CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: SHINY BEAST (BAT CHAIN PULLER) (1978)
1) The Floppy Boot Stomp; 2) Tropical Hot Dog Night; 3) Ice Rose; 4) Harry Irene; 5) You Know You're A Man; 6) Bat Chain Puller; 7) When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy; 8) Owed T'Alex; 9) Candle Mambo; 10) Love Lies; 11) Suction Prints; 12) Apes-Ma.
By late 1974, I think, music lovers worldwide must have given up on the Captain, who'd seemed to guide his ship into the rocks — losing his loyal Magic Band, his artistic integrity, and any signs of respect from the formerly receptive critical base. The only reason for optimism was that, even at his least adventurous, Beefheart had always followed his own muse and nobody else's: «simplistic» and «commercial» as they might be, even the 1974 records sound like they could not have been produced by anybody else. Of course, the man had his original set of influences, all the way from Chicago blues to free jazz, yet once his musical vision had solidified, he seemed to pay very little attention to whatever else was going on in the musical world around him — interested in doing his own thing and nobody else's, and even if he was going to «sell out», he'd still do it the Beefheart way, rather than take a cue from The Doobie Brothers.
A good boost of confidence came from Frank Zappa, with whom Beefheart spent a lot of time together in 1975-76 (including an appearance as vocalist and occasional songwriter on Bongo Fury from 1975), and by 1976, the Captain felt resuscitated enough to put together a properly assembled new Magic Band and begin recording again — the result was Bat Chain Puller, an album of completely new material that was to see the light of day in 1976, yet ended up on indefinite hold after a conflict between Zappa and his manager Herb Cohen resulted in all sorts of legal difficulties. Fortunately, this did not suffice to destroy the good spirits of the Captain once again, and by 1978, he was back on his feet, with a new deal with Warner Bros. (you know, the most avantgardist record label in the world) and a new album, consisting partly of re-recorded songs from Bat Chain Puller (hence the double title) and partly of completely new material.
And it is like 1974 never existed. No, scratch that — it is as if the Seventies never existed as a decade altogether: Shiny Beast picks up precisely where Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals left off, and feels like a superb reboot of the Captain Beefheart franchise. Basically, Beefheart returns to the idea of «continuing to make weird music, but making it more accessible»; however, instead of steering his musicians towards more blues, more funk, and (ultimately) more pop, he remains more closely attached to the original idiom of TMR, except that certain angles get smoothed — less tricky time signatures, musicians seemingly playing more in tune with each other, grooves that take sufficient time to develop and sink in the mind: often catchy without ever sounding simplistic, and fairly adventurous without ever sounding irritating and pointless. Not to discriminate against The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, but this is probably the kind of sound that the Captain should have had going for himself in 1972 — although, this being 2017 and all, who really should care about a decade-long delay now? Particularly since the Captain always preferred to live in his own time anyway.
From the most basic point of view, we have our Captain back showcasing his insanity, paranoia, otherworldly creepiness, and, occasionally, «alternate sentimentality». The very first song, subtly hinting at the dawn of the computer age as Beefheart happily exploits the many meanings of the word ʽbootʼ, is a post-modern cartoonish apocalyptic vision in its own rights: with the Captain's new guitarists, Jeff Morris Tepper and Richard Redus, playing bluesy rings around each other and drummer Robert Williams playing complex polyrhythms with the verve of a good Keith Moon disciple, ʽThe Floppy Boot Stompʼ is not one of the album's most melodically memorable numbers, but it is all that it takes to immediately ascertain — yes, the Captain is back, and it looks like he hasn't been that excited about being back since ʽFrownlandʼ, gleefully painting meltdownish pictures of how "the sky turned white in the middle of the night" and "hell was just an ice cube melting off on the ground". (Essentially, it's about a battle of characters between The Farmer and The Devil... spoiler: The Farmer won. But that shouldn't be a surprise; after all, Don Van Vliet is a plain old God-fearin' man at heart).
