What is Missing? It Might Just Be The Beths Indie Masterpiece, “Expert In A Dying Field”

Something is missing. I need a boost. I’ve tried listening to vintage bitingly bitter Dylan. I’ve put on Patti Smith and let her wail about Ethiopia into my old sony headphones. I’ve tried some Dimebag Daryll and his scuzzy crew of Pantera heavy metalists, but it just doesn’t hit the spot today. I tried listening to Warren Zevon, but he is just too full of heart and dark laughs to ease this feeling of missing something vast and empty. I need to fill a vacancy in my black hole soul.

I’ve tried Townes Van Zandt and his bleak cast of losers, fakers, drunks, addicts and dying but otherwise ordinary saints. Neil Young is too full of the joy of drop d tuning and foot stomping rawk that rolls and jives and does that cosmic country thing that makes the heart sing. Big Thief do the job for a while, but I have listened to Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You until I have worn the grooves off the metaphorical vinyl (I can’t afford a record player or the vinyl to put on it, so everything comes at me through my little blue tooth speaker or my monitor headphones….oh the indignity!).

The same goes for Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and the dulcet tones of the Velvet Underground. I thought I might have been able to scratch that itch with a little New York Dolls, but it was all too dark and doom-ridden. I needed Talking Heads “psycho killer” without the killer, Green Day without the toxic masculinity, Lemonheads without the lame-ass hair tossing “aren’t I beautiful?” ego trip of Evan Dando. We all want to know that we are miserable together, but wallowing? That is for Smith’s albums, Joy Division mosh-fests and more desperate times than this. Sometimes you feel in the mood for a bad time, and then there is a plethora of darkness to dive into. A good time need not mean listening to wrist-slashingly perky shit like Abba. Not today, Satan. Today I feel in the mood for a good time, and so to the comforting lands of my 90s kid indie roots it is!

90s indie pop-punk beckoned me back to the days of my youth, when the world seemed beautiful and new after all. All that Suede, Carter, Avril Lavigne, Smashing Pumpkins indie kid bubblegum punk hits all the right tones of energetic and angry without the fury and the death-doom loop of the more seriously minded punk contenders. The CBGBs lineage of The Beths is clear, they feel like a Talking Heads for 2023, with a singer that is as charming as any of those pop-punk grrrls of the 70s, or the shoegazers of the 90s.

It was then that I realized what this aging 90s punk poppet needed was The Beths, and the deluxe reissue of their 2022 tour de force of indie punk pop, Expert in a Dying Field. There is plenty of indie happiness, just enough edge to make it satisfying, and that lushness of a well produced album written by a bunch of clearly thoroughly nice people who are just trying to make it through this life alive like the rest of us are.

Sometimes I feel like the eponymous ‘expert in a dying field’ of the opening track of their widely lauded 2022 opus, Expert in a Dying Field. My particular obsession, my own field of expertise is popular culture and music. If I was on some hokey knowledge based game show, I would be asking for anything related to the music that has shaped modern culture. “Give me “The Velvet Underground” for $500, Jim!”

I say my field is ‘dying’ because lets face it, it is pretty bleak out there, culturally speaking. When I get excited about Grateful Dead-spin off bands, and get increasingly jaded over anything new which is not rap or hip hop (the two genres which are still reliably producing geniuses), and can barely raise interest for new music, apart from a very few contemporary bands, then things must be bad. Fever Ray and Big Thief are still valiantly fighting the good fight, but a girl cannot live on those two bands alone. Enter The Beths.

As an ‘expert in the dying field’ of great music I know indie gold when I hear it, and The Beth’s keep on hitting all those right notes.

If the Beths had been up and running in 1994 I would have been listening to them alongside The Lemonheads. This is a band in the jammiest, most pure meaning of the world. They know how to do a nice bridge, a good change up in rhythm and key, and more than that, they are catchy without being hokey. The guitars have that crunchy jangle and a good amount of reverb, without overplaying their retro credentials.

The Beths make music not to be only carefully reproduced in a studio, barely able to bring to the stage, like the most extreme of Radiohead’s later excesses, but instead carefully crafted punk pop songs with bounce and verve, that bubble and hop alongside some interesting lyrics, that are infinitely sig-along-able. This is music that is built to be put on a stage and played live. This is real soundtrack to a good time stuff, but with hauntingly poignant lyrics inspired by the heartbreak of living and loving and existing feeling life fully.

Expert in a Dying Field might just be the most cynical, most depressing song with the most blazingly happy catchy tune, ever written. It bops along getting you to sing along with the fact that love dies, but the ‘room’ of the past history still remains. You can be an expert in love, in that other person, in your relationship, but what use is it when it dies anyway, and leaves you an ‘expert in a dying field’?

