In one sense, Radiohead had no choice but to select the Beta Band as the opening act for their summer Amnesiac tour: After all, the Beta Band may be the only Brits of the last few years who don’t sound like Thom Yorke and company. Part folk-rock ragamuffins and part sound-collage ironists, the Betas are in search of the proverbial lost chord, blending folk with dub, trip-hop, and whatever sonic gewgaws strike their fancy. The results can be either marvelous (their first album, 1999’s The Three EPs, which received a nice plug in the film version of High Fidelity) or gimmicky (1999’s disappointing The Beta Band). From song to song, you’re never sure whether you want to hug them or slap them.
On Hot Shots II, they finally veer back on track, albeit in their own charmingly wobbly way. They’re still writing harmonically dense sing-along mantras, but they’ve downplayed the wiseass tendencies that sank the second album. With its refrain of ”I’d like to know/Will you think of me when I’m gone?” the hymnlike ”Gone” is one of several genuinely wistful tracks. Like true new-millennium hippies, they ask a lot of questions about life, friendships, and ”the simple truth” and never quite find the answers. But along the way they perk up their ruminations with new-wavey synths and Keith Moon-style drum frenzies. (”Won,” which lurches between a cover of Harry Nilsson’s ”One” and some inept rapping, is, thankfully, relegated to the last track.) They’re still ironists at heart, and cutesy lines like ”I don’t want to be the type of guy who lives alone reading books and never eats a pizza pie” (from ”Eclipse”) undercut some of their material. Yet even when the shots they’re taking aren’t so hot, the ever-mysterious Beta Band realize that in rock & roll, mystique and enigma can be just as powerful as coherent lyrics.