CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: CLEAR SPOT (1972)
1) Low Yo Yo Stuff; 2) Nowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit A Man; 3) Too Much Time; 4) Circumstances; 5) My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains; 6) Sun Zoom Spark; 7) Clear Spot; 8) Crazy Little Thing; 9) Long Neck Bottles; 10) Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles; 11) Big Eyed Beans From Venus; 12) Golden Birdies.
This follow-up to The Spotlight Kid, which it ends up somehow resembling even in name (and for a long time now, both albums have been available commercially on a single CD), represents the Captain's next step in marrying weirdness with accessibility — now with the aid of producer Ted Templeman, who'd previously worked not only with Van Morrison (who might have some common artistic and spiritual ground with Beefheart), but also with the Doobie Brothers (who probably don't have any). The band's lineup remains the same (plus the brief addition of Zappa veteran Roy Estrada on bass), but there's an additional brass section appearing from time to time, and even, oh God help us, some backup female singers («The Blackberries») as if we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a true soul-searching session.
Regardless, the songs are still strange and curious, and the mix of old and new influences works well — also, there is a bit more speed, power, and heaviness to the material, so that, unlike Spotlight Kid, it never really gets a chance to sag. Honestly, it is like an attempt to re-do Spotlight Kid, correcting some of its mistakes, but also clinging to the formula where it worked — and so ʽLow Yo Yo Stuffʼ establishes almost the same vibe as ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize You Babyʼ: another funky beat, another Howlin' Wolf-style vocal performance, another pair of sick-twisted blues riffs attacking the listener from both channels, only the Captain sings in a higher range this time around, choosing an active-aggressive rather than passive-aggressive strategy, but he' pretty scary both ways. Musically, these guitar parts aren't quite as uniquely mesmerizing as the dialog between his two inner halves that Zoot Horn Rollo conducted on ʽBooglarizeʼ, but the sexually charged voodoo ritual atmosphere is still generated perfectly.
Perhaps, with the onslaught of the loud glam-rock sound in 1971-1972, the introduction of brass support was no coincidence — but the Captain had his own interpretation of glam-rock anyway, best illustrated on the second track, ʽNowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit A Manʼ, which charges on with the energy and drunk fervor of a Slade or a T. Rex track, but still has all the instruments playing in slight dissonance with each other, so the track couldn't be called «catchy» unless all the different zones of your brain were functioning like arpeggiated chords. Its fascination is more of a chameleonesque one — starts out as a swampy blues-rocker, then goes on to wobble between T. Rex-like glam, Otis Redding-style soul groove, and more swampy blues-rock (when that stinging guitar break comes along). And it's got a pro-feminist stance, too! Good old progressive Captain with his progressive spirit.
Actually, while we're on the women issue, this record has arguably the best sentimental love ballad that Beefheart ever had the bravery of recording — ʽHer Eyes Are A Blue Million Milesʼ is an awesome chunk of psychedelic blues-pop (okay, I just googled it and people have occasionally used such a noun phrase before, so I'm cool) whose guitar melody actively suggests both loving admiration and panicky tension, just the kind of mixture you'd probably expect to get from Don Van Vliet when he really fell in love (which he didn't do too often, by the way, at least not since marrying Janet Van Vliet at the end of 1969). I even think that the guitar guy intentionally throws in a bit of Lennon-esque phrasing in the bridge section, to reflect that they also go for the same mix of roughness and tenderness that should characterize the most honest and psychologically convincing ballads — but then again, I also have a nasty tendency to overthink things.
Not every song has its own individuality, and a few might be on the filler side, but I'm sure that no two people would completely agree on what constitutes the highlights and the lowlights here. For instance, I am no big fan of ʽToo Much Timeʼ, which takes us a little too close to comfort into «sunshine soul» territory (and those backing vocals border on corniness), but others might like its relaxed and friendly nature as a bit of relief from the overall harshness. On the other hand, I seriously dig the funk groove of ʽCrazy Little Thingʼ, but others might grumble that it is merely a half-assed attempt to cop the sound of James Brown and the like — and I wouldn't really know what to answer if it seemed like a problem.
I'm almost sure that most Beefheart fans would at least agree on ʽBig Eyed Beans From Venusʼ as a major highlight — a song that takes Fleetwood Mac's ʽOh Wellʼ as a starting point and then turns blues into raga, raga into psychedelic noise, and noise back into blues without blinking. "Mister Zoot Horn Rollo! Hit that long lunar note, and let it float!" commands the Captain one minute and a half into the song, confusing himself with Kirk for a while, but Mister Zoot Horn Rollo had had plenty of obedience training to do exactly what was required, and throws extra fuel on Beefheart's last psychedelic masterpiece in a long, long while. Overall, the guitar work on that track, combining the finest traditions of the Grateful Dead, Cream, and the Velvet Underground all at once, seems far more emotionally charged and stunning to me than anything on TMR or Lick My Decals Off. Maybe that is what they mean by «going commercial»?
Because they clearly cannot mean sales: Clear Spot charted and sold much lower than The Spotlight Kid, probably because there was even less promotion and because it had no particular soft selling spot like ʽI'm Gonna Booglarize Youʼ — not a happy piece of news for the Magic Band, who were beginning to feel angry at having to compromise the «purity» of their artistic vision without even being financially rewarded for it. But, once again, do not get it wrong: almost everything on Clear Spot remains «experimental» to some degree, and every single track totally retains the Beefheart spirit. I used to think of it as a slight stepdown from The Spotlight Kid, but not any more — it's really got more highlights and more diversity to it, so here's another well-earned thumbs up, concluding the Captain's second mini-period of creative bliss.