Jump Rope Gazers by The BethsRelease date: July 10, 2020
Label: Carpark Records
When I first caught sight of a photo of The Beths I suffered a most uncharacteristic and indeed unsettling desire to beat them up and take their lunch money. Dear God but they looked wet. My shameful bout of hostility eased on discovering they were from New Zealand. An accident of geography which somehow explained their smiling wholesomeness for me, even if they can’t say ‘chips’ properly. This was long before we were all gazing at them with envy just for having a functional leadership with the will to protect its population in a global pandemic. Which, honestly, shouldn’t be that big of an ask. After watching a couple of videos I also got the idea that their lack of rock ‘n’ roll attitude was something they’d chosen to playfully lean in to.
Inevitably, just like in the sort of high school TV drama they were made to soundtrack, we overcame that awkward first interaction and became friends. Their debut Future Me Hates Me had a genius title and an ugly cover but was a packed bag of fizzing candy pop containing a statistically improbable 50% or more of highlights. Its charms seemed effortless, it took off like a rocket, they quit their jobs and toured the world. Now they return with a second album Jump Rope Gazers which arrives in much altered circumstances. They’ve matured and moved on. It’s like they went away for the summer and came back with new hair, different clothes, and now I’m not sure if they even love The Ramones anymore.
Growing up can be difficult, especially when your band is rooted in bubblegum pop formulas and the eternally entwined exuberance and self doubt of youth. Perhaps mindful of this they start on the front foot. ‘I’m Not Getting Excited’ opens with a mean and impatient guitar jabbing under Elizabeth Stokes’ tongue twisting lines about death. After the first verse the rhythm section crashes in with driving intent, pushing the song through the second verse they hold back on the obvious chord change giving it a flat, mean, edge. It’s about as bad tempered as they get. Towards the end the songs’ surging momentum hits a pothole and there’s a dramatic stop start in which drummer Tristan Deck appears to drop his sticks. It’s just a moment, but it catches me every time, like something glinting in the road.
The choice to leave it in is deliberate and telling because everything on The Beths’ records is so perfect. The sound is crisp and clear, their playing is faultless and everything is well balanced. It’s all session musician slick and shiny and their shimmering vocal harmonies seem to drift in from a simpler time. Much of this is probably down to the impressive production skills of guitarist Jonathan Pearce. The soft, sweet surface allows them to slip in emotional jabs and sonic twists here and there but it can also get to be too much. Too sugary, almost untrustworthy in its neatness. Hence the dropped drumsticks, a small detail that lets the vulnerability of the lyric tip into the structure of the track. “There’s no point untangling the thought from the action”.
The brighter ‘Dying to Believe’ is similarly garnished with transport safety announcements by Rose Matafeo. These first couple of tracks, also the first released ahead of the album, are the most like The Beths we know and love. Here on in they try out some new twists on their formula. The lengthy title track ‘Jump Rope Gazers’ sighs and shimmers like a lost radio hit. Hazy and insubstantial I disliked it at first but it very quickly got under my skin. Their knack for effortless melody is undimmed and resistance to its charms proves foolish. If the arrangements on ‘Don’t Go Away’ and ‘Mars, the God of War’ suggest they were paying attention on those support dates with Pixies last year they also underline that Pearce is no Joey Santiago.
Mostly their sound here has become more wistful and the anxieties in the songs have matured as well, it’s all death and distance, separation and regret. They take this furthest on ‘You Are a Beam of Light’ a soft acoustic guitar like spinning motes in sunlight and lazy, dreamy vocals that overlap. When Stokes’ voice soars upwards there’s even a little of Harriet Wheeler to it. Last song ‘Just Shy of Sure’ is no ‘Can’t Be Sure’ but you can’t have it all now can you?
On Jump Rope Gazers The Beths seem to realise many of my nagging fears about them as a band. They’ve lost some of their quirky edges, taken what is essentially an outsider form (indie pop) that details and even celebrates imperfection, scientifically synthesised it and buffed it until it gleams. And they’ve made a tour album about missing home. I ought to be angry, or at least disappointed, but once again they’ve won me over, it’s lovely.