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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Captain Beefheart: Trout Mask Replica

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: TROUT MASK REPLICA (1969)

1) Frownland; 2) The Dust Blows Forward 'N The Dust Blows Back; 3) Dachau Blues; 4) Ella Guru; 5) Hair Pie: Bake 1; 6) Moonlight On Vermont; 7) Pachuco Cadaver; 8) Bills Corpse; 9) Sweet Sweet Bulbs; 10) Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish; 11) China Pig; 12) My Human Gets Me Blues; 13) Dali's Car; 14) Hair Pie: Bake 2; 15) Pena; 16) Well; 17) When Big Joan Sets Up; 18) Fallin' Ditch; 19) Sugar 'N Spikes; 20) Ant Man Bee; 21) Orange Claw Hammer; 22) Wild Life; 23) She's Too Much For My Mirror; 24) Hobo Chang Ba; 25) The Blimp (Mousetrap­replica); 26) Steal Softly Thru Snow; 27) Old Fart At Play; 28) Veteran's Day Poppy.

Trout. Was there ever anybody out there before who'd thought of using the word «trout» for the title of an LP or any significantly large musical composition (bar Schubert, perhaps, and even then he was not the inventor of the title)? The word has an odd flavor all by itself, and if you have a personage named Captain Beefheart who has an album with the word «trout» in it, that's odd­ness squared. But wait, we're not over yet — apparently, there's a «trout mask». So the guy's name is Beefheart, and he is impersonating a trout. Or is it a trout that is impersonating a guy called Beefheart? And who'd wear a trout mask, anyway, and for what symbolic purposes? And now comes the deadliest part — it's not even an actual mask, it's a replica of a mask. A fake image of a fake disguise of a guy called Captain Beefheart as a trout. That's at least three different layers of self-containing, straightforward, unfunny and un-ironic nonsense staring us right in the face, and we haven't even begun listening to the music yet.

The story of Trout Mask Replica has long since passed into legend and is easily discoverable in zillions of books and Web resources, although, as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to verify which parts of it are documentally true and which ones are not — for instance, I have always been fascinated by stories of how Beefheart allegedly acted as a tyrannical guru for the members of his band, bordering on hypnotism as he «subdued them to his will», locking them up in his house until they'd learned to reproduce his crazy musical ideas on their instruments. Appa­rently, though, they were convinced that he was a musical genius, and were willing to endure this physical and emotional torture just to add their names to the roster of heroes who would change the musical world forever — without much hope of any financial gain in the process. But, again, just how many of the particular anecdotes about The Magic Band in mid-'69 are documentally true and how many are due to the legend feeding off itself, remains unclear.

What is perfectly clear is that, whatever charm and fascination the music of Trout Mask Replica may have in store for humanity, nobody ever has managed to be perfectly clear about explaining it. If you are a neophyte, have just taken your first swipe at this thing, and are running around the Internet, trying to find explanations, suggestions, and medical support, you are most likely to end up frustrated, because the typical amateur review of TMR goes like this: «Oh, I really hated this at first. It made me sick and disgusted. But then I wanted to experience the sickness and disgust some more, and I listened to it again, and again and again... and upon the n-th listen, it really clicked. Now I think it's just great. Such a great album. So weird, so unlike everything else, so great. Great, great, great. It has completely changed my life. Beefheart forever! Such a great masterpiece. I even threw all my other records away, because I can't listen to them anymore without getting bored. Give it a try... heck, give it five, six, sixty tries, eventually you'll realize it's the greatest of the greatest just like I did. Fast and bulbous — that's the key!»

So, for a change, it might interest you to read a few words from a guy who actually gave TMR quite a bit of a fair chance — been revisiting it occasionally, once a year or so, over the past 15 years of my life — and whose life, believe it or not, still remains to be changed by the experience. In my original review, I gave it an 11/15 rating, which, I now realize, was sort of an insult: TMR just cannot be considered a «middle ground» rating. You either love this record or you hate it; you either respect it with admiration or despise it with the utmost contempt. My attitude is one of admirable respect — yet at the same time I still «hate» it in that I have never, ever experienced the slightest emotional attachment to it, and blame that quite explicitly on the boldness of the Captain's musical decisions.

