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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Captain Beefheart: Lick My Decals Off, Baby

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY (1970)

1) Lick My Decals Off, Baby; 2) Doctor Dark; 3) I Love You, You Big Dummy; 4) Peon; 5) Bellerin' Plain; 6) Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop; 7) Japan In A Dishpan; 8) I Wanna Find A Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go; 9) Petrified Forest; 10) One Red Rose That I Mean; 11) The Buggy Boogie Woogie; 12) The Smithsonian Institute Blues (Or The Big Dip); 13) Space-Age Couple; 14) The Clouds Are Full Of Wine (Not Whiskey Or Rye); 15) Flash Gordon's Ape.

This relatively short album, whose public fate also happened to be somewhat undermined by a very long period of being unavailable on CD (due to technical legal issues), is actually every bit as essential for the Captain as Trout Mask Replica — yet even today, judging by such telling observations as the ratio of amateur reviews on various websites, it regularly continues to be snubbed in favor of TMR. Even Beefheart himself admitted that Lick My Decals came much closer to realizing his true vision, but with the mainstream critical consensus on TMR as the re­presentation of his artistic peak, its fate was sealed. 90% of the people who learn the name «Beef­heart» head straight for Trout Mask Replica, and since 90% of these 90% never want to hear another Beefheart album for as long as they live, its equally important follow-up does not stand a chance — not until the time comes when we all begin wearing trout masks to work because of a strict dress code requirement.

Anyway, in many ways Lick My Decals Off is simply a shorter sequel to its more expansive and ambitious elder brother. Once again, we have a set of short tunes based on bizarro time changes, avantgarde chord sequences, discordant musical parts, and evil-grinning half-spoken lyrical reci­tals with no mercy for the common music listener. In certain other ways, however, it is signifi­cantly different from TMR. For one thing, it seems more influenced by contemporary avantgarde jazz and even modern classical — which may have to do with such personnel change as the de­parture of guitarist Jeff Cotton (who originally joined the band to substitute for the bluesy talents of Ry Cooder) and the arrival of percussionist Art Tripp, a former member of the progressive Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as a full-time member of The Magic Band. This makes some of the music even more complex and challenging, as you'd expect from any band where at least one of the members holds an actual Bachelor of Music degree.

But what seems to me even more important is that at the same time, there is a rather conscious effort on Beefheart's part to return to his blues roots — if not always in form, then at least in spi­rit. The record is far more seriously loaded with dark sexual overtones, Howlin' Wolf- and John Lee Hooker-style, than TMR, where the surrealism was more of the psychedelic / absurdist type, and Beefheart's lyrics are full of salacious innuendos, even if they are still heavily «modernized»: the very title of the album, in fact, comes across as a salacious innuendo — although Beefheart him­self explained it as a general call to «get rid of labels», for some reason, the image of Captain's baby licking his decals off seems a bit dirtier than that. Especially when the composition is so thoroughly soaked in dirty blues riffs and dirty blues vocals. There are other lyrical themes here as well, of course — some of the songs, like ʽPetrified Forestʼ, tangentially deal with environ­mentalism, for instance — but the overall impression is that on Lick My Decals, Beefheart is really embracing the image of an avantgarde Howlin' Wolf, as if Chester Burnett himself got tired of all the conventional ways to express his essence, and switched to all the unconventional ones. I mean, "Mama, mama, here comes Doctor Dark!" — isn't that the kind of lyrical line that a Willie Dixon would always have been on the brink of coming up with?

Some of the tracks are, in fact, very light deconstructions of traditional blues patterns — ʽI Love You, Big Dummyʼ, for instance, with its harmonica blasts and all-pervasive signature blues riff, almost verges on the fully conventional (predicting some of the stylistic «regression» on The Spotlight Kid). Most of the time, however, the deconstruction process goes all the way, with basic meters sometimes shifting every several bars, instruments playing in different signatures and tempos at the same time, percussion and bass going in opposite directions, etc. etc., which is cool, but will not be appreciated by just about anybody: in particular, I feel that the atmosphere of extra «darkness» and «sexuality» gets disrupted by the experimental approach more often than it gets assisted by it — and, even worse, that the musicians get too concentrated on getting those harmonic shifts and overdub coordinations right to equally concentrate on making the riffs sound powerful, energetic, and properly insinuating.

