Overlooked Albums of 2011: The Beets

The cover of the BeetsLet the Poison Out is a cartoon drawing of a female gang dressed sort of like Native Americans beating up a gang of people in ghost costumes in the park. The Native American ladies have a mischievous look. Their eyebrows are angled and violent, their teeth are bared.

The ghosts are not faring well. One is getting cracked on the head with a baseball bat. Another is having his throat slit. Another is having a beer bottle smashed in his face. His forehead is an explosion of blood. One of his eyes is sailing through the air. All of them -- even the one on fire, with his face melting -- are flashing peace signs.

I loved the cover for its simplicity, its humor, its violence, its sweetness, so I found out who drew it. His name is Matthew Volz. I emailed him and told him I wanted one of his drawings on my wall. He wrote me back with his phone number. “Also,” he asked, “what kind of drawings are you into? Wrestling, gory, landscapes, etc.” This is how things get broken down in the world of the Beets: I do wrestling, gory, landscapes, and et cetera.

Let the Poison Out is 27 minutes long. The songs on it are confident and amateurish, with clean lines and no embellishment. The Beets play their four chords with heavy hands and no doubt. There is one bass, one, acoustic guitar, and a drum kit. There are no cymbals in the drum kit: shiny things do not belong in the Beets.

I’ve heard them compared to the Ramones. I get it. The comparison isn’t in the sound, but in the spirit. The Beets, like the Ramones, seem like dumb people with low values who play the music they do because their pea brains couldn’t conceive of something more grand, more important.

In actuality, the Beets and the Ramones are bands that romanticize simplicity as a challenge to the gross ambition that makes art boring. “Don’t be afraid, you will not die,” the song "Doing as I Do" goes. “And if you die, whatever.” Whatever: this is the word the Beets use to prove they’re no more special than anyone else. This is how they sing about death and dying but acknowledge that singing about death and dying is a chore for the listener. The Beets seem to inherently understand that lightness is no less of a challenge than darkness.

My favorite song on Let the Poison Out is called “I Think I Might Have Built a Horse.” It’s two minutes and one second long. “There’s only one horse and twenty riders / only one of them will get to ride it,” part of the first verse goes. “All of the rest / will have to see it go, go, go.”

The idea, I think, is to remind you that you probably won’t get famous. You probably won’t be great. You’ll probably be on the sidelines, watching someone else ride the horse go, go, go. At the beginning of the second verse, though, Juan Waters sings, “I think I might’ve built a horse out of the bones you have left behind.” Crucially, he’s not sure. Crucially, whatever he built was out of the bones you left behind—the things you thought weren’t worth your time or energy, the things you left wasting away in the margins, the scraps.

I want to call the Beets ambitious because I think it’s hard to stay as humble as they do. It’s hard to admit that you’re probably not going to ride the horse, but you still want to start a band anyway. It’s hard to go to sleep and not dream big dreams. There’s something Zen about “wrestling, gory, landscapes.” There’s something rebellious, almost prayerful, about staying small. Sooner or later, most people will want guitar solos. Sooner or later, most people will want remixes. They’ll want thunder and pain and all that transformative, supposedly important stuff. They’ll want cymbals. The beauty and promise of the Beets is that they won’t.