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Music CD Recommendations

Spotlight on: Beat Happening
Jamboree
Black Candy
You Turn Me On
Music to Climb the Apple Tree By


Cover of Jamboree by Beat Happening Beat Happening, Jamboree
Beat Happening, Black Candy

The second full-length release from the Beat Happening (after their self-titled debut and an EP collaboration with Screaming Trees) finds them showing all sides of their collective personality. Jamboree contains eleven songs, due to the punk aesthetic covering only twenty-four minutes, that range from the powerful, catchy "Bewitched" to the seeming test of listener tolerance "The This Many Boyfriends Club."

"Bewitched" begins Jamboree with feedback and some nice grinding fretwork. Calvin Johnson easily holds our attention with the repeated chorus of "I've got a crush on you." I'm consistently amazed at how simple a song can be and still be entertaining, and "Bewitched" is a perfect example; it appears to be composed of only two chords yet is immensely satisfying. Heather Lewis follows with the beach rock-influenced jangle pop of "In Between." I find myself continually drawn to her offerings. Neither of them is a particularly great singer but the difference in Calvin and Heather's vocal styles makes one a respite from the other and doesn't let monotony get in the way of a solid listen.

Calvin returns for another venture into what is essentially Beat Happening's forte: love songs of either nostalgia or longing. The plaintive "Indian Summer" is a highlight of the album, with memorable lyrics and a sweet tone. "Hangman" (along with "Bewitched") show signs of the darkness that would lead to the recording of Beat Happening's next work, Black Candy, with its tale of an executioner who seems to enjoy his job a little too much but otherwise is just a normal Joe. I love it.

Jamboree's title track is actually one of the low points of the album, seeming to have been recorded on the fly, but it's improvisatory feel is charming. It is the first of three tracks that each come in at around a minute. The sound on "Ask Me" has a bit of echo, but Heather's a capella rendering of the musical question "Oh, hey, well okay, aren't you gonna ask me what I did today?" is nonetheless engaging. A fuller production is evident on "Crashing Through," but it still makes a lesser impression than "Ask Me" simply due to the catchy pop feel of the latter.

"Cat Walk" is a distinctly humorous ditty that begins with Calvin observing his girl out with another guy. He doesn't mind ("he's an okay fella," "she's got a bad habit of being pure"), but wishes "she'd leave my sweater home" while doing it. "Drive Car Girl" and "Midnight A Go-Go" are musically similar--the one feels almost like a continuation of the other--with Calvin offering comparable vocalisms. The only difference is that "Midnight" ends with Calvin (and whoever happens to be guitarist on this track--it's not always easy to tell on Beat Happening records) getting a little excited at the end, making it a slight improvement on its predecessor.

The less said about "The This Many Boyfriends Club," however, the better. Playground noises, atonal guitar and Calvin defiantly following an unidentifiable melody combine to make a very unpleasant listening experience--and it's the longest track on the album. It ends with a girl's scream and Calvin throwing the microphone down, just for good measure. Jamboree may be less than half an hour long, but it would be much more enjoyable if this track were completely left off. You've got to say this for the album, though: it puts all its good eggs up front and, realizing that it won't entertain forever, at least attempts to be experimental.

Cover of Black Candy by Beat Happening I'll vote for the third release from K Records' Beat Happening for the Most Appropriate Title Award. The contents are variably dark and sweet, just like the title, Black Candy. Licorice, dark chocolate, whatever your favorite peat sweet, there's definitely something for everyone on this album.

The jangle of "Other Side" starts off the album with a feelgood vibe, including a mention of the children's game Red Rover. It's one of the rare duets with Calvin and Heather both sharing vocal duties. Their voices mesh well together -- why didn't they do this more often? As a duo, they're very persuasive, making "[living] on bread crust and lemon rind" sound like a good thing.

The mood switches gears instantly with the title song, "Black Candy." Bass notes dominate as Calvin lists a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, giving the listener a good example of the feel of the rest of Black Candy. "Knick Knack" picks up the lighthearted tone again, but mixes a taste of the supernatural with Heather's angelic chorus of "you see a ghost, I see a halo;" and the mix continues with "Pajama Party in a Haunted Hive," showing off the seeming paradox that it is possible to have fun in a location that inspires mainly fear. And the guitar has the feedback to prove it.

What I found most impressive is that the song to which I most often returned was "Gravedigger Blues" which is Calvin's a capella and finger-snapping ode to love and death. Following "Gravedigger Blues" is the often-covered "Cast a Shadow" (which seems to be misnamed as the chorus states for the subject to "cast your shadow in my direction." But I'm picky about things like that. Succeeding "Shadow" is "Bonfire," a simple ditty that soon wears out its welcome. But hot on its heels comes an ode to "T.V. Girl" (which is better than "T.B. Girl," I suppose), a moody tribute to a girl who seems to have it all. Unfortunately, he can't seem to decide which note suits his singing of "girl" best, so he scatters all over the clef trying out note after note to rather grating effect.

Maybe it is the T.V. Girl who Calvin wants to invite to his "Playhouse." A playhouse with everything for the girl with everything? Sounds like a good arrangement to me, as long as you don't mind "[taking] off all our clothes. In my playhouse, that's how it goes." "Ponytail" provides the perfect close to Black Candy with its multi-layered presentation combined with Calvin's cry of love to--apparently--a horse. But who knows? And it's this questionable subject matter that lends the song a disturbing feel that crescendoes with the dual guitars to a powerful end.

The mixed dark and light feel of Black Candy makes it a wonderful companion listen to its predecessor, Jamboree. Put the two CDs on random play and you won't know which song came from which. If I were in charge of these rereleases, I would have traded a few songs on each disc, for example taking "Other Side" and "Cast a Shadow" over to Jamboree and replacing them with that album's "Bewitched" and "Hangman." Other than that, though, these two albums are a couple of the best from arguably the best--and certainly the most influential--do-it-yourself band from the northwest.


Cover of You Turn Me On by Beat Happening Beat Happening, You Turn Me On

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.


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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