Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Album Of The Week: Beat Happening- You Turn Me On

Calvin Johnson is one of those names you might hear a hundred times in the context of other bands and behind-the-scenes type stuff, especially in regards to his K Records label. His is a name that has an unassuming simplicity to it, like the guy you always see taking a nap in the campus library. But it's only when you listen to Beat Happening that he becomes worthy of the reverence and respect he's given. Here was a band that, self-consciously or otherwise, helped to democratize rock after punk had flamed out, creatively speaking, had become a codified, orthodox thing. Beat Happening reminded us that, yeah, all you needed was a guitar, drums, and the guts to sing. No, not the ability to sing. Johnson's voice is one of the great unsung (no pun intended) underground bellows of all time, a flat baritone that is surprisingly expressive in its limitations.

The same could be said for Beat Happening's music.

Aesthetically speaking, Beat Happening were a minimalist rock band that recalled the naivety and innocence of early 60s rock and pop but with a coyness and wink gained from young adulthood. They wrote teenage sentiment songs, yes, but with an irony and detachment gained from being old. Like, 21 years old old. This would eventually be labelled 'twee', of course, but labels don't matter when the music is this good. Lest Johnson get all the credit, the band's other singer, Heather Lewis, would prove just as influential on a wave of future indie rock sweethearts with pretty, unaffected voices. Contrasted with Johnson's baritone bellow, barely-there drums and Bret Lunsford's simple, repetitive guitar lines, the band's sound is distinctive. If you hear something playing somewhere that makes you think "hmmm, this sounds like Beat Happening...", it's probably either Beat Happening or a band who really wants to be Beat Happening. Their music has the quality a lot of great bands do in that all of their songs kind of sound the same until you become intimate with their music.

Intimate, of course, is one of the best words to use in talking about their music and You Turn Me On in particular. This is because their music is perfect for lonely bedroom listening and headphone afternoons. Even the tougher edged songs like the title track are hardly "rocking" in the way I think of rock. And were it not for the charisma and bizarre dance antics of Johnson, I doubt anyone would enjoy seeing them live. Especially material from this album. Song for song and as a whole, it's Beat Happening's longest and demands some patience from the listener. It is, arguably, the band's best album. However, as all of their releases are of a consistently high quality, it will come down to splitting hairs and personal preference. Kurt Cobain liked Jamboree best. I prefer this one. It takes a special band to make a nine minute epic like the Lewis sung epic 'Godsend' work with just guitars and vocals. It takes a special band to write 'Teenage Caveman', which is far darker and more nuanced than it originally sounds despite the plodding drums. It takes a special band to record an album like this and then...not break up, exactly; not retire, either...just to sort of step away, move on. No drama or anything.

Perhaps the best thing about Beat Happening is their aforementioned consistency. You can pick up any of their releases and immediately know if you're going to like them or not. If you find that you do, you'll have about four or five other albums to enjoy, albums that are similar and yet different enough to not sound like recycled material. Hell, I jumped in with Music To Climb The Apple Tree By and that's technically a compilation. At any rate, You Turn Me On is their best. Unless you want to believe Kurt Cobain, that is.

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