Start describing The Beths to someone who hasn’t heard them, and you’ll quickly run upon a challenge. The pop-rock-emo quartet from Auckland, New Zealand, defies hyper-exact definitions, blending dense lyricism, anthemic guitar solos, punk-metal riffs, and four-part harmonies into their oeuvre of cheeky and sometimes devastating songs — which cover, generally: anxiety, love, and anxiety-inducing love. It’s a lot.
That overwhelm takes the reins on “Silence is Golden,” the third track on their new album, 2022’s Expert in a Dying Field. The song is a high-velocity piece of shrapnel, wounding listeners with the woes of lead singer Elizabeth Stokes, as she bemoans the loudness of city life.
“Wish I could freeze time / Go to the wild / Soak up the quiet / ’Til I’m dripping wet with it,” Stokes sings, strumming a metal-inspired polyrhythmic riff at the same time. Why does she choose to play the riff while singing, instead of having more-than-capable guitarist (and album producer) Jonathan Pearce handle it? It’s simply, as she puts it, a matter of fun.
“I like a challenge, yeah,” Stokes says with a laugh. “I’m doing these different things with different parts of my body, and when I can get it all together, it’s really satisfying. I think it’s probably what’s fun about drumming. I split my brain into multiple parts. It’s a fun riff, and it’s great for my pinky finger, which has always been notoriously weak.”
Indeed, weakness and satisfaction are two ends of a lyrical spectrum across which Stokes gallivants on the album. Expert represents a new leg in The Beths’ growth as a unit (including bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck) as their lyrical and instrumental output coheres into deeply felt and complex energetic rock.
The Beths’ frenetic energy on Expert will come as no surprise to listeners of their earlier albums, 2018’s Future Me Hates Me and 2020’s Jump Rope Gazers, or their 2016 debut EP, Warm Blood. On the latter, the band loudly announced a sound that was, while melancholic, also full of joy. Upon that EP’s release, the New Zealand music magazine NZ Musician suggested the quartet’s intent was to “revive and celebrate the increasingly lost art of high energy guitar pop.” Whether or not high-energy guitar pop was actually “lost” may be an open question, but there’s no doubt The Beths have infused it with a genuine sense of humor and fun.
Take “I Told You That I Was Afraid,” in which Stokes’ somber lyrics about feeling invisible and hated are propelled by the hurtling-ahead pace set by Sinclair and Deck. In the bridge, Stokes pleads: “Kindly tell me a lie / Will you look me in the eye / And say it’ll all be alright in the end?” We’re never told if everything turns out alright, but the injury of that ignorance is salved by Pearce, who steps in to deliver the most breathless, blistering, “hell-yeah” guitar solo of the album.
Steady as she goes
In 2019, The Beths took to Europe to support Death Cab for Cutie — as strong a commendation as one could ask for in the world of indie rock. But just as their sophomore album Jump Rope Gazers was released in July 2020, the pandemic was shutting everything down. Unable to tour the album, plenty of worthy singles like “I’m Not Getting Excited,” “Jump Rope Gazers,” and “Out of Sight” got lost in the noise.
Not so, here in 2023. The band landed in Portland for their North American winter tour in mid-February, supporting their new material in a new, somewhat less-COVID-emphatic world. Recent announcements of tours supporting not only Death Cab again (on their 20th anniversary tour with The Postal Service), but also The National in late 2023, have bolstered the band’s reputation.
Stokes waxes humble about it: “It feels very steady. It hasn’t jumped up from bars to stadiums, but it feels like every time we go out, there are a few more people,” she says. “It’s really validating.”
The word “steady” is a good one to describe a stand-out track from the new album, “When You Know You Know,” a ’90s-inspired fist-pumper that feels like “Teenage Dirtbag” grew up and looked back with horror and admiration at its many failed attempts at love. The song builds like a nesting doll, stacking syntactic complexity over catchiness in its triumphant pre-chorus, with lyrics combining starry-eyed optimism and hard-earned self critique.
“I can see a way to a new horizon / Squinting through the clouds ’til it burns my eyes and / Every other star is a sun that’s rising / And every other word, I’m apologizing,” Stokes sings, as her falsetto and lyricism are pushed to Joni Mitchell-like extremes. The instrumental energy is restrained, until the catchiest chorus of The Beths’ career explodes, making it clear why the track is a recent favorite among indie rock playlisters.
“Yeah, I was chuffed when I wrote it,” Stokes says. “We like to write songs that are hard to play and yet really fun for everybody to sing. That’s really challenging and satisfying.”
Challenging and satisfying? Well, that’s not a bad way to describe The Beths, either.
ON THE BILL: The Beths with Sidney Gish. 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, Summit, 1902 Blake St., Denver. Tickets here.