Quirk-pop?

The Aliens and Mystery Jets
By MIKAEL WOOD  |  September 19, 2007

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ALL JAMMED UP: The Aliens are just as dedicated to psychedelic sprawl as the Beta Band were.

The Beta Band never really made an album you could listen to from beginning to end. Each of the willfully eclectic Scottish group’s three studio discs surrounds (and sometimes drowns) psych-pop songwriting with the sort of semi-random sonic splatter that made Beck a hero to home-recording enthusiasts back in the mid ’90s. The Betas’ mad-scientist approach in the years following Blur-and-Oasis Britpop often yielded isolated rewards: the scene in High Fidelity where John Cusack’s character piques the interest of his record-store customers by spinning “Dry the Rain” captures the band’s potential for potent musical moments. But such moments meant less to the Betas than sprawling expanses of sound. Even The Best of the Beta Band (Astralwerks), issued nearly a year after the group played their final show in December of 2004, pools into a jammy swamp of narcotic vocal harmonies and warmed-over Madchester beats.

The first half of Astronomy for Dogs (Astralwerks) — the debut full-length by the Aliens, a new group featuring former Beta Band members Robin Jones, John Maclean, and Gordon Anderson — sounds like the stab at concision the Betas never got around to attempting. “Setting Sun” opens the CD with a hard-charging garage-soul groove that echoes “96 Tears.” “Robot Man” pairs a taut disco pulse with whining G-funk synths. “Tomorrow” floats on a bed of cosmic-country guitar twang and lonely West Coast harmonica wheeze. “Only Waiting” imagines the sound of Drums and Wires–era XTC covering Magical Mystery Tour–era Beatles.

Stick around past those fleeting introductory pleasures, however, and Astronomy for Dogs reveals that the Aliens (who touch down to headline Great Scott on September 20) are just as dedicated to psychedelic sprawl as the Beta Band were. “She Doesn’t Love Me No More” is a spaced-out seven-minute piano ballad in which Anderson promises, “If I ever find a girl that really loves me/Well, I’ll hold onto that girl all my life,” while violins float away into the æther behind him. “Honest Again” channels the stoner-R&B swirl of Dark Side of the Moon. Closer “Caravan” starts out as a Van Morrison–style folk-soul strummer but ends up (11 minutes later) awash in drum-circle atmospherics.

If you’re looking for a full-length realization of the tight quirk-pop æsthetic the Aliens halfway embrace, try ZooTime (Dim Mak), by England’s Mystery Jets (who open for Klaxons at the Paradise September 23). Unlike the Aliens’ uneven debut, this zippy 12-track disc remains balanced from beginning to end. Twenty-year-old frontman Blaine Harrison writes bright psych-garage nuggets that his bandmates (including his dad Henry on guitar) embroider with all sorts of appealingly loopy details, such as the barrelhouse piano in “Umbrella Head,” the African-pop guitar in “Crosswords,” and the choral backing vocals in “Horse Drawn Cart.”

It’s not entirely fair to the Aliens to compare ZooTime with Astronomy for Dogs, since the former is a highlight reel of sorts compiled for American ears from material introduced on the Jets’ 2006 UK debut, Making Dens, as well as new tracks produced by Erol Alkan, the hot UK remix star. In other words, its concision has been consciously enforced. Left to their own devices, Mystery Jets may well share the Aliens weakness for unfocused jamming. But if that’s so, they’re at least willing to be edited in a way that wouldn’t likely appeal to three former Beta males.

THE ALIENS + AUGIE MARCH + KATE JOHNSON | Great Scott, 1222 Comm Ave, Boston | September 20 | 617.566.9014 | MYSTERY JETS + KLAXONS | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | September 23 | 617.931.2000

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