even on the occasional power ballad.
The album kicks off with the mood-setter, “I’m Not Getting Excited.” Opening with a “Kick Start My Heart” solo guitar riff – have I mentioned The Beth’s eclecticism? – the whole band launches into a straight up punk-y vibe as Stokes goes back and forth in her head about what to do next professionally or personally, or what not to do. She’s probably been asked a thousand times about the band’s early success, but she avoids joining in the celebration, fearing it could all crash down in an instant.
They keep the energy going on “Dying to Believe,” which again finds Stokes struggling with the self-doubt inflicted by a failing relationship but having fun with the word play: “I’m dying to believe that you won’t be the death of me” and literally crying out as she sings, “I’m trying but still denying”. The multi-part song, which includes a breakdown featuring a monotone subway voice announcing stops, cuts the tension with the mundane of everyday life. Kudos to bassist Benjamin Sinclair for the driving rhythm throughout. The record takes a turn towards smooth 80s pop on the title power ballad, “Jump Rope Gazers.” Until the vocals started, I was imagining Ann Wilson from Heart riding a 1920s elevator with a leashed tiger -but the band pulls off a song that’s sweet, believable, not manufactured, and truly coming from an honest place about a romance that never really gets going.
If it’s not too late to nominate a song of summer 2020 (if anyone will remember anything beyond COVID-19 and racial justice protests), then I pick “Acrid”. I didn’t think it was possible for The Beths to make music more poppy than their debut, but the sugary chorus and soaring multi-part backing vocals evoke Southern Cal beaches, and then they pile on a minor epic guitar freak out of Zeppelin-esque proportions. Maybe for the first time on the album, they actually also sound optimistic about finding love: “You, I wanna run into you”.
“Do You Want Me Now” again revisits the 80s, this time with a jangly Bangles-style strummer. Stokes makes a simple request but also gives the receiver an out, reconsidering and then cutting off the relationship before it starts, singing “I’ll see you around”.
“Out of Sight” is a nod to Reagan-era college rock, mixing in Plimsouls, INXS and Red Rockers guitar arpeggios and minor chords. One of the lesser tracks despite a shimmering chorus lamenting the high expectations of summer experiences. The momentum picks up again with “Don’t Go Away,” which initially feels like a kiss off to a romantic partner/family member/former band mate that lists all the reasons it’s good the person’s gone, but then wonders, what if they come back? Will the loneliness subside, or will that envy for the person who got out of the two-horse town linger, wishing alternately for their success and/or failure. The song takes off with the garage rock chorus and rumba beats, finally degrading to a shambling end.
“Mars, God of War” finds the band at first in an angry mood about the state of the music business, opening with a propulsive punk intro, but then sliding into a mellow desperation (I wish that I could wish you well/Instead I’m hitting my head and hitting backspace on/”Can’t you just go to hell”). Yet with experience comes maturity – after crafting a strongly-worded email, the writer pauses on the send button and aurally deletes the whole thing. The Beths toy with minimalism on “You Are a Beam of Light,” a gentle acoustic guitar figure and repeated chorus soothing the listener’s ears before ending with a Carpenters vocal flourish. Karen and Richard Carpenter would be proud. To round out the album, “Just Shy of Sure” finds the band at the end as they were at the beginning, equivocating, almost ready to commit to a choice, but just a step short. The music drifts through pizzicato strums then pulls back to a wash of 70s America-style vocals. An undercurrent of fuzz guitar keeps it grounded in 2020.
The Beths continue to know no bounds of self-deprecation, with the occasional dose of self-loathing thrown in. On “Jump Rope Gazers,” they take surprising angsty detours down side alleys before getting back on the street in the sunshine. Still, the record sounds less urgent and nervous than their debut. Whether they want to admit it or not, the little band from Auckland, NZ is getting bigger and more mature, which could lead simply to bland music. But I hope The Beths avoid telehealth psychologist visits and continue to use music as their therapy.
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