CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: BLUEJEANS & MOONBEAMS (1974)
1) Party Of Special Things To Do; 2) Same Old Blues; 3) Observatory Crest; 4) Pompadour Swamp; 5) Captain's Holiday; 6) Rock'n'Roll's Evil Doll; 7) Further Than We've Gone; 8) Twist Ah Luck; 9) Bluejeans And Moonbeams.
Maybe I'm going too soft or too crazy, but I see more signs of life on Beefheart's second «faux-commercial» album of 1974 than on the first one — even though, by that time, the entire Magic Band had deserted him and was replaced by a bunch of really obscure musicians (Dean Smith on guitar, Micheal /sic/ Smotherman on keyboards, Ty Grimes on drums, Ira Ingber on bass, if you like names and all that), earning the popular moniker of «Captain Beefheart's Tragic Band». But... despite that, or because of that? In a way, replacing your loyal apostles, trained in the ways of the avantgarde, with a bunch of nobodies might have been the right way to go if you truly wanted to make a conventional record — at least, that way you would reduce tension in the studio.
And as a conventional record, Bluejeans is better than its predecessor because it does not sound so painful — not only is Beefheart in healthier vocal form throughout, but fewer songs sound like misguided, clumsy attempts of a deranged innovator to change his train at the speed of 200mph. Case in point: there's a cover of J. J. Cale's ʽSame Old Bluesʼ, and it's a good one — a normal dark blues song, done by the Captain with his usual growl and every bit as convincing as the original, though, perhaps, not very necessary. But there's some confidence here, and a suggestion that, perhaps, Beefheart would have fared better at the time if he had simply switched to standard blues or blues-rock. Something like an album of Howlin' Wolf covers, for instance.
As usual, he insists upon starting the record with an evil-grin of a nasty funk-rocker, and as usual, the opening number is one of the best things here — ʽParty Of Special Things To Doʼ holds its own against not only ʽUpon The My-Oh-Myʼ, but against ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize Youʼ and ʽLow Yo-Yo Stuffʼ as well. Surrealist lyrics ("the camel wore a nightie"), evil cackle, nasty riff, what's not to like? I do miss the fascinating guitar interplay between left and right channel, but if you can cope with the simplified approach, it's a good, reliable groove — unfortunately, the only one of its kind on the entire record.
The Captain also gets more sentimental than he's ever been, with three surprisingly decent tracks. ʽObservatory Crestʼ has a certain meditative aura about it — a song about really doing nothing except watching the city from an observatory crest, to the sound of quasi-psychedelic chimes and relaxing slide guitar phrases; ʽFurther Than We've Goneʼ suffers from an unfortunately hysterical vocal delivery (dear Captain, if you're trying to be soulful and sentimental, please do not scream about it on one of those laryngitis-stricken days!), but makes up for it with a surprisingly good extended guitar solo; and best of the three is the title track, melodically and emotionally stuck in somewhere between James Taylor and Blood On The Tracks-era Bob Dylan, but with an exceptional vocal performance this time — in fact, this is a tune that would not have sounded out of place on the funeral day for the Captain, what with its peacefulness and a feeling of finally accepting life as it is ("I'm tryin' in all ways and learnin' in between"). Yes, it's fairly generic mid-1970s soft rock, but it does work, together with the supporting guitar work and almost Emersonian Moog synth solo from the keyboard man.
On the down side, ʽRock'n'Roll's Evil Dollʼ is a fairly lame attempt at learning the «dance-rock» moves of the day (the Captain treading on Bee Gees territory? certainly not the right thing for him), and then there is what might be the total nadir for Beefheart — the incredibly lame, New-Orleans-meets-German-cabaret, nearly instrumental ʽCaptain's Holidayʼ, which might have been the perfect welcoming music for a whorehouse if the Captain ever bothered setting one up ("ooh captain captain, lay your burden down"). It is a fairly tight groove, but one that sounds sleazy, pimp-wise, without being intelligent, and it has been rumored that Beefheart does not even play his own harmonica on that one, so it remains to be understood if he has any relation to the track whatsoever, or whether it was just a stupid joke played on him by «The Tragic Band». Not that he'd noticed — apparently, he was in such a daze at the time that they could have invited Neil Diamond to guest on a couple of tracks and he'd probably be all right with that.
Regardless, the record is not a total waste — it's just that there is no reason whatsoever to go for it if you are interested specifically in Captain Beefheart, rather than just a few examples of decent, emotionally resonant mid-Seventies soft-rock that could just as well have been delivered by Jackson Browne or somebody even less individualistic. And, objectively, it does mark a particularly low point in the man's artistic career, because he'd pretty much stopped being Captain Beefheart: in all actuality, this record should really have been credited to «Don Van Vliet & The Tragic Band». It's no big crime to dissolve your artistic identity — it might even be a useful exercise in humility — but it's no good, either, if you don't stand to gain anything in return, and this album flopped even worse than Unconditionally Guaranteed. Still, yet another curious chapter in the Captain's history, there's no denying at least that.