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The Beths’ Songs Are Better Than Lots of Other Bands’ Songs

I went to First Ave last night to try and figure out why.

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This photo was obviously not taken at First Ave.

Songs? Really, you want more songs? We have songs at home. 

That’s how I often feel about guitar-pop bands these days—I know the tricks and the tropes, and no matter how deftly you rearrange them, the appeal seems less novelty than familiarity. So why do I feel differently enough about the Beths to tromp out to the First Avenue Mainroom on a Monday night (a show delayed from February by our last quasi-blizzard) for 90 minutes of dreamy swaying and tuneful bouncing? Well, that’s for me to try and figure out.

At the center of the appeal is Elizabeth Stokes, and don’t let her band name fool you: She goes by Liz not Beth. Her melodies waft along a plainspoken voice that flips smoothly into a breathy falsetto as needed. As a singer then, she’s modest and human-sized, pleasant without being fussily pretty, slightly exotic to American ears thanks to the impossible New Zealander pronunciations of words like “friend.” ("Free-end" is as close as I can come to a transliteration.) As a writer, she’s analytic but not neurotic, a studious, steady-nerved dissector of the human heart who finds unexpected nuances in the most over-addressed area of popular music: romantic relationships.

Stokes isn’t quite as calm and collected as her matter-of-fact vocals suggest, and in fact she can get pretty down on herself. The quartet began last night with one of their heaviest riffing songs, the title track from their 2018 debut, Future Me Hates Me, the singer dreading “Wide-eyed nights late-lying awake/With future cold shakes/From stupid mistakes/Future me hates me for.” A song later she was upbraiding herself for her cowardice on “Knees Deep,” from the band’s latest, Expert in a Dying Field:  “I wish that I could say what I've been thinking/But I never have done and never will do.” And, well, “You Wouldn’t Like Me” speaks for itself, no?

For all this self-deprecation, the music’s never a downer. It helps that the Beths hail from New Zealand, a land with a knack for redefining rock to suit its cultural needs in a way that in turn helps foment musical subcultures abroad. It was there that the Velvet Underground’s dungeon drone was mysteriously reincarnated as a jangle and chime that would resonate widely in both U.S. and U.K. indie, and you can hear echoes of that tradition in the Beths today. 

But guitarist and co-writer Jonathan Pearce draws upon heftier pop-rock traditions as well. He repeatedly careened into brawny solos without ever exuding macho, and even his most discordant flights were carefully contained to tailspin back into place when his allotted time was up. Ever since I’ve seen Weezer comparisons (in Genius of all places), I unfortunately can’t unhear them in the Beths’ elements of jumbo hookery, so seemingly at odds with their jangle yet expertly fused. If I don’t let that put me off, though, you sure shouldn’t.  

No idea what kind of audience they have back home, but stateside the Beths are squarely dad-rock, feeding off fond recollections of power-pop and New Zealand indie among men of a certain age. Fortunately many of the old fellers in attendance had cool daughters there too, and, from what I could tell by the way they quietly mouthed along with Stokes, of their own accord. (There were also plenty of twentysomething women who didn’t need dads as chaperones or music tutors.) 

Dad-aged myself but of a prickly resistance to nostalgia, I get suspicious when music goes down as easy as this. Over the course of a set that drew from their three albums, the band showed itself schooled in the familiar architecture of a pop song. The way “Don’t Go Away” slooows down and then speeds back up at the finish line is a trick that predates rock itself, and the night rang out with chord changes that anyone who’s fooled around on a guitar for a few years has tried to bend into their own songs.

That said, these songs don’t rely on the most obvious crutches, such as the soft verse/LOUD CHORUS trick. The pop tricks are shuffled into the compositions, so they sidle up to you rather than bonking your noggin. A Beths song doesn’t always announce itself immediately. You instead hum and bob along until you reach a certain distinctive part and then you think, oh yes, this one.

Most good pop lyricists are phrase makers, but Stokes is instead an observer. I’m not one to excerpt whole verses in a review, but these lyrics don't pick apart well into components. At her most quotable (“If this is love, then why'd you have to leave?”; “If you want to whisper, I swear I want to listen”; “If it went differently/We could be the finest friends") you can tell you're getting a snippet of a larger conversation. So here's a stanza from “When You Know You Know”: 

It takes all of my restraint
Not climbing in your cranium
To observe the way the furniture's arranged
Scratching at the door
They’re gonna call security
So I can't creep around here anymore

There's a doggedness to the way she keeps pushing at the metaphor that mirrors the persistence she's describing, a willingness to overextend herself that nudges the song forward.

Stokes and Pearce have been a couple since 2015, though they’ve been friends since childhood, which suggests a sweet, accidental courtship over the years. So assume there's a lot of the romantic turmoil here isn’t purely autobiographical—but it’s hard not to register “we’re slowly coming together” on “Jump Rope Gazers” as a gloss on their relationship. “I've never been the dramatic type," Stokes sang. "But if I don't see your face tonight, I—” Oh no, what’s Liz going to do? “I guess I'll be fine” Whew.

When the band introduced themselves at First Ave, each member got a little spotlight to share what was on his mind. Pearce ruminated on the practice of booing for a bit, then led the crowd in a response that began as a low boo and rose to a high-pitched woo. Drummer Tristan Deck offered his own commentary on the phenomenon (“People at Beths gigs don’t boo; they’re all very nice”—essentially true) before talking about his flight in. And bassist Benjamin Sinclair discussed his (actually pretty entertaining) tour blog, Breakfast and Travel Updates. (There’s no Minneapolis post yet, but you can read about the day the band got stuck in Bismarck, North Dakota, when they were meant to be here in February). You got the sense you could spend a lot of time in a bus with these fellows.

Stokes herself was comfortable onstage while undercutting her frontwoman status. “Who’s cooler than me?” she asked ironically at one point. Typically, a very large fish perches behind the Beths’ amps (I don’t know the full backstory here) and Stokes apologized for his absence tonight. “He’s here in spirit if not in… fish.”

The latter part of the set revved up to finish with the racing “I’m Not Getting Excited” and the Morse staccato pulse of “Silence Is Golden.” As an encore, Stokes performed the lovely “You Are a Beam of Light” solo and acoustic, but with dense harmonies from her bandmates before ending the night with “Little Death.”

I skipped over the set closer purposely because “Expert in a Dying Field” deserves its own spotlight. The title track from the Beths’ latest, it lands the relationship analogy of the year, zeroing in on how you realize all your knowledge about a lover, from the intimate to the mundane, will become instantly useless once you break up. It’s a common enough situation that no songwriter has addressed before now, and the neat little chord changes that accompany the title phrase add to its emotional tug. Songs like these why we don’t have enough songs after all.

Setlist

Future Me Hates Me
Knees Deep
Out of Sight
You Wouldn't Like Me
Your Side
Best Left
I Want to Listen
Head in the Clouds
Don't Go Away
Jump Rope Gazers
Less Than Thou
I Told You That I Was Afraid
When You Know You Know
I'm Not Getting Excited
Silence Is Golden
Expert in a Dying Field

Encore
You Are a Beam of Light
Little Death

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