There are a couple very interesting instrumental tracks on here — I would definitely recommend the flowery-titled interludes ʽPeonʼ and ʽOne Rose That I Meanʼ higher than ʽHair Pieʼ. The two bakes of the latter were rather messy avant-blues jams; these two are more in the avant-folk terri­tory, consisting of two overlaid guitar parts, playing complex sequences in unison (acoustic guitar and bass on ʽPeonʼ, acoustic and electric on ʽRoseʼ) that sound like a folk troubadour desperately banging upon the doors of perception. Whether he succeeds in smashing them open or not is up to you to decide, but I somehow feel that it is because of the stripped nature of these instrumentals that they somehow show more poignancy and individuality than the rest — just a subjective im­pression, of course, but how could one ever retain the chance of warming up to a record like this without resorting to subjective impressions even of the silliest kind?

The closest this album gets in spirit to free-form jazz is on the tracks where Beefheart himself plays the brass instruments — he is credited for both clarinet and tenor/soprano saxes, and they are all over the last and longest track on the record, ʽFlash Gordon's Apeʼ, winding things up with a mighty ruckus, although, to be honest, I am not sure why anybody who is already a fan of Eric Dolphy or, say, Alexander von Schlippenbach (to make things a bit more esoteric) should be in­terested in the same kind of music spiced up with the Captain's evil-bluesy vocal declamations. Still, I guess we can say he at least passes the test — to my ears, these chaotic spasms of windy ugliness are no better and no worse than the average free-form jazz composition.

Yet both the avant-folk and the avant-jazz experiments are still subdued to the main task of the mission — avant-blues — and that may be a good thing, because deep down at heart, the blues is the core of Captain Beefheart, ever the yearning, dissatisfied searcher for peace, love, and under­standing, even if this comprises finding a woman who will hold his big toe until he has to go (and he does proclaim it with such conviction that you begin to wonder if he wasn't secretly in love with a female podiatrist). If you manage to enjoy the things his musicians do to the blues here — then it's great, because you may have just upgraded your conscience to the «post-Howlin' Wolf» level. I, unfortunately, do not: as is the case with TMR, I respect and endorse the effort, but am incapable of listening to this stuff «for fun».

One thing, however, is certain: any person who owns and claims to like Trout Mask Replica, but has no knowledge whatsoever of Lick My Decals Off, is a rotten poseur, and unless proper atonement has been made, will have to suffer the punishment of listening to nothing but the Backstreet Boys and One Direction for one hundred thousand years. Because if you really enjoy TMR on a level where you seriously begin empathizing with the Captain and entertaining the fast and bulbous way of thinking, then not finishing the experience with Lick My Decals Off will be like prematurely pulling out, if you pardon my metaphor. Safe, perhaps, but... no fun.

4 comments:

  1. Tunes to play for friends who give Tom Waits a little too much credit (& throw in some Ken Nordine for extra measure).......hopefully they stay friends.

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  2. Absolute masterpiece. A more digestible and focused/distilled TMR (also a masterpiece, albeit a slightly flabby one and hard to listen to often). One of the best rock albums ever.

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  3. Good review! I was wondering what your take on this album would be on your old site.

    About ten years ago, I had introduced myself to the Captain through his Shiny Beast album (a great recommendation, by the way), and I soon afterward had a obtained a copy of this from a friend who downloaded it from a bit torrent site (when this was hard to find on CD). Although the music sounded like an unholy racket on the first listen or so, the songs were fairly focused and concise ... and sometimes even somewhat catchy in a twisted manner (title track and "Petrified Forest" for instance).

    Over the years, I have come to understand this album as well as I ever will, finding this is near the top of the heap of Captain Beefheart's work, along with
    Shiny Beast and Doc at the Radar Station. (For the record, I have only been able to sit through the entirety of Trout Mask Replica once.)

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    1. same. I'm another of the group who went straight to TMR and recoiled in the horror of it all and therefore missed out on the other albums which are quite interesting.

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