Beat Happening was the first and thus far best known band of Calvin Johnson, also known for his influential Olympia, Washington-based indie label K Records. The band are known for their lo-fi, minimalist, bass-free "twee pop" sound, for switching instruments (none of which they're especially adept at) in concert, and for a supposedly fey naiveté that many found appealing while many others found annoying. Anyway, perhaps those adjectives apply to their earlier work, but none are really accurate for You Turn Me On, the band's last album (though they've never officially broken up) and the one that is generally regarded as their best. With a cleaner, beefed up sound that's hardly lo-fi, the album generally features pretty jangly guitars or harsh angular guitars (I far prefer the former), big driving beats, and simple, repetitious song structures that often have a hypnotic effect. Indeed, You Turn Me On contains four songs that are outstanding, three others that are quite good, two of which ("Noise," "Sleepy Head") are sung in a charmingly girlish manner by Heather Lewis, and a couple ("Pinebox Derby," the title track) of noisy, primitive indie rock numbers that I usually skip. As for the outstanding songs, album opener "Tiger Trap" has a beautifully building, laid back groove and is highlighted by Johnson's vampiric baritone (Stephen Merritt has nothing on this guy!). Its slow, dreamy jangle rock is great but in a subtle way, whereas "Teenage Caveman" is more immediate, with a great jangle groove that's boosted by a big beat. Of course, it's the hooky "we cry alone" chorus that makes the song so instantly memorable, with the contrast between Johnson's deadpan lead vocal and Lewis' harmonies being the main selling point; I wish that they both sang on more songs, as the chemistry is really spot-on in a Pixies sort of way when they do so. The other song that they both sing on, album closer "Bury The Hammer," is another highlight with another simple but extremely effective jangle groove (with more big whomping beats), this one extended to 6-minutes and even incorporating some surf-y guitar solos. Then again, "Tiger Trap" also approaches 7-minutes, and "Godsend," another standout track, exceeds 9 minutes! So much for minimalism! Actually, musically speaking these songs are still rather basic, and certainly all of the aforementioned songs, this one in particular, could be shortened significantly. Then again, why not have the album's best songs be the longest ones? Makes sense to me, and "Godsend," featuring Lewis' multi-tracked lead vocals, shows off the band's cleverness and creativity in the way that the song's two melodic guitars (played by Johnson and third member Bret Lunsford) start by playing completely separate lines but merge at times to achieve a cumulative, unexpected power.
Released on Johnson friend's Bruce Pavitt's Sub Pop label (to get a wider distribution than could K Records), You Turn Me On is something of a "forgotten gem" that, though certainly respected by a select few, has gotten somewhat lost amid the many strong alt-rock records released that decade. Kurt Cobain liked 'em (he even had a tattoo of the K Records logo on his arm) and based on this evidence so do I, even if some of these songs are too long, are overly reliant on repetition, and the band are much better at delivering dreamy jangle pop than at rocking out.
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