For someone who is considered among the weirdest artists in rock music, Van Vliet’s first album ‘Safe As Milk’ feels rather tame. Indeed it is an album that would have been considered very ‘out there’ half a century, but as a modern listener, I am forced to approach this from a more contemporary perspective. Knowing Captain Beefheart through his association with Frank Zappa, hearing an album that is more about blues and rock n’ roll than anything else was a bit of a surprise. Although not what I was expecting at all from this artist, it is an interesting piece of ’60s blues rock, with enough experimentation to set it somewhat apart from other music of the time.
Although rooted very much in blues, Beefheart does make his forward thinking edge clear. ‘Dropout Boogie’ for example is a fairly conventional 12 bar blues, but Vliet’s strange vocal inflections make the whole thing weird sounding. Others like ‘I’m Glad’ or ‘Call On Me’ feel like tracks taken out of the classic rock n’ roll era of the ’50s. Then of course, Beefheart hits the listener with another double dose of weirdness with ‘Abba Zaba’, an ode to baby baboons the whole world over.
Throughout listening to this, I am greatly reminded of the music of the Residents, and the way they deconstructed popular music with their own weirdness. As an album, ‘Safe As Milk’ has a few interesting things going on for it, but many of these tracks get rather irritating after a few listens; a possible testament to their playful weirdness. A collection of strange ideas from this musical madman, Captain Beefheart’s ‘Safe As Milk’ was certainly a strange and creative album for its time, but in terms of actual listenability, it provides only some fleeting enjoyment.
An album that may be more famous for the drama surrounding it than the actual music itself, Captain Beefheart’s ‘Strictly Personal’ was Van Vliet’s second album, although the man later disowned it. Before Beefheart would hit his streak with ‘Trout Mask Replica’, this album and the debut ‘Safe As Milk’ represented his musical vision; an odd blend of psychedelia and blues. In a fairly similar direction as was the debut, Beefheart is slightly less successful here, creating an album that is rather disjointed, raw and aimlessly experimental. Fans of the man’s work will almost surely love what ‘Strictly Personal’ has to offer, but as a relative outsider to the man’s work, I can only see this as a mixed accomplishment, as Beefheart’s better work was still to come.
The drama of ‘Strictly Personal’ arose when the entire album was mixed differently, without Beefheart’s knowledge or permission. The engineer added much more of a psychedelic sound behind it, and one can only imagine that this was to help it appeal to a wider demographic of youthful listeners at the time. Well known for his controlling personality when it came to the music he was making, Beefheart was enraged, and effectively disowned the album. This would lead to him taking an even more active role in his music creation, in turn leading to the release of such a unique statement as ‘Trout Mask Replica’. As ‘Strictly Personal’ stands though, it is a rather incoherent album, even for its time. In a way, it is fortunate that the mixing permitted so many more psychedelic effects, because I can only imagine that the album may have felt even more plain without them.
The majority of the music here is a drug addled wander, featuring something I might best describe as ‘acid blues’. There are some more psych-leaning tracks here as well, like ‘Trust Us’; an extended jam that sounds like Jimi Hendrix. Then there is even a parody of psychedelic music here, in ‘Beatle Bones n’ Smokin’ Stones’, which is little more than the vocals of Beefheart paraphrasing well-known Beatles lyrics and butchering them through what might be best labelled as ‘bad humour’. Beefheart’s voice is an integral part of what ‘Strictly Personal’ is about, and his singing does seem to be conducive with blues. His voice does have a very gravelly sound to it that can be difficult to enjoy at times, but it is very distinctive, which seems to be one of the most major selling points about Beefheart’s music.
Although this album may have been more of a shock when it was released almost half a century ago, there is little to justify the album’s incredibly aimless feel. There is some nice psychedelic charm here and the more bluesy moments can be enjoyable, should one be in the proper mood for them. From my own ears though, it feels more like a rough demo hinting at potential than anything else.
An acclaimed, influential, and ultimately hyped album, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ has a way of tearing a crevice between music listeners. Some hail it as one of the most original sounding and adventurous albums ever made, while other recoil in disgust at its fairly loose and quirky approach. As with many albums that get hyped up with their controversy, I get rather excited, in eager anticipation to see whether I’ll be in the ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ school of thought. With this album though, I find myself in a very unique position. I can relate to the views of both, and understand fully why someone would either adore, or abhor it. Simultaneously, Captain Beefheart has created an album that is both ingenious, yet can be interpreted as stupidity. An album that is dissonant and ugly-sounding, yet warm and endearing. Although very imperfect, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ does revel in its flaws, and while I still don’t quite understand the legendary hype around this album, Captain Beefheart has created an intriguing artistic statement here.
