Beat Happening – Look Around

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I like twee pop just as much as the next guy. More even, as the average “next guy” has no fucking clue what twee pop is, and odds are, probably wouldn’t like it once exposed. Even so, I admit to struggling a bit with Beat Happening. Mostly, it’s Calvin Johnson’s pitch-optional singing that wears me down. But I am fully on board with the overall aesthetic, though it is a bit overstated in the case of Beat Happening. Purposely primitive and decidedly innocent (sort of), the band subverts rock expectations (and, more to the point perhaps, punk expectations, or more to the point of the point, male expectations) by offering up music that is casually if not haphazardly constructed, and with a determination to celebrate whimsy. Where this description falls apart is that Beat Happening was certainly capable of playing gritty and dark (and even sexual), but for the most part, they spearheaded a movement – in conjunction with Johnson’s K Records label – to champion what is essentially passionless passion. They clearly love what they do, but they are not going to make any effort to be good at it in a way that you would expect them to, and the fact that they can’t really play their instruments doesn’t even rise to the level of a minor inconvenience – it is just a simple reality that they not only accept but reclaim as proof of their commitment. Beat Happening formed in Olympia, Washington in the early 1980s, and the band – Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Brett Lunsford (all of them switched instruments regularly, and eschewed the bass altogether) – released five albums through 1992. Their songs have been covered by indie rock luminaries such as Luna (“Indian Summer”), Teenage Fanclub (“Bad Seed”), the BMX Bandits (“Cast a Shadow”), Cub (also “Cast a Shadow”), and Eugenius (uh, “Indian Summer,” again).

What I Think of This Album

This career-spanning compilation – oddly, not released on K Records – works as a better introduction to the band than perhaps intended. More than just simply compiling highlights, the collection gives equal weight to the undersold aggressive side of the band while also depicting a steady progression in terms of musicianship and professionalism, culminating in the excellent sequence of songs from the last phase of their career.

This comp is made up of two songs from the debut; another two songs from their first single; three tracks from Jamboree; three tunes from Black Candy; a full five songs from Dreamy; and another five from You Turn Me On. Also mixed in are single tracks “Look Around” and “Angel Gone,” as well as B-side “Knock On Any Door.”

The album can be roughly broken down into the Cramps-inspired songs and the Jonathan Richman-inspired songs. On the more sinister side of the ledger are tracks like “Bad Seeds,” “Nancy Sin,” “Pinebox Derby,” and “Black Candy” – these get repetitive and border on tiresome, and frankly, are not always credible. Still, sometimes the change of pace is refreshing:  “Bewitched” rides a dirty, distorted guitar line with Johnson threatening “I’ve got a crush on you”; and “Red Head Walking” is appealingly obsessive.

I prefer the lighter stuff, though, which I find more endearing. The droney “Our Secret” overcomes Johnson’s meandering past the boundaries of the key; Lewis’s vocal turn on the delightful, bouncy “What’s Important” is critical to its success; and Johnson carries the wistful (but shockingly graphic)  “Look Around,” with the inimitable line “If a black cat’s gonna cross my path / It might as well be you.” The bittersweet “In Between” is another plus, with a simple drumbeat propelling Lewis’s plain vocals past your defenses. “Indian Summer” is deservedly a classic, with its matter-of-fact recitation of life’s little pleasures (“croquet and Baked Alaska”) against a backdrop of young love (“Cover me with rain / Walk me down the lane / I’ll drink from your drain / We will never change / No matter what they say”) and all of two chords.

The band wisely decided to have Lewis and Johnson duet on “Other Side,” and it may be one of their best songs as a result. “Cast a Shadow” really is pure Richman, childlike and awed, with a relentless tom-tom beat. Similarly, “Fortune Cookie Prize” is disarmingly sweet, with stellar performance from Lewis, and the silly “Hot Chocolate Boy” is better than it has any right to be. “Tiger Trap” is gently gorgeous and hypnotically heartwarming. Of course, the apex of the album (if not of all of Beat Happening’s career) is “Godsend,” a nine-minute epic which distills the love song to its purest form, with Lewis taking (multi-tracked!) lead. The lyrical directness and the repetitive jangle combine to transport you to a world where this sort of compulsive devotion is appreciated and reciprocated (you know, a fantasyland).

“Teenage Caveman” is of a piece with the preceding two songs, as is the fizzy “Noise.” The regret-laden late single “Angel Gone” is a perfect career capstone. I suppose it would have been nice to have tracks like “The This Many Boyfriends Club,” “Sea Hunt,” “Cat Walk,” and I am sure there are others I’ve missed, but overall, this works well as both a standalone album and a gateway drug.

Producers on the tracks include Stuart Moxham (Young Marble Giants), Steve Fisk (the Wedding Present), Greg Sage (the Wipers), and Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Godsend” is a . . . well, you know.

Release Date

September, 2015

The Cover Art

My album has this annoying blue sticker in the upper right hand corner, but otherwise, I like the composition and use of color. Also, bunnies!

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