When I first heard Beat Happening I was disgusted.
I listened to their second CD, Jamboree, after reading an extensive and highly praising profile in the now mx famous Our Band Could Be Your Life. Grunge writer Michael Azerrad kept calling the band a brilliant, essential indie rock group, but I guess I didn’t see that. Lead singer (if you could call that) Calvin Johnson drones on in a tuneless baritone voice over sloppy musicianship, repeating lyrics of almost bothersome cuteness. He sounds like a retarded Ian Curtis hosting a TV special on child development, using uses flowery, pathetic sexual metaphors like they’re going out of style. He and guitarist, Bret Lunsford play limp riffs through treble washed distortion to the basic at best pounding of Heather Lewis, the band’s female third member (she does vocals too). It’s enough to make any sane man reach for the cyanide. I kept on wondering why anyone would write a praising article on them. Was this some sort of joke? I sure wasn’t getting this stuff.
But I like them now, so that doesn’t really matter.
Beat Happening are one of the first and most successful bands of a style of music known as Twee Pop (also called Love Rock, sometimes Cuddlecore). The band takes heavy influences from Post Punk giants like The Smiths, though their crunchy, often grating musicianship is hardly an homage to the sweet jangle pop Morrissey and pals used to cook up. In fact, the band has a much more distinct similarity to 60’s suck poppers The Shaggs, with one difference. Beat Happening can write. And I mean that, Johnson, Lunsford and Lewis are certainly not retarded. Their happy-go-lucky naivety and near talent-less instrumentation are a slap in the face to the cookie cutter punk scene thriving around the Washington (that’s the state mind you) indie rockers, making them a rebellion against a rebellion against modern, popular music. Beat Happening are a biting ode to the 1950’s, when times were simple and people were friendly, be it a bite with color coded braces or not.
The music of Beat Happening is, while hard to get into, actually kind of enjoyable when you get down to it. On Mid Night A Go-Go the music is at its most “rock”, with a highly danceable swing beat from Lewis and a brilliant, if simple, riff from Lunsford, culminating in, what’s this? Yes, a guitar solo. Calvin also has one of his best vocals on the track, showing a surprising amount of energy hidden inside his tuneless moan. But Calvin’s most touching track on the CD is the almost a cappella The This Many Boyfriends Club, which finds him wailing angrily about the mistreatment of his female friend Laurie, over red hot, ear splitting feedback. It’s the sort of song that opens your eyes, because behind the screeches and the moans is a troubled, frightful array of emotion and power. Xiu Xiu should be taking notes here.
Another semi straight forward rocker, Bewitched, is on the other end of the emotional spectrum. Calvin’s silly lyrics bring a smile to my face every time I hear them and Lunsford also certainly delivers, with his red hot riffage injecting a full dose of rockin’ distortion to the song’s Love Rock beat. On the songs Heather sings the band takes a completely different feel, though remaining incredibly naïve and detached. Her girlish vocals succeed in bringing in even more Shaggs to the band’s interesting mix of influences.
In conclusion, Beat Happening’s self proclaimed “dark and sexy” sophomore disc is certainly a step away from their previous, sunnier material. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, as the disc delivers in many aspects and, in fact, it seems as though the darker, more in your face tracks are the album’s most brilliant. Do I love Beat Happening’s Jamboree? No, not really, for all the reasons mentioned earlier in the review, but it is certainly a great indie rock record.