CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: ICE CREAM FOR CROW (1982)
1) Ice Cream For Crow; 2) The Host The Ghost The Most Holy-O; 3) Semi-Multicoloured Caucasian; 4) Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat; 5) Evening Bell; 6) Cardboard Cutout Sundown; 7) The Past Sure Is Tense; 8) Ink Mathematics; 9) The Witch Doctor Life; 10) '81' Poop Hatch; 11) The Thousandth And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Pole; 12) Skeleton Makes Good; 13*) Light Reflected Off The Oceans Of The Moon.
The Captain's «swan song» is probably one of the least swan-song-like swan songs in existence: in fact, his decision to retire from his musical career came as abruptly and unpredictably as most of his other decisions — the really amazing thing being that he (unlike so many other phony «quitters» with their «farewell tours») actually delivered upon that promise, and spent the next thirty years of his life at a safe distance from any musical activities, as a painter, poet, and family man. But do not even try to search for any signs of a musical testament or lyrical goodbye on Ice Cream For Crow, a record that stays firmly committed to the artistic values of Doc At The Radar Station and is usually regarded by critics as a fine companion piece to the latter, albeit slightly less energetic and exciting.
It is hard not to share that judgement, and since I was not overwhelmed with Doc, you won't find a whole lot of passion for Crow in this review, either — but some polite admiration is still in order. To accuse the record of a «lack of focus» would be like accusing a rat's tail of a lack of hair, but what makes it harder to sit through is that it also lacks the energy of Doc: with one exception, these songs almost never rock hard — if Doc was Beefheart's warped equivalent of a kick-ass garage rock album, then Ice Cream is more like his equally warped interpretation of an unassuming collection of roots-rock tunes. A bit jazzy, a bit folkish, a bit bluesy, and, of course, always on the verge of falling apart.
The exception in question is the title track, probably the most accessible number on the whole record, based on an old idea of a boogie-rocker going all the way back to 1971 (and yes, it would have made a great addition to The Spotlight Kid). Fast paced, with a steady beat, a tightly controlled, gritty slide guitar riff, and some nice lead work from another slide guitar in the right channel, it starts things off in a compromising, but cool style, and will leave you forever guessing about the symbolism of giving "ice cream for crow" (Van Vliet said something about the opposition of ʽblackʼ and ʽwhiteʼ, but it all makes no more direct sense than his painting on the front sleeve). The funniest thing is that, according to the liner notes, when released as a single, Gary Lucas tried to market the song for gay clubs on hardcore nights — so now you have a legitimate reason to claim that Beefheart's music is «gay». Then again, it sure ain't straight.
Anyway, I cannot really get too far into the rest of it. I don't mind the usual problem of Beefheart's melodies refusing to stick around — as long as he is in his TMR mindset, you have to be ready for it — but most of these grooves are too slow, draggy, and, I'd say, almost pensive, as if the band recorded them in a relaxed, meditative state of mind: cue the instrumental ʽSemi-Multicoloured Caucasianʼ, with one guitar chopping out funky chords in the right speaker and another one swirling Grateful Dead-like ragas in the left one. Sounds maybe cool on paper, but too much abstract sonic geometry for my taste, and with hardly any development, although they do change keys for a couple bridge sections.
And, actually, ʽCaucasianʼ is still a highlight next to stuff like ʽCardboard Cutout Sundownʼ, a piece of broken blues that does nothing but break the blues, and many other tracks that sound like its younger brothers. I do admit with the sometimes expressed point of view that there is an aura of depression to many of the tunes — that the whole album sounds sad and tired next to the somewhat more energetic and uplifting sound of Doc — but I probably have to work long and hard to learn to empathize with that kind of sadness, and without any guarantee of success. It feels like there might be something deep, grim, and scary hiding at the bottom of avantgarde debaucheries like ʽThe Thousandth And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Poleʼ, but it's hard to scoop out from under all the dissonance and broken rhythmic patterns and, above all, this stuff drags — granted, that might have something to do with all the lineup changes (apparently, new drummer Cliff Martinez and new bass player Richard Snyder complained about not having enough time to gel with the rest of the band), but it also might have something to do with the fact that the process was no longer nearly as fresh or exciting for the Captain as it used to be.
The legend goes that he quit music to capitalize on his painting — wanting to be taken seriously as a visual artist, rather than some spoiled rock star engaging in hobbies — but listening to Ice Cream For Crow and occasionally getting bored with it, rather than befuddled as usual, makes me suspect that he got bored with his own music himself. It is hardly a coincidence that a lot of these tracks represent completed (or semi-completed) ideas that go all the way back to the early Seventies and even the late Sixties (ʽWitch Doctor Lifeʼ was originally conceived in 1968, which is why it also sounds moderately more conventional than almost anything else here) — the Captain wasn't particularly interested in developing new ideas, and if it is true that the only completely new tracks here were ʽCardboard Cutout Sundownʼ and ʽSkeleton Makes Goodʼ, I can get that because I actively dislike both (two sonic messes in the worst traditions of TMR).
Of course, fans of TMR should feel free to disagree with this assessment — but even repeated listens could not swerve me from the impression that Ice Cream For Crow is Don Van Vliet loyally playing the role of Captain Beefheart, giving his small fanbase precisely what they want, but not necessarily giving himself precisely what he wanted at the time. Too much of this just sounds dull and predictable, and certainly no longer as stunning for the poor ear caught unawares as it used to be in 1969. Do not take my word for it (after all, most of the critics usually give the album the same acclaim as they give its two predecessors), but do not ignore the huge differences in style between it and Shiny Beast (a total masterpiece in comparison, as far as I'm concerned), either. Aw heck, perhaps it was an intentional swan song, after all. I mean, who are we to define the concept of a swan song for somebody like Van Vliet? ʽSkeleton Makes Goodʼ is as good a title for a final musical testament from the man as any.