CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: BAT CHAIN PULLER (1976; 2012)
1) Bat Chain Puller; 2) Seam Crooked Sam; 3) Harry Irene; 4) 81 Poop Hatch; 5) Flavor Bud Living; 6) Brick Bats; 7) Floppy Boot Stomp; 8) Ah Carrot Is As Close As Ah Rabbit Gets To Ah Diamond; 9) Owed T'Alex; 10) Odd Jobs; 11) Human Totem Pole; 12) Apes-Ma; 13) Bat Chain Puller (alternate mix); 14) Candle Mambo; 15) Hobo-ism.
The latest and, probably, the most arduously expected archival release from the Captain is this: the original Bat Chain Puller, recorded in 1976 but shelved due to personal and technical problems before being reborn in an entirely new coating three years later. In 2012, it finally got an official stamp of release on Gail Zappa's Vaulternative label, set up to handle Frank's archives — and, as it turned out, a little bit of Don Van Vliet's as well. Of course, veteran fans had already known all of this for a long time from their bootleg copies, but now, here's the Captain sending you one more gift from the grave without having you break the law or anything.
As you already know, most of the songs from Bat Chain Puller eventually became Shiny Beast, but a couple short instrumentals (ʽCarrotʼ and ʽFlavor Bud Livingʼ) and one vocal number (ʽBrick Batsʼ) had to wait until Doc At The Radar Station, and two more (ʽ81 Poop Hatchʼ and ʽHuman Totem Poleʼ) had to wait all the way until Ice Cream For Crow. Considering that ʽOdd Jobsʼ was already available on Grow Fins (albeit in demo form and very poor sound quality), the only song I do not recognize at all is ʽSeam Crooked Samʼ, another of Beefheart's beatnik recitations set to a background of gently noodling avant-jazz guitars. Additionally, the album is expanded with a few bonuses, such as an alternate mix of the title track and a lengthy improvised piece, ʽHobo-ismʼ — eight minutes of acoustic blues guitar, harmonica, and the Captain in Son House / John Lee Hooker mode, mumbling, growling, and howling out strings of neo-blues lyrics to an «authentic» dark country blues backing. Admittedly, it's fun for a couple minutes, but gets tedious very quickly if you're not too deeply into that kind of thing.
So what's the deal, anyway? Does this old recording still deserve its own place under the sun, or has it been rendered completely superfluous by Shiny Beast? From one point of view — given that the Captain was always very specific about preserving the compositional structure and arrangement details of his songs, and never really favored improvised variations on any of his songs once they were finished — it is superfluous: although the new recordings, considering both the complexity of the songs and the fact that everything had to be redone from scratch under new studio conditions, could not help but sound somewhat different, they are still exceptionally close, enough to make the comparison more interesting for the Beefheart historian than the average fan. On the other hand, the two albums were recorded by significantly different lineups of The Magic Band — for instance, Bat Chain Puller did not have Bruce Fowler on trombone, whereas Shiny Beast did not feature John French — and this makes the original version sound a bit more raw and less cluttered with extra instrumentation than Shiny Beast. So it's not like you aren't really offered a choice: some people did complain about a slight overproduction problem on Shiny Beast, and this gives them a chance to rejoice and pick a new intimate favorite.
I do have at least this to say: although I am still largely indifferent to ʽHuman Totem Poleʼ, this version of it here sounds far more tight and energetic than the one on Ice Cream For Crow, largely because John French is a better drummer (or, at least, a better Beefheart-style drummer) than Cliff R. Martinez, and is able to lock himself in a better coordinated groove with the two surrounding guitar players. Also, the track works better without the Captain's ugly sax blowing all over it (sorry, all you best friends of the Beefheart-'n'-saxophone alliance). The rest, well — I frankly don't care all that much, but since I like Shiny Beast, it's nice to be able to hear a few highlights in slightly edgier, though not necessarily better, versions. Anyway, no enlightening revelations here, but a pleasant souvenir for the fans and a useful piece of the Beefheart puzzle to put together with the rest.