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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Beat Happening: You Turn Me On

BEAT HAPPENING: YOU TURN ME ON (1992)

1) Tiger Trap; 2) Noise; 3) Pinebox Derby; 4) Teenage Caveman; 5) Sleepy Head; 6) You Turn Me On; 7) Godsend; 8) Hey Day; 9) Bury The Hammer.

A tricky question here: will the Beat still be Happening if, for once — just for once — the band actually decides to record music that does not intentionally sound bad? As in, quality hi-fi pro­duction, predominantly on-key vocals, well-tuned guitars and all? The song structures may still be minimalistic as hell, restricted by 2-3 chords at max, and the atmosphere may still smell of lobotomy post-op, but the technical quality is improved to the point of there actually being some technical quality, and isn't that, like, sacrilegious for this band? Is there a point here? Didn't we really all enjoy Beat Happening just because of the aural masochism?

In any case, it is a good thing that they recorded this, because otherwise we'd just have empty speculations — and here is your actual chance to witness a cleaner, tighter, more overtly musical variant of Beat Happening before it's too late. Additionally, there is one more important change: the songs are much longer now on the average, varying from around 4 to 6 minutes, with ʽGod­sendʼ clocking in at an awesome-awful 9:28 — and no, this is not some sort of «progressive» tendency, because the Spartan melody stubbornly stays the same all the time. If you can listen to our shit for two minutes, you might as well listen for nine. Let the chords soak in.

My honest opinion is that the gamble pays off quite well. In essence, this is the same old Beat Happening — Calvin, the grumpy one, and Heather, the bright innocent one, with their guitar melodies reflecting the two different personalities — and the improved sound quality is a blessing for their vocal hooks, which, although repetitive, finally get a chance to properly materialize and solidify (particularly when they prop them up with multi-tracked vocals).

So you could say that the inexperienced kid of seven years ago has finally matured here, advan­cing to the level of writing some really densely encoded lyrical observations on love and death and to the level of actually mastering some professional techniques to set them to music — yet all the while remaining at about the same level of rudimentary musical talent, and retaining the twee innocence and the gloomy sarcasm of yore. Actually, one thing that you can sense fairly well is that the personality is almost completely split in two now: Heather and Calvin move in such dif­ferent directions that it almost feels uncomfortable to have something as sweet, optimistic, and encouraging as ʽSleepy Headʼ and something as grinningly ghoulish as ʽPinebox Derbyʼ (a song about hunting witches and sealing them in coffins, no less!) on the same album. Or, a minute later, have to listen to the quasi-Satanic mantra of "turn me on dead man, turn me on dead man" and then, right next to it, learn that "it's just the things you do, you make it true, you're a godsend" over the course of a friendly nine-minute mantra.

Indeed, approximately half of this album sounds as if it were recorded in the dead of night at your local cemetery, while the other half was recorded in broad daylight on some green lawn in Central Park. The two halves lock together on the final track, ʽBury The Hammerʼ, a relatively rare case of an actual duet between Calvin and Heather that urges to "forgive and forget, it's time to make amends", as if the previous forty minutes were spent in the state of a hostile rift, and now the creepy cemetery joker and the sunshine-loving dame are coming together in one final em­brace... yeah, I could picture something like that.

And yes, the vocal hooks are nice. Not very original — just nice. For the record, one bit of vocal modulation on ʽSleepy Headʼ is borrowed from the Stones' ʽAs Tears Go Byʼ, and I'm sure that most of the other parts can be traced back to their old-school pop roots as well, from Motown to the Kinks, but they are reworking, not stealing, and matching the old hooks to their modern per­sonalities. Be it the mournful "we cry alone, we cry alone" of ʽTeenage Cavemanʼ, or the ado­ring "you make it true..." bit of ʽGodsendʼ, or the nonchalantly mumbled "bury the hammer, bury the hammer" mantra, they're all a tiny tiny bit «new», and they're all meaningfully attractive.

Overall, this is clearly a thumbs up kind of album — I hesitate to call it the «culmination» of all things Beat Happening, since it objectively sounds very differently from everything they did pre­viously; but as the end of the journey, it is at least as important as the self-titled debut. You can easily skip the middle of the road, but it makes sense — and a little intrigue — to take a look at how they ended up if you already know how they started out. Ironically, this was not originally supposed to be Beat Happening's swan song: it is more like one of those albums that unintentio­nally come out looking like swan songs, and then subvert the band into breaking up because there's just no way they could really pick it up and continue on. Another record like that, and the spiral of mediocrity would start swirling again; but as it is, You Turn Me On remains the band's most immediately accessible and likeable record, and I'm glad they went out with it. 

2 comments:

  1. Good God! I tried to sit through this but after 30 minutes my ears started throbbing. It's not their voices that bother me; I actually found Calvin's mumbling kinda funny, and those hooks you mentioned do indeed stand out. It's that GODAWFUL guitar sound. I can handle fuzz, feedback, drones, sludge, even detuning if it's done right. But this incessant, tinny, clanging sound... Ugh. I think I deserve extra credit for this one.

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  2. This music is from Olympia Washington. Being an hour away from Seattle, it was always like a weird 2nd cousin to the hipper "grunge" scene happening to the north. I can't imagine listening to it outside of that context.

    I have a soft spot for it only because I'm from the area and appreciated the wildly idealistic, difficult listening vibe that characterized Olympia at that time. I sat through many shows that were stupid noise by most any objective measure, but seemed highly intellectual and authentic in comparison to the Zepplinized Romanticism of Seattle's grunge.

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