Album Review: Beta Radio – Colony of Bees
It’s shameful that we’re nearly a year away from this release and finally getting it the press it deserves, but here we go. Beta Radio are one of my favorite bands making music because of their incredible harmonies and penchant for the addictive folk song. There are a lot of successful “new folk” acts making music today, but none may be so authentic or enjoyable than the duo of Benjamin Mabry and Brent Holloman.
From the first rolling fingerpicking on “Take My Photograph,” listeners are taken down a sonic journey that is comfortable as it is scenic. When the vocals join in, it becomes even more evident that these two gentlemen are the real deal. We get to hear the lyric that gives the album it’s title. Then the cleverly delivered “oh I am arranging you to be changed…” line is almost haunting in its sincerity. There are feelings and emotions surrounding a relationship, intertwined with picturesque natural images. It’s a great start to a wonderful album.
“East of Tennessee” is one of the finest examples of contemporary folk music I’ve heard. The lead vocal has a bit of an Edward Sharpe feel to it. Add in some kick drum and great harmonies, it’s easy to hear why Beta Radio are a successfully and rising band. There’s this image in the lyrics about going back home to see a picture that reminds him of a painful past. It’s a perfectly placed lyric that makes the already strong sound pop.
Then there’s “I Am Mine” – an easy short-list track for song of the year. (Even this was late 2014 I am counting it for my 2015 lists because it’s amazing.) Seriously if you don’t like this song you don’t like folk music; or, put otherwise, you don’t like the new folk revival. It has it all. The vocals are flawless, the harmonies are spine tinglingly good, and the banjo is superb. The lyrics are a bit abstract, but they are certainly open to interpretation. I think it’s about deciding to “go for it” with a relationship, despite reservations.
Skip a few (not that it’s warranted – they are all good) to “Vera,” another melodic, understated track. The instrumentation is heavenly, with a real sense of calm set in it. Despite being an interlude, it’s one of my favorite parts of the album. “Sitting Room” builds on the calm established on “Vera” to a haunting, minor-chord dominated track. It’s an abstract, spiritually loaded track with all sorts of undefined imagery. That said, the eerie sonic construction, complete with high-pitched backing harmonies, comes together for a discomfiting and exceptional piece of art. It shows that Beta Radio are not the kind of jangly, toe-tapping folk that brought so many to the genre. They paint with impressionistic brushes and whatever colors they choose. Take a step back; take it in.
“On the Frame” features a different lead vocal and a subtle harmonic structure. The banjo figures prominently on this track. There’s a persistent theme about saying goodbye and getting closure. It seems to be a song about moving on. The following “Kilimanjaro” is a bit of a divergence from other tracks on the album as it notably features wind instruments and an elevated listening experience. The waltz time and happier, major chords lead to a completely different feeling than some of the other tracks on the album. It works really well and the little electric guitar riff that serves as a break is one of those that provokes air guitar playing regularly. It’s awesome.
“White Fawn” is a cool song. I don’t mean “like, groovy man.” I mean it’s got a temperature to it that is cool and stolid. Oh and if you’re looking for some tantalizing, romantic lyrics, check these out. “oh my white fawn i’m the wild one i’ll find you, out of the zoo i’m feasting on you one last time, oh my sparrow my heart so narrow for you only, i could love you i could love you one last time.” Yep, that good. The guitars and vocals click perfectly, making a kind of ominous-yet-positive feeling.
“Here Too Far” is another instrumental interlude, setting up “Monument,” the final track. “Monument” holds reverence. The sound fits with the rest of the album, utilizing strings and atmospheric vocals to maintain the sense of calm found on other tracks on the album. It’s a delightful way to end a stunning album. I would love to know the deep, dark story behind this theatrical and mysterious song.
The interludes are part of why you just need to listen to this full album. Beta Radio have put together a really masterful piece of artwork that needs to be holistically appreciated. It’s in a high class of today’s folk music. They are a band to be appreciated and, frankly, adored. Their work is not just ordinary; it’s extraordinary. Go examine the Colony of Bees.