One day early this fall I was listening to Spotify radio for the album “Honeymoon” by Beach Bunny. My album of the year at that time was “Dying to Believe” by the Beths. As soon as it started, I was quickly drawn to the song’s infectious riffage from guitarist Jonathan Pearce. The band’s use of dynamic contrast, the switches between beauty and tension in lead vocalist Elizabeth Stokes’ singing, and the quirky passages of spoken public transport announcements, all helped captivate my interest. After listening to the first song, I listened to the rest in the “Dying to Believe” album and to my delight, my ears rejoiced!
The Beths are an indie rock band from Auckland, New Zealand. Their album “Jump Rope Gazers”, released on July 10th, is their sophomore release. The album utilizes a variety of instrumentals sounds including those from a guitar, drums, a bass, vocals, and an indie-rock stylized keyboard. The album also marks the revival of free-rock drum machine music (with other bands like the aforementioned Beach Bunny, Wolf Alice, and Fatherson) that is influenced by ’90s and 2000’s grunge and pop-punk. The Beths also have strong influences from psychedelic rock, heard most clearly on the title track of “Jump Rope Gazers” and “Do You Want Me Now.” The band’s signature, Beach Boys-esque collective harmonies are also present throughout the album.
The band provides a seamless flow between tracks, while also keeping listeners invested. They do this by maintaining a constant instrumental palette and mixing energetic tracks with slower, softer tracks. This can be seen when the opener “I’m Not Getting Excited” is later followed by the track “You Are a Beam of Light.” They even include an impactful accelerando on “Don’t Go Away”. The band’s dual influences from grunge and psychedelic rock are well balanced. Stokes’ thoughtful, confessional vocals are paired with the fluttering soundscapes of Pearce’s guitars and the band’s harmonies. These harmonies are on the choruses of tracks like: “Out of Sight”, “Jump Rope Gazers”, and “Do You Want Me Now.” As this happens, passages of Stokes’ falsetto from “Mars, the God of War” and “I’m Not Getting Excited” are met with crunching guitars that precede a shift to a deeper, more tense style of singing. Pearce takes many solos throughout the album, showing psychedelic rock influences, by making heavy use of pedals and distortion. My favorite solo from him is a 10-second romp in “Mars, the God of War”, in which he throws in effects while showing off his harmonic and technical abilities. Drummer Tristan Deck also provides some impressive fills at the end of “Out of Sight”, the beginning of “Mars, the God of War”, and at the end of “Don’t Go Away.”
Stokes’ lyrics capture the subtleties of social life with exceptional cleverness and wit, however, the vocals are what make the “Jump Rope Gazers” album so special. The non-nonchalant, yet sincere vocals provide an atmosphere of assured cool that contributes to the anthemic and relatable quality of the tracks. In a time of social distancing, political strife, and societal divisions, these lyrics strike an incredible chord for myself and many others, as we work to hold onto our social relations.
In “Dying to Believe”, Stokes discusses how hard it can be to express her own feelings and views, not because she isn’t confident in them, but because she knows that they may be misinterpreted. My favorite line from the song is “I’m sorry for the way that I can’t hold conversations / They’re such a fragile thing to try support the weight of / It’s not that I don’t think that my point of view is valid / It’s just that I can’t stand the sound of my own patterns.” I often have the same feelings that she expresses in the song. Sometimes I am too nervous to express my own views to my friends and family. Oftentimes I also doubt my ability to be my own person and be different from others. In the last verse of the long Stokes sings, “And now I’m lighter finally.” I find this relatable, as I sometimes hold a sense of (admittedly uneasy) relief and freedom, once I have the courage to be myself and share what I think.
In “Acrid”, Stokes describes the balancing act of trying to form a new friendship or relationship, with the fear of new encounters. In the verses, she describes how she tries to avoid awkward social encounters through the art of texting. “Tragic, the messages I send, my mind post-midnight / Are showing seen but no reply / So I mash the keys a million times for a million years and / Maybe by chance, I’ll say it right.” Then, in the chorus, her true feelings of wanting to get to know this person rush forth, “But it’s you, it’s you / I wanna run into”, inducing an all-too-relatable catharsis. In similar situations to the one she describes in this song, I have wanted to say something to this effect, but have (possibly rightly) held back so I could maintain proper social etiquette in our atomistic society.
In “Mars, the God of War”, Stokes sings about another all-to-relatable topic, the seemingly inescapable heated exchanges over the Internet. These interactions have become a greater part of our social interaction in the age of COVID-caused lockdowns. The polarization of intersecting political beliefs and social ties has seemingly conquered the online world. I’m surprised that a resident of New Zealand, a nation that has handled the COVID Pandemic better than the USA and remains less politically polarized, has managed to write so poignantly on this issue. But perhaps I should not be that surprised, as the song was written before the COVID Pandemic spread outside of China. The Beths have toured extensively around an increasingly connected world. The heated exchanges around all of us are a natural part of human social interaction, regardless of where an individual lives. Anyways, “Mars, the God of War” is about Stokes pulling back from sending an angry message. She compares her computer to a “war machine”, as she sings “I make war on this war machine / A careful chosen word, designed to hurt / But will it stir some new philosophy? / Retreat or be defeated, baby.” The middle two lines of this excerpt strike a special chord with me, as I have often wanted to angrily and passionately comment to friends about how I disagree with what they believe. I’ve often wanted to explain how my way of thinking is correct, but over time I have realized that doing so is neither the most effective nor the kindest way to do so. Similarly to me, Stokes holds her anger back and plans to re-write her thoughts, as she sings “I wish that I could wish you well / Instead I’m hitting my head and hitting backspace on ‘Can’t you just go to hell?’”
In the only acoustic track on the album called“You Are a Beam of Light”, Stokes’ emotive voice and Pearce’s twinkling guitars reach their full potential. Stokes’ lyrics also perfectly match the song’s mood and quality. She sings to a person who experienced tough times, explaining over a phone call how special the person is to her. Stokes is quoted as saying this about the inspiration for the song in an interview for DIY Magazine: “I wished for teleportation powers so many times, for the power to appear on my friends’ doorsteps and tell them things were going to be OK. That sometimes things are hard, and sometimes bad things happen to good people. To the best people.” The chorus’ refrain goes “’Cause we live in darker times / Open my eyes so I can see brighter, oh / You are a beam of light / Maybe that’s why your battery runs dry.” I can envision my former self going through challenging moments. As the person being spoken to in this song, I can envision the speaker of these words, as any of the family members and friends who have helped and supported me.
Overall, The Beths’ “Jump Rope Gazers” is an eclectic, introspective, heartfelt, moving record. As a listener of highly technical, experimental music, it is incredibly refreshing for an indie rock band to deliver such a focused album that perfects a more mainstream sound and a group of instruments, while also providing lyrical resonance. I recommend this underappreciated album, my favorite album (so far) of this year, to any fans of rock or pop music.