Indeed, TMR marks the peak of Beefheart's adventurousness. A very telling fact is that, although the record is a double LP, the length is achieved not through long-winded jamming improvisa­tions (which would be the obvious thing to expect from 1969), but through an overabundant ex­cess of individual musical ideas — the longest track on the album barely runs over five minutes, and, on the average, few tracks cross the 2:00 – 2:30 mark. The man's creative juices were over­flowing, as he wrote a ton of new poems / lyrics and set each one to a distinct «melody» that seemed to challenge every conventional standard ever made. Of course, he didn't go as far as in­vent all the new rules completely from scratch, but he did «deconstruct» and completely subvert the harmonic structure of pop, folk, blues, and even jazz idioms in ways that made even Zappa sound like a teen pop idol in comparison. It is not for nothing, of course, that the man put ʽFrown­landʼ as the first track: "My smile is stuck / I cannot go back t' yer Frownland... / I want my own land / Take my hand 'n come with me / It's not too late for you / It is not too late for me". Well, it might be too late for me, after all, but that does not mean I have to so thoroughly refuse to take the brave Captain's hand for a brief while, anyway.

If there is one thing that could be considered disappointing, it is how predictable the record eventually turns out to be in its unpredictability. As ʽFrownlandʼ begins, we witness the major secret of TMR unveiled: each of the players is playing a slightly — or seriously — different melody that is slightly — or seriously — out of key with every other one. The trick is in not making the final result sound like a complete cacophony, and indeed, the tracks have some sort of weird logic of their own: always on the brink of falling apart, yet in reality held together quite tightly by hours and hours and hours of thorough rehearsals (as most of you probably already know, nothing here is said to be improvised — all of these parts were diligently learnt by the musicians in advance). Enjoying this music, though, is a feat for true weirdos of the Beefheart order, because, let's face it, as decent as those musicians were, they had too much trouble lear­ning to play the odd parts and keep in relative sync with each other to actually invest much feeling into these parts. Every time I listen to any of these songs, I can almost feel the tremendous strain on everybody's brains, ears, eyes, and hands — I can't say that those guys were having as much fun recording this stuff as, say, some of the better improvisational free-form jazz artists, or even King Crimson, for that matter. They get the machine going, and it goes on without stalling or falling apart — that's more or less enough for them.

Something like the instrumental ʽHair Pieʼ (both of its «bakes»), as complex as it is, essentially follows the formula of «take a straightforward blues jam, and make it slanted on all sides». The results are easy to admire — it takes a lot of work to play everything slightly out of tune, slightly discordant, slightly un-harmonic, and keep that steady wobble up for several minutes — but dif­ficult to interpret in an emotional / spiritual dimension. So yes, they do everything a little bit wrong, and they do it on purpose, and they practice for this, and it takes time and effort, and... what for? Merely to show us how it can be done, to shatter the walls of the conventional? But if anything, this shattering proves that the «conventional walls» weren't established by some evil tyrant to bind and rob us of our creativity — they were established based on certain natural laws, just like our human bodies. (This reasoning has made me, more than once, dream of an experi­ment in which a newly born child, for the first several years of his/her life, would be continuous­ly exposed to nothing but Trout Mask Replica — although I sure hope no parent would ever be that cruel in real life. But if you do happen to have a toddler, you can probably at least check out the toddler's reaction to ʽDachau Bluesʼ. Would the toddler be willing to prance around to the happy sounds of that, or any of the other, tracks on here?).

On the other hand, if we do accept this for an answer — yes, they are just doing that to shatter the formalities and the foundations — it is at least a legit excuse for the existence of TMR. For one thing, it is impossible to deny the influence of this platter. Numerous avantgarde and semi-avant­garde bands took the album as their banner in order to produce music that was, perhaps, some­what less arrogant and more conventional, but could actually be enjoyed on a subconscious level, and, most importantly, it showed the world that you could stay in a «pop» format and be vastly experimental without having to embrace the droning, Eastern-influenced psychedelic trappings of contemporary bands. Instead of going around looking for different sets of rules, you could stay with the ones you already had, but just tweak them around a bit — and see what happens. The only catch was that, in order for it all to look legit, you'd have to have a madman in charge: Van Vliet fully qualified, but many of his successors in the field were not.

