What is music? What is punk rock? What is folk? What is the minimum instrumentation required to convey the essence of a pop gem? And who gets to decide what art gets put out into the world?
These questions tend to come up in conversations about Beat Happening, the influential (and quintessential) lo-fi/indie band from Olympia, WA, who thumbed their nose at the corporate ogre of the musical mainstream by starting their own record label (K Records) and putting out cassette tapes of their music, along with music by their friends.
They were only three people with limited "skills" and no bass player: Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford. Yet, Beat Happening put out five records between 1985 and 1992 that moved perhaps not a lot of people, but moved those people a lot.
Thirty years after their debut, Look Around is a chronological, career-spanning re-mastered retrospective, to be followed soon by reissues of each of Beat Happening's albums. For beginners (and those who prefer to look back nostalgically at a relative glance), the band has cherry-picked most of their best songs, and omitted the most egregiously challenging, rough demo-like material (of which there is a fair amount, as those who have delved into 2002's comprehensive box set Crashing Through would know).
Look Around succeeds in conveying the musical evolution of the band, from primordial tracks like "Our Secret" (in which Johnson's voice is shockingly monotone and the band drops out before he's through with singing) and Lewis's catchy yet nasal "Foggy Eyes" through to the dreamy, sophisticated pop of "Tiger Trap" (which sounds like mellow Nirvana, though perhaps I've got that backwards) and Lewis's lovely "Godsend." Those latter two are both off 1992's You Turn Me On; "Angel Gone" is a single released in 2000.
Listening to Beat Happening is like being granted a magic licence to just hang out on two or three chords and a basic drumbeat for a while, if you feel like it. Yet for all their stated lack of music theory, Beat Happening clearly knew what made a good song. Case in point: "Bewitched," a danceable and addictive concoction of distorted blues, witches, black cats and a big fat crush; the sinister, sweet, sex-and-death sadness of understated masterpiece "Indian Summer" (in which the lovers picnic in a cemetery); "Cast A Shadow"; the handful of strutting (Johnson's) and ear-wormy (Lewis's) tunes off Dreamy, including "Red Head Walking" and "Fortune Cookie Prize."
The only song currently jumping out at me as an omission is "Cry For A Shadow" (also off Dreamy), but other than that, the proof is all here: Johnson knows how to write a sad, internally perfect, melodic though rudimentary-in-delivery love song. (Domino)