Unlike many bands, the more albums Beat Happening made, the better they got. This is the way it is supposed to be, but unfortunately it doesn't usually happen that way.
You Turn Me On, to date the final Beat Happening album, shows a level of maturity that the average listener would have had no right to expect, based on their previous, more fun-oriented, recordings. To start with, the songwriters have all but eschewed the three-minute song, and three tracks exceed six minutes, with "Godsend" topping out at nine.
Jangly guitar starts off "Tiger Trap" with a mellowness that we've not seen before in the Happening. Calvin restrains his signature baritone's usual forcefulness but keeps the loving disposition of yore during the one-line chorus of "when I saw you." This song, along with several others on
You Turn Me On, have not one but two (count 'em: two!) guitars playing in harmony. The heavier production from regular producer Steve Fisk (with Stuart Moxham of the influential
Young Marble Giants) benefits the band wonderfully, also giving Heather's "Noise" vocals an ethereal quality they lacked previously.
The subject matter has not changed dramatically from Beat Happening's previous releases: there are still the love songs and the death songs, sometimes in the same song. How Calvin connects the idea of a children's DIY race ("Pinebox Derby") into the death dirge of that other "pine box" is a prime example of the creativity that comes from this band, and a major reason that they are one of my favorites. The title track combines love and death in one with its Beatles "Paul is dead"-inspired chorus (reportedly what could be heard while playing the beginning of the
White Album's "Revolution #9" backwards). Calvin growls "Turn me on dead man" repeatedly and with an intensity that belies the band's surface innocence. (For more dark songs, see Black Candy and selected songs from the rest of the BH oeuvre.)
During repeated listens of these albums, I have come to appreciate Heather's contributions to the band's mix (it's difficult to know what Bret adds, as his offering is understated). Her
You Turn Me On songs are no different. "Sleepy Head" is beach music extraordinaire and "Godsend" is, quite simply, an epic of minimalist proportions. Had Calvin sung "Sleepy Head" (which would normally be expected, since he wrote it), it would be an entirely different song. This way, its inherent sweetness shines through. "Godsend" continues this tack, with lyrics that most folks would love to hear being sung about themselves by the one they love -- idealized portraits of love's rose-colored vision. Despite its extreme length, a shorter running time would not have achieved the same blissful effect. I'll even posit that it could go on for six more minutes will no ill effects. It represents the fruition of Beat Happening's musical progression. They have learned the persuasive power of repetition and are not afraid to use it.
"Teenage Caveman" is a rumbling beat-driven romp, featuring Heather's backing of Calvin on the chorus, that allows the band to truly "rise to the top" while they "trade spit till it hurts." Calvin sings Heather's lyrics on "Hey Day" and this is the first song that really sounds like a song from the 1990s, with its heavy melodic-yet-grinding groove. "Bury the Hammer" is solid as well, but I would have preferred it to be placed somewhere else in the mix. "Hey Day" is the ideal ender for this album.
You Turn Me On is the qualitative hight point of Beat Happening output, showing that much more could have been expected from this Olympia trio, had they the interest to keep it going. In that case, we'll have to stick with what we've been given and see Beat Happening as the epitome of the understandably influential, utterly groundbreaking, never overstated, eros-thanatos indie punk band.
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