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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Captain Beefheart: Doc At The Radar Station


1) Hot Head; 2) Ashtray Heart; 3) A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond; 4) Run Paint Run Run; 5) Sue Egypt; 6) Brickbats; 7) Dirty Blue Gene; 8) Best Batch Yet; 9) Telephone; 10) Flavor Bud Living; 11) Sheriff Of Hong Kong; 12) Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee.

For his last two albums, Beefheart once again settled on a sound that brought him as close as possible to the spirit of Trout Mask Replica — so, predictably, you can tell that there will be less enthusiasm on my part for both of them than there was for Shiny Beast. Although the bulk of his band stays the same, there are some important lineup changes: Art Tripp is no longer here to provide his characteristic marimbas, and Richard Redus has been replaced by a returning John French, who, for some reason, switches from his usual drums to guitar — and with guitar prodigy Gary Lucas also contributing some parts, this brings the total to three guitarists, so that the Cap­tain could now compete with Lynyrd Skynyrd if he wanted to.

As a result, the overall sound is quite removed from Shiny Beast — with less emphasis on per­cussion and brass (Bruce Fowler is still a member of the band, but his trombone is quite subdued here), Doc is a totally guitar-groove-oriented album, much like TMR, following similarly jagged, angular paths, with a crisp, bone-dry sound from everyone involved — so much so, it makes me feel thirsty as hell before even reaching the ten-minute mark. It is also much less diverse, without any vaudeville distractions like ʽHarry Ireneʼ or Latin experiments: really, we're back to Beef­heart-rock full-time, except that the tunes sound a little bit more like real tunes (but only a little bit; reading up on the details of the sessions shows that the overall atmosphere was the closest that Beefheart ever got to reproducing the original conditions of TMR).

Of course, by 1980 this kind of sound was no longer as far ahead of its time as it was in 1969. With a miriad intelligent post-punk guitar bands in action, the Captain now sounded like a mem­ber of the pack — his Magic Band could be an opening act for Pere Ubu, for instance, or vice versa. This does not, however, mean that the Captain was now taking his cues from the likes of Pere Ubu: as usual, he is following nobody's path but his own, and the album's complete and total failure to chart anywhere arrogantly and defiantly proved that. I mean, who the heck would use a Mellotron on an album in the age of total synthesizer rule? (Actually, use of the Mellotron on tracks like ʽAshtray Heartʼ and ʽMaking Love To A Vampireʼ is one of the more brilliant touches on the record — giving them a certain dramatic flair that at least partially alleviates the excessive dryness and geometric formality of the sound).

As your brain re-adjusts to that old paradigm, the music eventually begins to flash its own twisted, but paradigmatic logic — in the coordinate system of Beefheart, ʽHot Headʼ would count as a kick-ass cock-rocker, for instance, the Captain's idiosyncratic answer to AC/DC's ʽYou Shook Me All Night Longʼ: "she can burn you up in bed just like she said cause she's a hot head", he sings in his finest Howlin' Wolf tone to a mean, funky guitar riff that probably reflects one of the Kamasutra's trickier positions. ʽAshtray Heartʼ would be the equivalent of an angry «bitch-dumped-me» punk rocker — in fact, "you used me like an ashtray heart, case of the punks!" is precisely the way Beefheart starts it off — except that no true punk rocker would dilute the emo­tions with brief Mellotron interludes, or support them with a percussion part that sounds like Bill Bruford imitating Keith Moon. And ʽRun Paint Run Runʼ is terrified escapist garage rock, except it sounds as if all the running is done on the spot... then again, this is probably exactly what you'd expect from running paint.

Unfortunately, even with all the adjustments adjusted, eventually the record begins to get a wee bit boring. No matter how many of the tunes we can explain away as «twisted projections of nor­mal situations», the overall sound is fairly monotonous, and as the tracks get longer and longer (ʽBest Batch Yetʼ says everything it has to say in two minutes, then drags on for three more; ʽSheriff Of Hong Kongʼ is six and a half minutes of the same brief guitar groove repeated over and over), I begin to get the feeling that the Captain actually has far less to say than he thinks he has — to the extent that I end up enjoying the short, minute-long instrumentals acting as «brea­thers» in between the long vocal tracks much more: ʽA Carrot Is As Close...ʼ and ʽFlavor Bud Livingʼ don't have a shred of memorability between them, but at least they do not overstay their welcome, and the latter is a dynamically evolving solo that sounds like a cross between Spanish flamenco and free jazz, which is kinda cool.

Perhaps this should have worked better if the Captain did this in Wire format — you know, with one to one-and-a-half minutes as the average length of each track; this would have given him the opportunity to rattle off as many musical ideas as possible (and it wouldn't have been hard, be­cause he was clearly on a rejuvenated roll at the time) without running any of them into the ground, swamping critical listeners like me with the sheer quantity of imagination outbursts rather than making us be all like, «yeah, cool idea, but cool enough to groove against the grain for 3-4 minutes? not really...». Then again, considering that the album marks the man's triumphant return to his native turf, who am I to tell the artist how he is supposed to behave on his own pro­perty? I'm still happy to shut up and give the record a respectable thumbs up, even without necessarily having to warm up to it all the way — he's doing his thang, he's happy about it, the band works up a solid sweat, and unless you can provide satisfactory proof that you, too, have made love to a vampire with a monkey on your knee and are therefore qualified to issue an informed judgement on the record, you can't really be sure that you have successfully cracked this record and found it lacking it spirit. I know I'm not sure at all.

1 comment:

  1. 'Best Batch Yet' is PERFECT as is. You're supposed to sit back and ride the groove after the vocals are finished while admiring the 'overwhelming technique' of it all. My favorite of his last three albums.