And speaking of madmen, it's a whole different thing when the Captain actually establishes his presence on these songs. ʽHair Pieʼ-like instrumentals are one thing, but otherwise, you can just treat the backing tracks as a sort of white noise accompaniment for a beat poetry recital (not too far from the truth, considering that Beefheart actually heard very little of the music while over­dubbing his vocals). Sometimes, the poetry is sheer surrealist nonsense, but otherwise, it makes plenty of sense, beginning with the individualistic manifesto of ʽFrownlandʼ and all the way to the metaphoric loneliness of the ending ʽVeteran Day's Poppyʼ. ʽDachau Bluesʼ is an almost too straightforward tirade against World War III (although anti-Zionists might have a field day with the song, too, if they offer a personal interpretation of the line "those poor Jews... still cryin' 'bout the burnin' back in world war two..."); ʽMy Human Gets Me Bluesʼ is the madman's equivalent of a heartfelt serenade to a loved one ("You look dandy in the sky but you don't scare me / Cause I got you here in my eye"); ʽElla Guruʼ is the madman's take on the «put down a female socialite» garage genre; and all over, all over the place you get clear signs of a deeply felt frustration and desperation at the sorry state of humanity, perhaps best summarized in one line from ʽSteal Softly Thru Snowʼ — "man's lived a million years 'n still he kills".

As a result, one thing I can feel on the record — against all of its quasi-musical noise, rather than aided by it — is the big, beefy heart of the brave Cap'n. Even if he is being hysterical all the time, and making very little use of God's greatest physical gift to him (that four-and-a-half-octave range), I have no reason to doubt the sincerity and honest motivation of that hysteria; if there is one thing TMR does exactly right, it is presenting Don Van Vliet as a sensitive, humanistic human being whose surrealistic manners are not just masking his lack of substance — in that respect, it is a very clear advance on the two previous albums, where music took clear precedence over the lyrical and personal content (and, at least in the case of Strictly Personal, a very poor precedence it was). Even something like "I don't wanna kill my china pig", despite being rather, um, allegorical, still sounds like a fairly benevolent statement.

Perhaps the biggest support in favor of the argument that I am putting here comes from Beef­heart's subsequent career itself. With the possible exception of Lick My Decals Off, not a single one of his future albums would even dare come close to the craziness of the musical structures of TMR — the lyrics of his subsequent albums, though, as well as the vocal moods into which he prodded himself during the sessions, would often remain similar. Which, in a sense, makes TMR an intellectually fascinating musical dead end: a collection of «anti-tune-like tunes» for those who'd like to experience, if only for a brief while, what it is like to step out of the spaceship without a spacesuit on. To that end, it remains a unique curiosity; but I still hesitate to call it «great», if only because using such a lazy, trivial term for such an arduous, non-trivial record would be an insult by itself. I do suppose that everybody — yes, even including Britney Spears fans — could find it useful to sit through this record at least once. But anybody who honestly finds him­self addicted to this record (and I do mean honestly, rather than merely doing the cool thing to do) is probably in serious need of psychiatric help. And no, that's not a condescending remark or anything — after all, wasn't the record itself created by one of the biggest madmen in the business? Fast and bulbous, man. Fast and bulbous. Thumbs... oh wait, I do believe that my thumbs are stuck, I cannot go back t' yer Thumbland.

12 comments:

  1. Well, I don't love this album and I don't hate it. Something must be wrong with me.

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  2. Admirable, fun, but no further enotional resonance -- sums it up nicely.

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    1. Check out 'Another Green World' or 'Before and After Science' for the ultimate Enotional resonance.

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    2. Two favorites of mine -- I have to thank George for tuning me in to Brian Eno on his old page.

