Album review: The Beths – Jump rope gazers

During the six-month recording of this album, Elizabeth Stokes (vocals, guitars), Jonathan Pearce (lead guitar, producer), Benjamin Sinclair (bass) and Tristan Deck (drums) started to think about all the friends that had left their hometown, Auckland, to pursue their passions overseas.  Remaining in touch with mates who’d scattered to the four winds became harder and harder.  The band knows all about that, too, having extensively toured the US and Europe several times already in their short career. A long-time friendship is something to treasure.   Guitarist Jonathan Pearce is on record acknowledging that: “We really value that personal connection with the people who come to the gigs. We try to reward that relationship and that connection with playing a really good show, just giving it our all.”  And so, the Beths’ sophomore album became a document to the uneasy feeling of leaving behind everyone and everything you know and love to chase a particular dream.

Therefore, what’s the best way to deal with a crisis of confidence and loss – especially in a pandemic, where we are forced to remain separated?  Go crazy, jump around, cause a rumpus?  Maybe.  Just don’t upset the neighbours.  Ergo; this album – the perfect way to break out of Level 4.  Kiwi style.  Yeah.  Nah! Yeah!

 ‘Not Getting Excited’ opens with the perfect ‘speed racer’ garage grunge. With its Buzzcocks’ guitar fuzz and propulsive drumming, the song is a full-on high level mosh pit filler.  Any gig starting out of the blocks with this one will be guaranteed to create chaos on the dancefloor in nano-seconds. And then Stokes and crew harmonise sweetly across the vibrant, sparkling din, which is so infectious it had me and the cat pogoing with wild abandon around the living room.  I almost put my back out. 

Offering some kind of explanation, Stokes says the song is her response to her recurring bout of impostor syndrome. “Just in my head,” she says on liner notes, “I think I find it hard to enjoy things that are going well because I’m scared in my mind that everything’s going to go wrong in between now and the good thing happening….in my head, I’m like, ‘Don’t jinx it!’  In other words, the stoic Kiwi attitude, being cautiously optimistic: “I’m not getting excited/ ‘Cos my fight and my flight are divided/ And I don’t enthuse, keep my grip on joy loose and I wait for the news with my foot in my shoes and I lose it all, with one foot out the door”

‘Dying to Believe’ keeps up the pace.  It’s a song of trust and love and equally hook laden.  The crunchy samples of the rail station announcements on the East line to Manukau is a nice personal touch, reminding everyone that this is a real band living in Auckland.  Perhaps a reference to taking a train to a romantic liaison, or is it escaping after the affair?

 There are a couple of sweet ballads on this disc including the nostalgic title track, ‘Jump Rope Gazers’, a dreamy mid-tempo 70’s dreamy pop tune, centred around another of Stokes’ wonderful self-made expressions. Exactly what or who ‘Jump Rope Gazers’ are is a bit of a mystery. I like that. 

‘Acrid’ brings back that New York punk kick.  Think Ramones or the Dolls’ with lashings of Blondie and Pretenders for good measure.  Stokes says that this was one of their hardest songs to master, “a troublesome one to record.”  When the album project began it was recorded first, then ended up being completely rewritten “At first,” says Stokes, “the song was a bit more resentful.”  But it’s sweeter now, and for some reason more ironic.  

There’s room for at least one power ballad – ‘Do You Want Me Now’.  With the rpms turned down a few notches and a few soothing vocal harmonies from the other band members you get the perfect kiss-off.  

Phil Spector is definitely in the house during the intro of ‘Out of Sight’, as bright breezy drum patterns build up the over bells and power-pop chord strains.   The band breaks their usual methods and almost jam it.  You can hear the tempos and playing change up and down the gears, almost like an experiment in the making.  The results are brilliant.  I’m looking forward to seeing the live version and validating my admiration in person.

If there was any song on here that was a bit of a ‘dag’, then it’d be the goofy ‘Don’t Go Away’.  This is another Ramones styled ‘dumb-rocker.  More of that brilliant buzz-saw guitar riffing and 50’s doo-wop harmonies and lyrics that defy the usual conventions of grammar or comprehension: “I root for you to aggrandize/ Cool view locked upon the prize/ Your stomach and eyes always a discrepant size/
I’ll freeze with fright if you capsize”

There’s a back story to ‘Mars, the God of War’.The band were staying at a cheap Spanish hotel during a break in touring.  Stokes says that she was awake early in the morning looking up at the stars – “I just remember that Mars was really bright for some reason…really red in the sky. I was having to write to somebody that I was really upset with. Just the imagery; it’s a moment that stuck with me and I turned into the song later on.”

‘You Are a Beam of Light’ is a nod to Folk roots, with gentle repetitive acoustic refrains and vulnerable vocalisations.  But in complete contradiction, the following pop sparkler, ‘Just Shy of Sure’ has a 60’s guitar drone that climbs high into the chorus, powered on by a lifting and euphoric energy of the drums and bass.  Again, it’s a reference back to lost friends.  Stokes wrote for a friend who was really far away and having a rough time, and wanted to capture her regret that she couldn’t be there.  This was a very common theme during Lock Down, and even now, as we still can’t travel widely.

This is a band I’ve seen many times over their short career and each performance has shown a better band, growing into one of this country’s best alt-pop outfits.  The industry just loves them and no surprise.  They fill the floors at all the festivals because their material is so incredibly infectious.  It was bad timing that the dropped ‘Jump Rope Gazers’ during a pandemic but that’s not a ‘fail’.  Instead, it helped us to focus, think about what this pandemic has done to our freedoms and allow us time to think of those absent.  And with our usual distractions on hold we all had time to discover and explore really good music, like this.  That time was well worth it but I still can’t wait to see them on stage again.

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