Review Summary: Beat Happening, burnt black.
Beat Happening’s Black Candy is often seen as the black sheep of their catalog. It’s almost too perfect, isn’t it? With it’s stark black and white cover and Heather Lewis’ hypnotizing peppermint(?) candy swirl drawing, the band’s third record is noticeably a much gloomier affair than their previous work. Which is something you wouldn’t really expect from the band, at least at this point. After all, Beat Happening built their career on channeling both childlike whimsy and lo-fi punk rock. Black Candy is comparatively subdued affair, leaning more into the atmosphere than ever before.
I say that, but it isn’t like this album is devoid of upbeat tunes. Opener “Other Side” and “Cast a Shadow” are both familiar in their twee stylings. Though they do have the benefit of much cleaner production, courtesy of Steve Fisk. Album closer “Ponytail” steers more towards jangle pop and art rock layering, making for one of the group’s best tracks.
It isn’t until track two, the title track “Black Candy,” that the darker overtones take over. Calvin Johnson’s distinct baritone speak-singing bitter lyrics atop grungy guitar riffs and pounding drums makes for one of the album’s best moments:
“Drip my blood, fall in love, chew my cud, mess my head,”
”cross my heart, molten lead, read my palm, give me some”
Another instance of more “mature” writing is on “Pajama Party in a Haunted Hive,” which sees Johnson begging for honey to be forced down his throat, sexual desire creaking out of his mouth clear as day. “Playhouse” starts off innocent enough, before forgoing pretense and having the two lovebirds suddenly start taking their clothes off. There had always been a darker undercurrent to Beat Happening’s work, but it’s brought to the forefront on Black Candy. While I do enjoy the album’s take on teenage love affairs and darker themes, the album is at its best when these ideas are hidden behind innuendo.
I suppose I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention “Gravedigger Blues,” which by my account remains one of Beat Happening’s weakest tracks. That track and the previously mentioned “Playhouse” don’t offer very much aside from temporary amusement and are more distracting than anything. As much as I enjoy Johnson’s vocal style, it isn’t enough to carry a song; especially one as dry as “Gravedigger Blues.”
In a wonderful little “article” by Vice, Calvin Johnson bitterly and reluctantly ranks Black Candy as his least favorite Beat Happening record, calling it “not that interesting” and saying that he hadn’t listened to the album in a long time. I suppose when you have four amazing records to look back on, there’s little incentive to go back to the fifth one you remember being a bore. But I’d think Black Candy deserves more credit than that. I’m not saying I know better than the man himself, but specifically to those who may feel the same. While diehards tend to gravitate towards the opposite ends of the band’s discography when picking a favorite, that doesn’t mean the poor black sheep of the bunch should be left out. I’ve found that the album is perfect for the darkest of nights, when there’s nary a star in the sky and you want to dance to a slightly slower, moodier, darker Beat.