August 24, 2003

Beat Happening "Music To Climb the Apple Tree By"

Ah, Beat Happening! One of the great bands of my youth, and one of the bands that really, truly helped to define D.I.Y. Their shambiotic lo-fi indie-pop folk-punk rock sound always teetered on the verge of collapse, yet it somehow stayed together just long enough to get the point across. Calvin, Heather and Bret were professional amateurs; the singing was always slightly off-key, the music was out of tune and off-tempo, the recording was often thin and hollow---yet it was utterly magical. It was a sound that launched a thousand imitations--a thousand not-very-good imitations--and it was the foundation for Calvin's K Records empire.

Music To Climb The Apple Tree By is a collection of odds and ends from Beat Happening's first sixteen years. True, they've been all but dormant for the past decade, save for their last new release, the "Angel Gone" single in 2000, and a comprehensive box set in 2002, Crashing Through. This record was included in that box set, but is just now seeing individual release, and I'm happy that it's finally appeared. See, if you liked Beat Happening, you probably didn't just stop with one or two albums--you probably owned everything they ever released. That's the kind of band Beat Happening were. As such, Crashing Through was a bit of a luxury release, and so Music To Climb the Apple Tree By is a wonderful little apple-basket full of single sides, compilations, and various other rare whatnot. (Is it possible that the book that was included in the set will ever be made available for those who have no need for the box set? I hope so!)

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this little collection is it really highlights how excellent Beat Happening could be when the focus was simply on the song. On one side of a 45 or among others on a comp, the song had better be really good, for it shall stand alone, to fend for itself, representing the band the best that it can. Surprisingly, songs like "Nancy Sin," "Not a Care In The World" and the newest song, "Angel Gone" are all excellent; Calvin, Heather and Bret are all in fine, fine form, and if the band ever sounded better than these fifteen tracks, I couldn't tell you where. Calvin's voice has a deep, dark Johnny Cash tremble, even though his singing's not exactly what we would call..ummm....good. After all, it's not how good you sing the song, it's how you sing the song. The sweetest plum in this basket is the inclusion of the Beat Happening Screaming Trees collaboration--itself pretty typical Beat Happening songs, though it contains a song not sung by Calvin, the excellent "Polly Pereguinn" and one of Calvin's sweetest songs, "I Dig You."

Though this record is geared towards the already converted, it serves the band quite well, and these already-strong songs sound even tougher when paired next to each other. While it's pretty much assured that Beat Happening have retired, rumors seem to pop up occasionally about a reunion. Whether or not such a thing happens, Music To Climb The Apple Tree By is as fine as any new record, and it's certainly a testament to the magic that was this really great but not-very-good trio from Olympia.

--Joseph Kyle

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