A very long album for its time, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is comprised of a twenty eight track, seventy eight minute wander through Captain Beefheart’s rather deranged mind. Although I was expecting to hear something unclassifiable as the hype would have me believe, I interpret ‘Trout Mask Replica’ as a loose and experimental style of blues rock, with jazz and spoken word elements. Of the twenty eight sections here, things can be divided up into either bluesy songs, jazzy instrumental snippets, or spoken interludes with some surreal and often very silly dialogue. The blues element to ‘Trout Mask’ is arguably the most conventional, and gives the most concrete impression of songwriting that the album can muster. The jazz elements are much more loose, and rely more on the keen yet intentionally rough musicianship of the Magic Band, rather than the nasal charisma of Beefheart. Lastly, the interludes offer the least musicality to the album, but rather aim to break up the action a little, giving a nicer sense of flow. Indeed, the album is not all over the place, but instead seeks to return to a handful of different styles that are weird and off-putting enough to keep sounding fresh.
Probably the biggest point of derision for ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is the really jammed-out instrumentation behind Beefheart’s voice. Indeed- especially upon a first listen- it sounds very much like each band member is playing something completely independent of the rest of the band. This could be interpreted as brilliantly polyrhythmic, but the way that the band passes themselves off makes it sound like they cannot play their instruments at all, and that alot of the sound on ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is fashioned out of their incompetence or ambivalence towards the album. Of course, this is not true at all; the Magic Band are very talented musicians, and while I can admit that even I was wondering at a few points over the course of the album whether or not these musicians had a little too much to drink before recording, the best way to appreciate ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is to take everything as is, and interpret everything as being feverishly intentional.
The sound and originality to ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is brilliant, but the album’s length does feel unwarranted, especially when listening to the second half of the album seems almost like a total reprise of the first. Although lyrics change and the details become different, Beefheart’s freakout blues does repeat itself, and over the course of twenty eight tracks, it really does feel as if there is material here that is on the record only to emphasize a previously made point, rather than to add anything new to the album. Listening to the second half, it really did feel in parts as if the entire thing was repeating itself, and while a longer album often equates to more value, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ could have made an even bigger statement if it had been cut down a little. The quirky passion is here in Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band like nowhere else, but unless the point was to create a deja-vu feeling, some of the time here could have been trimmed.
Captain Beefheart’s genius does shine through here, although it is a tough pill to swallow at first. This is not music that can be enjoyed all too much without paying close attention to everything that is going on, and while I do love what Beefheart sets off to do here, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ still feels like an album that could have been improved upon. The first ten songs or so give an intense and refreshing experience, but as the album plods on, the recycled quirk can wear thin. All the same, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is intense, and while it still may not be the ‘weirdest’ thing out there, it will challenge even the more adventurous listeners out there.
Although it is certainly arguable as to whether ‘Trout Mask Replica’ was Don Van Vliet’s most complete artistic statement, it is indisputable that that record is what the man will be remembered for. As with all artists who release something so massive, the pressure is on to release something that will potentially top it, lest the hungry fans be disappointed. While ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’ is fairly obscure when compared to ‘Trout Mask Replica’, I would have to say that the album addresses many of the problems that I had with Beefheart’s so-called masterpiece, and improves upon his infectiously original sound. The music here is still challenging, but Beefheart has refined his beast of music enough to provide a relatively complete album experience.
Beefheart’s idiosyncratic mesh of experimental blues and jazz is largely defined by its patchiness and feeling of being all over the place. With the first three albums that Beefheart released, the songs were scattered, even if they did showcase the man’s genius. ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’ may not have the ambitious structure and interludes to help tie the album together as a masterpiece like ‘Trout Mask Replica’ did, but the album does feel like an improvement musically. Although the bluesy riffs and vocals are still darting around like flies and there are enough ugly sounding notes to make a pug blush, Beefheart has consolidated his songwriting, condensing the compositions into something a little more recognizable. One of my biggest gripes with ‘Trout Mask’ was the fact that the songs felt more like snippets rather than fulfilled pieces of music, and ‘Decals’ fixes this somewhat. The songs still negate structure and pursue a strange jam formula, but the subtle melodies are more vibrant, and there is alot more here for the casual listener to grab a hold of.
‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’ is a surprisingly good sequel to the exhausting ‘Trout Mask Replica’, and while it may lurk underneath the shadow of the third album still, it ironically is a more musically enjoyable and coherent piece of work than ‘Trout’ ever was. An excellent experimental bout from Vliet, and quite possibly my favourite album of his.