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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Clear Spot

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.

5 comments:

  1. Believe it or not, until today I never have heard anything of Cpt. Beef. So I tried Nowadays a Woman and Big Eyed Bean.
    Sorry, nothing special. Enjoyable, but no more. I suppose this applies to me then:

    "all the different zones of your brain were functioning like arpeggiated chords."

    Nowadays a Woman somehow reminded me of Blondie's Youth Nabbed as Sniper. Listen to them back to back and the latter is obviously the superior song.

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  2. Glad you recognize the sublime, strange beauty of "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles." Easily one of my favorite Beefheart songs.

    @MNb: Beefheart is the very definition of an acquired taste, so I am never shocked to learn that somebody doesn't enjoy his work, but to suggest that he lacks an unambiguous unique or "special" quality has got to be one of the most bizarre things ever written by a human being. Also, you may want to to listen to more than two songs from an artist (especially one with a large-ish catalogue with a moderately diverse range of styles) before pronouncing final judgement. Would you dig Blondie exclusively on the merits of "Sound-A-Asleep" and "Victor," dubious experiments cherry-picked from what many regard as one of their middle-tier quality albums?

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    1. I judge the Beatles purely by Mr. Moonlight.

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  3. Hey George, great review. You seem to like this album more than you used to. Although I still agree with your old review that The Spotlight Kid is better. Clear Spot has its moments, but it has filler too. A lot of it verges already toward the Bluejeans & Moonbeams soft rock format. B & M isn't as bad as a lot of the fans say, but it's still a step down from the bluesrock of Spotlight Kid, an album that didn't have a single weak song. I like Clear Spot too, but a little less. Still and all though, I'd recommend both of these albums to anyone. Both have a lot of interesting things to offer.

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