January 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Rock critics (this one included) love to play comparison games: Here’s a band that reminds us of that one, while this singer recalls so-and-so from such-and-such a distant past. Never is the ”sounds like…” pastime handier than at the beginning of a new year. By then, the record industry has finished rolling out its pre-Christmas super-duper-star albums and can finally unveil discs by new acts who would otherwise be buried beneath the avalanche of big-name releases. The first month of 1999 is no exception.

If, for instance, the mumbling-tumbleweeds ambiance of Beck’s Mutations struck a chord, then saunter toward the Beta Band. Given their fondness for nonchalant guitar strumming and hearty sing-alongs, it’d be easy to peg the media-shy Scottish quartet as new-generation folkies on their first album, The Three E.P.’s (which collects the band’s trio of vinyl mini-albums). But they’re more than alternative buskers. Using a thrift shop’s worth of sounds, from guitars and clip-hop beats to assorted blips and bird noises, the Betas are a roots band that know the value of a groove. The Three E.P.’s is like an amble down a twisted country lane, with moments of whimsy (”Dogs Got a Bone”) and mystery (their often muffled singing and elliptical lyrics).

Occasionally, their self-indulgent side prevails; ”Monolith,” 15 minutes of wanky tape loops and sound effects, nearly derails the album. Thankfully, the music quickly corrects itself, back to the Moody Blues-on-ecstasy (oops, another comparison) chant ”Dr. Baker.” You leave The Three E.P.‘s bemused and refreshed — and with the feeling that, as with Beck, you can’t pin the Beta Band down. A-

John Boorman
Maria Doyle Kennedy,
Sean McGinley
Complete Coverage

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