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Spotlight on: Music to Climb the Apple Tree By by Beat Happening

Cover of Music to Climb the Apple Tree By by Beat Happening Beat Happening, Music to Climb the Apple Tree By

Previously available only in the Beat Happening boxed set Crashing Through, the recent release Music to Climb the Apple Tree By is a collection of singles, compilation tracks, and the like. Unfortunately, it suffers a similar fate to that of other bands' career-spanning anthologies--a marked lack of cohesion. For the same reason that Song Islands is my least favorite Microphones album (although I still listen to it often)--the inherent unevenness of singles compilations--Music to Climb the Apple Tree By is the least cohesive album in the Beat Happening catalog. Nevertheless, it remains immensely listenable and is a wonderful introduction to the sound of a band that remains viable even in the face of being called "influential"--usually the first step towards obsolescence.

The songs are great, but I'm not sure where to start. I suppose "Angel Gone" would be best, as it's the first cut on the album, and, until this compilation, my only introduction to Beat Happening. It appears on the Invisible Shield compilation and I was instantly struck by the power of vocalist (and K Records majordomo) Calvin Johnson's resonant tones. Besides being one of the few pop vocalists with whom I could conceivably harmonize, Johnson manages to bring an innocence to his world-weariness--something with which I can identify. Although I don't always understand exactly what is trying to be said in these tracks, I can sense the intent via the delivery. Johnson is ambitious, certainly, often writing notes for himself that are too low for even he to hit solidly, but that's all part of the DIY mentality (that's "do it yourself," for those of you who are used to having things done for you) for which the Happening have been known since their formation 1980s. (It's only a follower of minutiae like myself that would notice the irony of a member of the Halo Benders speaking to a presumably fallen angel in "Angel Gone" about "when [your halo] gets a little crooked.")

Invariably consisting of three members: Johnson (also of Dub Narcotic Sound System), Bret Lunsford (also plays in D+ and runs his own record label, Knw-Yr-Own, in Olympia's neighboring Anacortes), and Heather Lewis (about whom I, regrettably, know nothing else), Beat Happening is a band only in the technical sense of three people gathered together to create music. They feel no need to play the same instruments all the time and trade at will, and their musicianship can best be said to have been given "an A for effort." Nevertheless, the passion and their shared love for music seeps through and makes the songs enjoyable at the least. (After a few listens, the off notes and out-of-tune instruments don't seem to make an impression anymore and you'll begin to think of radio pop as "too polished.") "Angel Gone," released in 2000, benefits from the members' continual practice of their craft and is, in fact, beautiful in many ways, including the jangly guitar and love-strewn lyrics.

It is followed by an earlier track that nonetheless shares similar subject matter, the "good girl, bad girl" anthem, "Nancy Sin." Psychedelic-era grinding guitar plays counterpoint and support to Johnson's smooth, sex-laced vocals. Fascinating to hear Calvin dredge his dark side. "Sea Hunt," on the other hand, is too bland for its own good--and far too long as a result--but "Look Around" more than makes up for it with its uptempo unrequited love (a theme Beat covers often).

The influence of the 1960s on Beat Happening is evident in most of the tracks ("Dreamy," "Sea Babies," the surf rock of "Knock on Any Door"), but never more so than in "Zombie Limbo Time," a fun party tune that could easily underscore a counterculture Frankie and Annette flick. And in "Not a Care in the World," Heather Lewis takes a walk through the Calvin octave-range to solid effect. Lewis is also featured on the sweet "Foggy Eyes," a reassurance that a friend's decision to leave was the right one. It's as close to a mainstream pop song as this album gets.

"Tales of Brave Aphrodite" bears no resemblance to the classic Cream track from which its name was inspired, "Tales of Brave Ulysses," and I was tempted to believe that "Polly Pereguinn" was a recent recording--simply because of the level of production--before realizing it comes from the Beat Happening/Screaming Trees joint EP from 1988.

I would have ended there, but Beat Happening have other ideas, choosing instead the quick rocking "I Dig You," reminding us that, at the heart of this band is a punk ethic that strives for pop melody. Perhaps they don't always reach this ambition, but that could be why their fans love them so much. Music to Climb the Apple Tree By is a thorough testament to a trio whose music--and friendship--has stood the test of time.

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