Night Beats Have Become a Myth of a Band
The Austin psych rock group’s Dan Auerbach–overproduced third record signifies an end to regional music scenes and adherence to aesthetic.
Over the course of the five whole days I spent working at a UPS Store in 2013, my manager, who Duke-Silvered as a member of a local-favorite Chicago psych rock band, provided me with the contemporary music education sorely lacking in my then-green music journalism career. I hadn’t yet realized that all the bands I listened to at the time basically already existed twenty or more years ago until I tried introducing my coworkers to my personal music library. I can’t imagine how the band Art Brut became a topic of conversation post-2007, but this was the embarrassingly belated moment when I learned who Mark E. Smith was. Likewise, I was eager to play the new Night Beats record for my boss, who casually informed me that he’d not only opened for them, but also preferred some obscure sixties group called The 13th Floor Elevators.
After situating the group within the context of Roky Erickson and the proverbially weird city of Austin’s vibrant history of heavy psych acts that followed, my faith in the band was restored the following Halloween when they soundtracked the most psychedelic experience I’ve ever had while sober. When I saw them play again last spring it was the same story—though their recorded music had mellowed a bit following 2016’s Who Sold My Generation, their performance was just as transportative, raw, and intimate (vocalist/guitarist Danny Lee Blackwell hopped into the crowd in the middle of a song at one point to confront someone he perceived to be harassing another member of the audience, while the band played on without skipping a beat, as if this was typical behavior).
It occurred to me then that Night Beats thrives on their well-honed aesthetic, some drug-addled vision of the wild Southwest blithely indulging in beatnik sentiments. Words like “visceral” and “soundscape” come to mind when listening to their self-titled debut and its inconceivably hazier follow-up—less lethargic opium den experiences than what their peers in The Black Angels have shared with a broader audience—while their live show takes this concept and runs with it. Without such dedication to aesthetic, the band would be nothing but the same unforgivable kitsch we’ve crucified Greta Van Fleet for, an uninspired regurgitation of their favorite records exclusively made for an audience who missed Easter Everywhere the first time around. If this wasn’t already clear, just listen to Myth of a Man.
If there ever was a trajectory for Night Beats, it could be defined by an attraction to subtlety. “Her Cold Cold Heart” was the first taste of Myth we got back in September when the record was announced, and its eerie minimalism seemed like a logical next step, its warped guitar and unromantic lyrics undeniably familiar. Yet this opening track’s flourish of castanets seems to be what was carried over to the remainder of the record, which is pumped with crisp horn sections (countering the woozy, anachronistic horns on last record’s “Bad Love”) and other instrumental gimmicks courtesy of producer Dan Auerbach, whose chorus of session musicians has seemingly taken the place of Blackwell’s backing band.
By the second track, and the record’s second single, the Black Keys guitarist’s presence outweighs Blackwell’s with a distinctly Auerbachian guitar riff dominating “One Thing,” a track otherwise characterized by plinking piano, backing female vocals, and, ugh, handclaps. When it isn’t a nearly anonymous “Sister Golden Hair”–inspired Blackwell solo project, Myth sounds like a saccharin, overblown retrospective of an artist who’s spent a lifetime wandering in a comic number of directions. Blackwell even collaborated on a recent non-album track with Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant, a band whose popularity at the turn of last decade contributed to rock’s catatonic state in spite of Night Beats’ aggressively regressive agenda and Animal Collective’s recently eulogized attempt at moving things forward.
What could simply be written off as a classic case of a band selling out instead seems more an example of rock’s current moment of bands shedding their regional personality for a sound that’s been made ubiquitous by heavy airplay.
What could simply be written off as a classic case of a band selling out—stepping up from the indie label Trouble in Mind to the, well, larger indie label Heavenly Recordings—instead seems more an example of rock’s current moment of bands shedding their regional personality for a sound that’s been made ubiquitous by heavy airplay. Obviously, GVF can’t be faulted for drafting off the success of a band outside of *squints at map of Michigan* Frankenmuth’s music scene, nor can the recent flux of LA emigrants be faulted when they continue to write songs using the musical lexicons they picked up in their respective places of origin, albeit with a more advanced recording procedure.
Myth of a Man doesn’t signal a new aesthetic for Night Beats so much as it implies a disinterest in pursuing one any longer. While the details that set them apart from their local Austin scene, past and present, remain mostly intact (the over-caffeinated surf rock drumming with a disengaged snare; Blackwell’s shaky, mystic tenor), the majority of their DNA has been co-opted by “Lonely Boy” and a decade of contemporary radio rock inspired by older decades’ radio rock. The era of bands reincarnating bands with whom they possess some sort of spiritual connection is on its way out—the era of bands heedlessly reincarnating bands heedlessly reincarnating bands is, unfortunately, in full swing. FL