When Chad Beattie, a 24-year-old from Baltimore, first told me about his bedroom project Yes Selma – a Dancer In The Dark nod – he referenced a lot of the Drag City musicians adored by those in the lo-fi singer-songwriter boom of the 1980s and 1990s. And, yes, listening to Yes Selma’s ambitious and ironically titled Songs of Happiness is like a stroll down that old road, a reminder of all of those familiar voices, however “poorly” recorded they were at the time.
Beattie loves himself some Smog. On some songs, he’s a dead-ringer for Bill Callahan in his early days, be it in the form of Forgotten Foundation (“Rock & Roll Band”), Julius Caesar (“Girls”) or Wild Love (the “Red Apples” piano homage “Without You”). Elsewhere, he cops Pavement’s Westing (By Musket and Sextant) or Daniel Johnston or even Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, all points of reference worth exploring. But Beattie shines brightest on the closing tracks, when he allows melody to rise above the dirge and follows his heart — singing over a clattery acoustic and canned drum beat (“Everyone’s Looking At Me”) or on the vaguely lo-fi-Buddy-Holly “(Don’t) Tell Me Why.”
This is not a record for everyone and Beattie seems aware of that. It’s a decidedly (and, I’d imagine, intentionally) uneven record, veering into found-percussion (“Tribal Assault”) and occasionally even Harry Partch territory (opener “Useless Eater”). When Beattie, though, hits the right combination of lo-fi, heart-on-the-sleeve delivery and solid sound construction – I’m talking here about the melancholy “Empty” or the buoyant but rough-hewn pop of “Outer Space” – he is most surely on-target.
Beattie’s lyrics grapple with depression and loneliness and such, the familiar fodder of the singer-songwriter, but he avoids the pratfalls of the overly serious “Tormented Artist.” And he does this largely by being inventive with how he dresses a song, be it in guitar squalor and hand claps (“Noise Poem”) or a cacophony of detuned strings (“Bouncing Slobs”). He seems more concerned with being adventurous and pushing the limits of a song’s structure than creating something with easily digestible verses and choruses, all clean lines and studio goo. And that’s a mission that, even if a record like Songs of Happiness has some less inspired moments, I can get behind.