Rock Album Review: This Live Album Proves that The Beths Are the Best
By Blake Maddux
It has been a long time since I last felt this passionately about a new artist as I do about The Beths.
Historically, live albums by rock artists have frequently served as cash grabs, time buyers, or contractual obligation fillers that are produced and issued without the proper degree of care.
Furthermore, issuing a live recording too early in one’s career is a dicey proposition. Do not-yet-all-that-successful performers really have enough top-quality material to fill a whole setlist and attract the attention of the not yet aware?
In the case of The Beths, the answer is an emphatic “yes” on both counts.
Auckland, New Zealand, 2020 (released on September 17, 2021) deserves to do for this Kiwi quartet in the 2020s what live albums did for The Allman Brothers Band, Kiss, Peter Frampton, and Cheap Trick in the ’70s. These future classic rockers only had a few albums to their credit when they issued the live records that broke them through commercially and set them on the road to becoming the stuff of legend.
Granted, the band isn’t exactly a secret. Judging by their local gigs, Boston music lovers are listening and like what they hear. Since late 2018, The Beths have gone from the 85-person capacity Atwood’s Tavern to co-headlining the 500-capacity Brighton Music Hall to selling out all 525 available spaces ahead of their top-of-the-ticket gig at The Sinclair last month. Unfortunately, that January show had to be postponed. Thankfully, it was rescheduled for this Saturday at Royale, which can accommodate more than 1,000 concertgoers. It might not sell out, but it will continue the upward trend in the size of the group’s crowds.
When I say The Beths’ two LPs — Future Me Hates Me, which I included among my 2018 delightful dozen (click for Arts Fuse story), and 2020’s Jump Rope Gazers — are equally good, I mean that they are equally GREAT. Their 2016 EP Warm Blood is also sans filler, and their new single, “A Real Thing,” sure isn’t going to lose them any fans. (The links in this paragraph are to their Bandcamp page. All three LPs and the EP are also available via their website and that of their US distributor, Carpark Records.)
Singer/guitarist Elizabeth Stokes — who ironically goes by Liz rather than Beth — writes impeccable indie songs that are melodic and forceful. The pop songs rock and rock songs pop.
Moreover, her voice is tailor-made to impart maximum impact to the lyrics of deliriously spirited songs like “Great No One,” “Mars, the God of War,” “Uptown Girl” (not a Billy Joel cover!), “Happy Unhappy,” “Out of Sight,” and “Dying to Believe.”
Some of her lyrics are self-pitying, but most of them will likely make you feel worse the targets thereof: “Put poison in my wine/And hope that you’re the one who dies,” “Can’t you just go to hell?”, “Wish my heart were really made of stone/So I could forget you/Like I really want to.”
But Stokes is not a de facto solo artist. Her fellow Beths — guitarist/producer Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair, and drummer Tristan Beck — are note-perfect without being lifelessly precise. Even if you don’t like a given song (yeah, right), it couldn’t possibly be because of the presentation or delivery. Stokes and company can handle any tempo and set any tone perfectly.
The At Budokan-like ecstasy that comprises the first sounds of Auckland, New Zealand, 2020 only makes the fact that the opening track is a pulse-quickening tune titled “I’m Not Getting Excited” — whose opening riffs occupy borderline-Stiff Little Fingers territory — all the more awesome. Granted, the hometown crowd might be biased, but the musicians earn every iota of applause that they garner.
The seven selections from Future Me Hates Me and six from Jump Rope Gazers offer a superb summation of the band’s prowess, which makes Auckland, New Zealand, 2020 irresistible to fans and very welcoming to newcomers. For those in the latter camp, the judicious song selection leaves three unheard songs from FMHM, four from JRG, and all five from Warm Blood. This adds up to a whole Beths’ album’s worth of material for newbies to look forward to hearing for the first time.
The group was also wise to include the stage banter portions called “introductions,” “bird talk”, and “thank yous.” Actually, the first two of these could have been “bird talk I” and “bird talk II,” as the gang seems to have more than just a passing interest in ornithology. All three both add a human touch to the performance and allow listeners to savor the members’ alluring speaking voices (who I am to call them “accents”?).
Topping off all of the event-like magnificence surrounding Auckland, New Zealand, 2020 is the fact that an 80-minute film featuring live, backstage, and off-stage footage is available for viewing on Vimeo and YouTube.
Age and fatherhood mean that I have fallen in and out of the musical loop over the past decade. Therefore, I am surely yet to listen to or even hear of many workers in song whose output I would enthusiastically embrace. That said, it has been a long time since I last felt this passionately about a new artist as I do about The Beths.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and one-year-old twins—Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson—in Salem, MA.