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  3. " But if anything, this shattering proves that the «conventional walls» weren't established by some evil tyrant to bind and rob us of our creativity — they were established based on certain natural laws, just like our human bodies. "

    George, I just want to say that the above is one of the most intriguing lines I've come across in a music review. It goes along nicely with some other things I've been pondering as a traditionalist Christian, but I won't bore anyone with those thoughts here.

    I actually do want to thank you for the Beefheart reviews on your main site. I've slowly been getting acquainted with the good Captain's work and your praise and for his non-Trout albums has been helpful. Count me as another fan who thinks Shiny Beast is his best work.

    I am glad an album like this exists, marking just about the farthest one can warp pop and blues music. However, it is sort of sad that it has come to define Beefheart's career in ways that aren't really fair.

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  4. "They get the machine going, and it goes on without stalling or falling apart — that's more or less enough for them." Southern California Hippie Motorik.

    "Even if he is being hysterical all the time, and making very little use of God's greatest physical gift to him (that four-and-a-half-octave range), I have no reason to doubt the sincerity and honest motivation of that hysteria;" I agree, the guy was actually a pretty good vocalist--I can't use the term singer. He might be sincere, but like a lot of Zappa, it appeals to me on a humorous level, not emotionally. Nobody mentions "The Dust Blows Forward" but that thing made me smile, even though I can't tell you why. And he clearly likes poking fun a hippie nonsense; "Neon Meate Dream" to my ears is a sarcastic parody of an ultra-serious beat poet. And he is a great blues singer, for what that's worth.

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  5. It's a big mistake to even begin to compare this album to mainstream pop music. It has no relation to the kind of music produced by the Beatles for example. Even hip hop, with its limited melodies and chord structures is infinitely more conventional.

    The best categories are noise rock or free flowing jazz. The important point is that the instruments are not there to support the melody of the vocalist, although they do in some cases. They're intended for effect. It's a bit like when I was at school, in music class a kid would read out a long poem and the other kids would play percussion instruments in the background to create an atmosphere or background.

    When I first came across this album I found it unlistenable because I was expecting a variation of pop music. When you understand this album, you recognise it as being a very bold artistic statement of its own. For me, it is perfect for a theatrical performance, with random instruments and parts being played, perhaps by the audience, because the point is not to reproduce the music but to recreate the atmosphere of the album.

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    1. Just to add one thing, the point about the parts being extensively rehearsed is a massive red herring and I think has maybe contributed to this album being misunderstood. It may be true, but it's completely incidental to the artistic statement and probably was a reflection of his obsessive personality rather than the end product.

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  6. "Every time I listen to any of these songs, I can almost feel the tremendous strain on everybody's brains, ears, eyes, and hands —".

    Yes. Number one problem is the real stiffness to a number of the performances. [If they'd pulled off Steal Softly... in the manner of the French lead reformed Magic Band it'd be a different beas altogether].

    The John French book leaves one feeling that whatever the Captian's vision may have been, it wasn't realised on the record.

    These days I rarely feel like listening to the whole thing but I enjoy ipod shuffle throwing up a track once in a while. I'd be happy never to hear China Pig or Hobo again but I'm rather fond of Fallin' Ditch.

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  7. The "answer," for me at least, is that it's fun. It's a goofy romp that makes me laugh. Though I do wish the enthusiasm shown by the Captain was shared by the often stilted musicians.

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  8. Still writing nonsense I see. Great album and there's nothing to get beyond killer riffs (frequently bluesbased BTW) put together in an intriguing manner, cool rhythms and one of the most unique lyricists and vocalists in rock. I swear, people who find this record "oh so weird" or emperors new clothes or whatever have not spent much time listening to Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton or Stockhausen for that matter... I like all that stuff and I like this record and I like Kiss and Mötley Crue and Beach Boys as well. You people? A bunch of squares arguing about the "answer" and "predictability". Is predictability a problem on an AC/DC or Ramones record? No. Why should it be it here? Because the ideas are "weird"? Just seems like a bullshit argument and pointless criticism to me

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