How do you follow up a popular debut album? It’s a question bands have struggled with decades trying to balance expectations of fans with the desire to evolve as musicians. Auckland New Zealand’s The Beths had one of 2018’s standout albums with their full length debut Future Me Hates Me winding up on many critic’s end of the year lists. Their combination of fuzzed out indie rock, jangle pop, wry introspective lyrics and Beatle-esque harmonies recalls many ‘90s favorites and led to 18 months of touring supporting big names like The Pixies, Weezer and The Breeders. Lesser bands might feel burnt out after that much time on the road, but The Beths insists it brought them closer together and they soon found themselves back in guitarist Jonathan Pearce’s Auckland studio for a followup.
The lead off track has front-woman Elizabeth Stokes singing “I’m Not Getting Excited” over a solitary distorted guitar, but listeners will find it hard not to feel a rush when the full band kicks in. It’s an infectious sprint race of muscular power pop that picks up right where The Beths left off on their debut. “Dying to Believe” – the first single – follows and its pop packed with giant choruses and stop start dynamics. Stokes, in her typically self depreciating style, sings about the futility of arguments and how those hard conversations can make you hate yourself. In contrast to its subject matter though, “Dying to Believe” is the most fun song on the album matched only by its predecessor. Changing pace, the title track “Jump Rope Gazers” strikes a decidedly different tone that verges on dreampop ballad territory at times. It’s a side of The Beths we haven’t heard much of before – in fact it is is their slowest song to date which gives ample space for warm and heartfelt lyrics about new love that creeps up on you by surprise. Its not always an easy evolution for bands trying new stylistic changes, but The Beths pull it off effortlessly. “Acrid” returns them to fizzy guitar pop business as usual albeit with some odd detours throughout the structure of the song. The analog synths are a cool addition to usual The Beths sound, but the abrupt changes hurt the flow of an otherwise good song here. Elizabeth Stokes has said she wanted the next song, “Do You Want Me Now” to be moment of calm and quiet on the album. Its reminiscent of a bedroom 4 track demo with acoustic guitar and vocals taking center stage while a drum machine keeps time. As the song moves along it becomes more fleshed out and backing vocals echo Stokes‘ melancholy over an unrequited love. On the single “Out Of Sight” The Beths take some of that same formula and up the tempo. Stokes sings about a fragile long distance relationship while the band drapes themselves in dreampop and off kilter guitar riffs. It’s another example of the band getting out of their comfort zone and taking a more ambitious route. Stokes vents her frustrations at friends moving away on “Don’t Go Away” which combines girl group harmonies with some very ’90s nostalgic indie rock. “Mars, The God of War” revisits the musical and lyrical themes from “Dying to Believe” with some of the album’s most infectious melodies, impressive musicianship and a blistering guitar solo – a seemingly forgotten art form these days. “You Are A Beam Of Light” is an outlier in The Beths’ catalog in that it’s the only Beths song you could call folk. Written about being far from loved ones on tour when they needed her, the song is almost entirely Stokes on her own and she uses the extra space to convey a tour’s worth of yearning and heartache. The album wraps up with the more optimistic “Just Shy Of Sure“. It’s sunnier lyrics are mirrored in the band’s chiming guitar chords and dreamy production giving it a feel reminiscent of The Sundays.
Jump Rope Gazers is packed with enough of their debut’s signature propulsive guitar pop and catchy harmonies to endear it with fans of their debut while branching out into new stylistic territory. The exuberance of being a new band out to conquer the world was thrilling to hear on The Beths first album, but here it gives way to a new weariness on Jump Rope Gazers. There’s a few stumbles along the way and some fans may feel the slower numbers are too muted for them, but you can forgive The Beths for becoming more mature songwriters and trying different things. This is an album that balances its highs with an equal amount of lows and rewards repeated listening for those that invest the time to appreciate its emotional depth and detailed production.
Highlights: “Dying to Believe”, “Out Of Sight”, “Mars, God of War”
For Fans Of: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Diet Cig, Snail Mail