Then and now, confrontation with Captain Beefheart’s music produces polarized and extreme reactions. Take two Rolling Stone reviews from the era, both of which mention 1969’s Trout Mask Replica : one reaction was akin to Montezuma’s Revenge—“I about puked…what is this shit?”—while in another, Lester Bangs crowned the album “a total success, a brilliant, stunning enlargement and clarification of his art…the most unusual and challenging musical experience you’ll have this year.”
Decades have done little to mitigate such responses, and Trout remains as barbed as a blowfish. As a gateway to Captain Beefheart’s singular amalgamation of country blues, psychedelic rock, free jazz, and beat poetry, it puts off as many listeners as it draws in. Which is a shame, in part because rock produced only one figure like Don Van Vliet. He was equal parts inscrutably gruff and warm, and he could be both room-clearing and mesmerizing onstage; the impregnable imagery in his lyrics slid to reveal a sly commentary, and he was able to both howl like a wolf (or Howlin’ Wolf) and purr like a cat. It’s not that he re-imagined Delta blues or Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics (not to mention gamelan or lute music or proto-punk) as much as he took them all in and then presented every angle at once, the closest rock music could get to cubism.
Beefheart’s genius can be more easily gleaned on Trout Mask Replica’s 1970 follow-up Lick My Decals Off, Baby, taut and streamlined where the former sprawls and splays. Unfortunately, it’s languished out of print since the early CD era and now reappears as the first disc of Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972, a handy 4xCD compilation (disc four a fascinating set of outtakes and unreleased material) that captures the good Captain’s cagey albeit failed move towards mainstream rock acceptance. Rather than the impenetrable poses of TMR, Decals finds Beefheart at his wiliest and most playful, a new persona that takes centerstage across this album as well as its follow-ups, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. As the critic Robert Palmer once noted: “The dada-dabbling surrealist has become the teasing, tantalizing back door man who entices crazy little things with almost drooling gusto.” Take the title track, where he shoves aside the Beatles’ boyish sentiments with lines like: “Rather than I want to hold your hand/ I wanna swallow you whole/ ‘n I wanna lick you everywhere it’s pink/ ‘n everywhere you think.” He’s no longer the trench-coated, trout-masked weirdo in a corner.
It’s a strange guise for Van Vliet, but the mischievousness of songs like “Space-Age Couple” and “I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold my Big Toe Till I Have to Go” (not to mention a line that rhymes “dinosaur” and “Dinah Shore’s shoes”) succeeds because of the Magic Band behind him. Featuring TMR holdovers John “Drumbo” French, Bill “Zoot Horn Rollo” Harkleroad, and Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston, augmented by the addition of former Frank Zappa member Art Tripp on marimba, Decals shows off a Magic Band so tight so as to be spring-loaded, as fearless as a daredevil stunt team (check this rare live footage of this short-lived group). On this concise album, death-defying time changes and complex chords abound. There are also two stunning, contemplative and complicated solo guitar compositions, “Peon” and “One Red Rose That I Mean”, that sound at once stately and knuckle-breaking to play.
A song like “Bellerin’ Plain” contains multitudes in its three and a half minutes. It starts with a tough serrated guitar riff that soon unspools as Drumbo’s closed hi-hats and quick drum rolls keep finding more space even as Van Vliet’s surrealist bark about railroad brakemen and black smokestacks pushes to the fore, the music itself metallic and clacking like a train. A considered yet dense bass solo not unlike something from a John Coltrane side comes in before Beefheart and band lurch back. There follows a double helix of marimba and guitar that contains the DNA for most ’90s post-rock in its 45 seconds. The band returns with even more fury, one of the Captain’s Albert Ayler-shrieking solos flares up and carries the song out.
Soon after Lick My Decals Off, Baby, John French was out again, the band was reconfigured, and Captain Beefheart signed to Warner Brothers, where across two albums from 1972 (The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot) it sounds like he was being groomed to be the next Van Morrison. But after a many albums of being difficult and diffuse, a slightly more mainstream Beefheart is a fascinating beast. Some edges of his sound are sanded, the Martian blues inherent in the guitars decidedly more grounded. The squalls of soprano sax and shenai are shelved, Van Vliet’s force-of-nature voice lowered, revealing it be a more cracked and nuanced instrument as a result. Obtuse as his lyrics could be, there were traces of the real world tucked in there, with nods to ecological concerns, garrulous people, female empowerment. Familiar blues tropes are upended to reveal new imagery, the “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” re-imagined as a merman returning to the ocean on “Grow Fins”.
Produced by Ted Templeman (who would go on to discover Van Halen), Clear Spot is Beefheart perfectly balanced between his aslant sensibilities and the desire for radio play, as on “Circumstances” and the transcendent roadhouse rock of “Big Eyed Beans From Venus”. “Too Much Time”, replete with horns and backing vocals sounds like a lost track from James Taylor or Bob Dylan ca. “You Angel You”, is the pop move where Beefheart began to alienate his fanbase. But whether you heard “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” on the Dude’s headphones during The Big Lebowski or here from the first time, it remains the Captain’s loveliest, most heartrending creation.
Nothing here became a hit or brought Beefheart any closer to popular acceptance. Instead, Clear Spot ultimately marked the end of this particular era of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, as they would depart once they discovered his shifty accounting practices, leaving him to assemble a group dubbed “the Tragic Band” by critics for his next two disowned albums. When Van Vliet returned to the critics’ good graces at the end of the ’70s, it was as the hard-edged, irascible crank. This slightly sweeter, gentler Beefheart was dropped like a mask, rarely glimpsed again.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/10UaPI2