[23 June 2004]
Despite having a vastly overrated body of work, Nirvana did pull off one feat for which they deserve what the young ‘uns would call “mad props”—they helped introduce a generation of listeners to college rock bands that had labored in relative anonymity for the past decade or so. In much the same way that R.E.M. was able to teach some of its devotees about Southern power-pop touchstones like the dB’s and Let’s Active, Kurt Cobain’s constant desire to name-check his heroes meant that his popularity became a conduit through which underground bands like Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, the Meat Puppets, Half Japanese, the Vaselines, the Raincoats, the Melvins, and Sonic Youth flowed into previously mainstream music collections. Another group that could populate that list is Beat Happening. That they stopped making albums the year after Nevermind seems indicative of their indifference to riding anyone’s coattails or even becoming popular at all. Beat Happening seemed determined to play by no one’s rules other than their own, and in an indie rock crowd that’s not in any danger of relaxing its guidelines about interaction with the so-called corporate music industry, this little band from Olympia has become legendary.
But the mindset that judges bands by their business choices is beyond tiresome. It has unfairly knocked supposed sellouts (Camper Van Beethoven, the Replacements) and elevated those with little talent for anything beyond turning down record deals (take your pick). With Beat Happening, it’s not that they don’t deserve to be canonized for being fiercely independent. It’s that their art is cheapened by such praise. The reissues of their albums give us a chance to hear them again (or for the first time, since for a while, these records have only been available on their pricey box set, Crashing Through) and judge how well they stand up a decade or two down the line.
As for Dreamy, their second-to-last effort unless more are forthcoming, the results are almost entirely good. Beat Happening had started out rotating guitar, drum, and vocal duties among its three first-name-only members, Calvin, Heather, and Bret. This was inspired by Jad Fair, but none of them had any particular expertise at a given position, so practical reasons equaled the theoretical ones. But by the time they got to Dreamy, their fourth album, they were all good enough at each that they could make a consistently good noise while adhering to their original premise. A good thing, too, because Beat Happening’s maturation beyond their childlike beginnings was further complicated by the tension between Calvin’s basso profundo and Heather’s sweeter turns at the mic. Beyond the differences in their ranges, Calvin and Heather sketch out the band’s split identity in the same way Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley do in Yo La Tengo. On Dreamy, Calvin stakes out a chunk of the same sinister territory he made his hallmark with the band’s previous record, Black Candy, but it’s his overlap with Heather’s naivete that really makes things interesting. The creepiness of “Revolution Come and Gone” isn’t allowed a divorce from his or Heather’s gentler fare; it’s all by the same band on the same album, and the tension generated by their cohabitation is far more interesting than either regressions back to childhood or an aversion to major labels.
However, this as well as much other praise of Beat Happening tends to be too doctrinaire. Regardless of how much it sometimes helps, great philosophy doesn’t make great albums. Great songs are the stuff that does it, and though the writing on Dreamy hits a high-water mark along with Jamboree and You Turn Me On, the band’s primitive approach still limits as well as liberates in this department. Indeed, the major strike against the album and the band as a whole is how much it hearkens back to an era in indie rock rife with experiments in primitivism and sonic shock and awe that produced a much-deserved burnout in the mid-‘90s. But again, Beat Happening deserves to be judged on its own merits, and these three artists’ ability to work up catchy melodies and smart arrangements carry the day against their limited technical skill. And sure, Dreamy has a solid handful of moments that make you wish they had bothered to take a few more music lessons along the way, but they’re easily outweighed by instances that make you wish the rest of the world’s musicians had been wise enough to take a few less.