CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: STRICTLY PERSONAL (1968)
1) Ah Feel Like Ahcid; 2) Safe As Milk; 3) Trust Us; 4) Son Of Mirror Man - Mere Man; 5) On Tomorrow; 6) Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones; 7) Gimme Dat Harp Boy; 8) Kandy Korn.
Only The Magic Band's second album, and things are already beginning to fall apart. The original plan was to push forward by entering full-on psycho-jam mode, and record an album titled It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, but apparently the results were seen as way over the top by even the progressive dudes at Buddah Records, who declined to release them (although they still laid contractual claim to them, and, once Beefheart's reputation was firmly established, eventually released some of the sessions as Mirror Man in 1971). The only person to remain loyally impressed was producer Bob Krasnow, who took this as an excuse to break away from Buddah, found his own label (Blue Thumb) and get Beefheart to re-record a large part of the sessions for the new label.
On the positive side, breaking away from Buddah did permit the brave Captain to retain his artistic integrity and pursue the «never compromise» agenda — but there were negative sides, too. The most frequent complaint about Strictly Personal has an aura of objectivity, considering that it was shared by the artist himself: apparently, Krasnow got too heavily involved in the production, and «spoiled» the submitted tapes with all sorts of psychedelic effects, including echo, reverb, phasing, reversing the tapes, etc., so that Beefheart's original vision of the album got corrupted and trivialized — like Zappa, Beefheart obviously viewed his art as transcending the hippie conventions of the late Sixties, aiming for a very different kind of weirdness from abusing trendy studio technology. Another problem might be the departure of Ry Cooder, replaced by the somewhat less dazzling Jeff Cotton; however, that lineup change may have been necessary in order to steer the band away from the more conventional blues idiom, to which Cooder strongly subscribed at the time, and into the realms of the avantgarde, so not a problem, really.
Personally, I would suggest that the main issue with Strictly Personal is not the post-production effects: had the material been great from the start, a few stretches of phased tapes wouldn't do all that much harm, and besides, it's not like the entire album is corrupted that way — there's plenty of passages that have a completely live, un-manipulated feel to them. Much worse, I believe, is the situation where Beefheart actually had to return to a project that, in his own view, should have already been completed and done with. The Captain's mind, see, is one of acute restlessness, and the Captain does not much like to polish the unpolishable... which is why the original Mirror Man sessions, even despite the crazy length of those jams, have always sounded more energetic, sharp, and altogether inspired to me.
But in 1968, the public at large was hardly aware of all these happenings in between Beefheart's first and second albums, and we, too, have to remember the correct chronology and take Strictly Personal as a direct sequel to Safe As Milk — whose title track, by the way, ultimately ended up on the second album, in one of those strange, but not unprecedented, historical accidents. Funny enough, the album starts out fairly innocently, as if it were going to be Safe As Milk Vol. 2: discarding the frigged-up title ʽAh Feel Like Ahcidʼ, those first three minutes are the same modernized Muddy Waters as ʽSure 'Nuff 'N' Yes I Doʼ — choppy syncopated slide guitars, harmonica blasts, and a bluesy guy raving and ranting over the minimalistic arrangement. There is, however, a difference: this time, there's no true sense of structure, as the guitar melody comes in and goes away whenever it pleases the players, and the lyrical flow shows no signs of being arranged into neat verse structures, not to mention the lyrics themselves, which have more in common with beat poetry than with ye olde blueswailing.
The problem is, there's no sign here of the players and the singer actually understanding what it is they are trying to do — okay, so they are obviously deconstructing a blues pattern, but why? It's not nearly as weird as it would need to be to truly shake up one's foundations, nor is it particularly funny or entertaining, and it does not showcase the honed musical talents of The Magic Band, either. Even the Captain sounds like he's groping around, sacrificing his mind to delirium in search of divine inspiration but not properly finding it. This is particularly evident on the interminable ʽTrust Usʼ, probably the weakest thing on the album — a series of bluesy/jazzy patterns with psychedelic overtones (this is also one of the most heavily Krasnow-treated tracks) and an overall muddy sound that never really goes anywhere: slow, prodding, low on energy, and hardly standing any competition with the typical psychedelic sounds of 1968's America — such as the Grateful Dead — and the biggest mistake is that it even begins to compete on that turf, because that just ain't Beefheart's turf anyhow.
Another particular lowlight for me is ʽBeatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stonesʼ; the track is already a spiritual predecessor to the style of Trout Mask Replica, but, again, suffers from a really sluggish flow, lack of interesting musical lines (there's one regular electric riff and one slide counterpart running through it, and both sound as if they are played by a couple guys whose amphetamines had just worn off), and a really silly vocal hook — the Captain insists on signing off each «verse» with a triumphantly whiney "...strawberry fields forever!" as if this were some sort of meaningful response to the Beatles, which it is not.
When the band sticks closer to its original blues guns, the results are notably better: ʽGimme Dat Harp Boyʼ is a relatively ferocious jam, seemingly growing out of the basic chord sequence for ʽSpoonful Bluesʼ and then taking on a life of its own — but even so, a brief comparison with the as-of-yet-unreleased Mirror Man version makes this one sound as if the entire band were sleepwalking through the process of re-recording. Maybe this is all Krasnow's fault, but surely it was not Krasnow who pretty much deprived the re-recording of a proper «bottom» — the bass on the Mirror Man is ferocious, and here I can't even properly hear it. Same goes for ʽKandy Kornʼ, which is here presented as a barely listenable murky mess.
Overall, unless you are a really big fan, I would strongly suggest ignoring Strictly Personal as a misfire, reflecting some poor production decisions and a lack of proper interest on Van Vliet's own side, and getting Mirror Man Sessions instead — the true «lost link» between Safe As Milk and Trout Mask Replica; in all honesty, Strictly Personal hardly deserves more than the status of a bonus disc, tacked on to some limited-edition special release of Mirror Man as an act of historical mercy. And yes, you guessed it already — thumbs down, because even certified musical madmen are not fully exempt from inducing boredom.