How does it feel (how does it feel)
To be an expert in a dying field?
And how do you know (how do you know)
It’s over when you can’t let go?
You can’t let go, you can’t stop, you can’t rewind
Love is learned over time
‘Till you’re an expert in a dying field

Expert in a Dying Field. The Beths.

The Beths remain true to their punk-pop roots, that see them nod towards the energetic punk pop of The Clash, the bubblegum punk of Green Day, and the shoegazing bubble of the Lemonheads, but they have their own unique stamp on the genre. Knees Deep is an anthem for the Weekend Warriors who sensibly only ever go ‘knees deep’ and not bravely (or stupidly) go all the way in over their heads. It left me with a blissful grin on my face, happy in the knowledge that when I am in the mood for speed, punk and the energy boost, but not in the mood for twitching while I listen to people get in over their heads, that there is this perfectly crafted album, that balances the need for speed with a heart of gold and keeps a measure of that innocence of the 90s indie scene. This is a retro album in the very best of ways, it is desperate for a 1992 summer so it can take on Pablo Honey…and at least tie the battle of the albums of that glorious summer.

There are enough jagged edges to keep even a noise-head Velvet Underground connoisseur like me interested. Silence is Golden, is one of those huge songs that want to grab you by the shoulders and shake you into loving a band. Silence is golden but noise is that silver bullet to boredom and my jaded opinion of most things recorded after 2011 (the death of Amy Winehouse and my hopes for modern music culture)….The driving drum beat would make Mo Tucker blush (no hi hat, just bash those things!), and the chanting of ‘silence is golden’ by Elizabeth Stokes, the lead singer of The Beths, as their dip their toes into noise and a heavier sound, combine into being one of the best tracks on the album.

I consider my stable of regular listens to be an arsenal to combat the vagaries of living. Sadness, anger, happiness, joy, energy and lack of it, disaffection, love – they can all be either exorcized or amplified by music. Music is meant to make you feel something – as Stokes sings, “You can scream at the void but it never replies.” This music reaches beyond the void and speaks back at you. This is music that makes you feel as if something special could happen at any moment, something good. Something or someone important, and that is both incredibly rare and immensely important. There is nothing wrong in joy and innocence and love and hope. No hipster can live on black angel’s death songs alone, not even me.

I Want To Listen has the feel of one of those Velvet Underground tracks that holds onto that innocent, almost nursery-rhyme like edge, building a little oasis of gentle and sweet amidst the chaos and fear of the modern world. We all need to be able to find that oasis and this album builds walls of sound and placid pools of happiness, so the modern world gets shut out and we can pretend that there is no covid, there is no threat of world war 3, or climate change. It is an escape hatch into joy.

The Beths can write a pop indie punk anthem with considerable skill. Their songs often demand a fist pumped in the air, a feeling of being part of a group, a whole, a community. The song Best Left had me declaring:

Pulling it up
From the wet ground
I couldn’t stop
Had to find out
Some things are best left to rot

Best Left, The Beths

If that isn’t something worth declaring, I don’t know what is? I would leave so much out there to rot, so we can start up anew. Who needs therapy when you have The Beths?

The bonus tracks on the extended release deluxe version of Expert in a Dying Field make this album something really special. I am the kind of listener who goes straight to the bonus material of any album, because that is often where the real gold is found, and the songs often find new depth and beauty in their raw state. There is nothing like hearing a song with a voice, an acoustic guitar and that squeak of fingers on steel strings. I Don’t Know What Im Getting Up For particularly loves this treatment. Listening to the song as an acoustic number had me smiling like a proud aunt of the indie underground. This is truly great stuff. The Beths are headed for even greater things, I swear. I can’t wait to hear where they are going next. I hope they get braver, even if Stokes sings, “I told you I was afraid”, and their next offering pushes the envelope a little more. I want to hear the dark side of these purveyors of new wave of indie pop perfection!

This is music to listen to on your car stereo, driving down some dismal section of the interstate, drumming your fingers on the steering-wheel and laughing with the people you love who travel with you. This is music that is worth going to see played live, so you can pretend for a moment that the world is new and wonderful and full of love and life after all. The Beth’s blend of pop, noise, with a bubblegum-punk-speed driven edge, and the way they hold onto love and innocence and joy leaves you feeling good, and feeling good is a rare commodity indeed in 2023.

The Beths US tour started July 28th, but there are still some dates remaining in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and New York. Sadly no date in San Francisco, otherwise I would be there to take part in all that joy and energy.

The Beths, Expert in a Dying Field (Deluxe) is out September 15th on Carpark Records.

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