From then on, the record never lets go, and each new song is brimming with ideas. If it is a Latin-style dance number (ʽTropical Hot Dog Nightʼ), it will come equipped with a slightly dissonant trombone lead part (courtesy of Bruce Fowler), an overloud marimba part (courtesy of Art Tripp III, the only member from the old band who came back for these sessions), and a message that the Captain is "playin' this song for all the young girls to come out to meet the monster tonight" — sure, what else? It wouldn't be fun any other way. ʽBat Chain Pullerʼ rides a groove that actually gives the impression of somebody or something (a bat?) being rhythmically pulled by its chain, apparently with great difficulty, and the song keeps adding more and more layers as it goes on, descending into an ocean of controlled psychedelic chaos at the end. And as silly as a title like ʽWhen I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummyʼ might sound, musically the song sounds like a cross between a New Orleans funeral march, a Black Sabbath riff-rocker, and a free jazz improvisation — but with a basic groove to which you could toe-tap if you wanted to, and with a couple of highly melodic riffs that you could whistle if you needed to. As for the title, well, it is not the first time that the Captain sings to us about his inborn fear of women; personally, I think that whoever «Mommy» is, she should be proud of causing such a complex bunch of emotions to be encoded in such a bizarre musical synthesis.
Somewhat simpler pieces also rule — ʽCandle Mamboʼ is indeed the Captain's personal interpretation of what a proper Latin dance number should sound like (and the solution is: more marimbas!); ʽLove Liesʼ has distant melodic ties to Ray Charles' ʽI Believe To My Soulʼ (and, transitively, to Dylan's ʽBallad Of A Thin Manʼ as well), but the Captain's take on melancholic soul-blues has to have much more Mardi Gras-style brass in it; and just for diversity's sake, ʽHarry Ireneʼ is an almost completely normal music hall number that sounds more Ray Davies than Captain Beefheart, but it is a totally charming interlude, a well-placed moment of sad sentimental calm in between all the madness. Predictably, there are a few instrumentals as well, and they all rule: ʽIce Roseʼ may be a little too derivative of Zappa (I think everybody can hear echoes of ʽPeaches En Regaliaʼ in there), but ʽSuction Printsʼ is totally Beefheart, a crazy blues-rocker that actually manages to rock in between all the complex rhythmic patterns.
I should probably mention as well that production values for the record are much higher than they used to be — despite the near-cacophonous melange of instruments on most of the tracks, every single guitar, every brass part, each puncturing of the marimbas remains perfectly distinct, and there's tons of replay value here as you can trace all the cool flourishes of one guitar, then concentrate on the one in the other speaker, then try to assimilate the marimba melody... somehow, these songs turn me on in ways that Trout Mask Replica never could, and as unqualified as I am to discuss the musicological aspects of both records, I will just have to ascribe the difference to a smart type of compromise that Beefheart achieves here, as well as the dense nature of the arrangements — who knows, perhaps what TMR really needed for success was more horns, marimbas, and a cleaner mix.
Then again, no: it may well be possible that it simply had to take Beefheart several more years to understand properly how that ideally-visualized, but not ideally-reproduced alternate musical world of his could come to emotional life. And I wish I could ascribe his success to the dawning of a new musical age — but the fact is, Shiny Beast sounds absolutely nothing like any New Wave record at the time, and thus, remains absolutely timeless. It ends on a depressing note (the forty-seconds long ʽApes-Maʼ is one of Beefheart's most pessimistic bits of declamation, especially if he is referring to himself, which I think he is), but then, it's not as if the entire record were contrastively uplifting: there's plenty of melancholy and desperation hiding in these grooves, they are just not openly «whiny» or «hysterical», and that's a good thing, because in order to succeed, Shiny Beast had to show some teeth, first and foremost — otherwise, people would just say «oh, he's bitching about being down on his luck and out of talent». Nope: Shiny Beast is all set to kick your ass, then give you a friendly pat on the head, then kick your ass some more, and only then retreat in the corner and let out a few hard-to-hold-back sighs... "Apes-Ma, Apes-Ma, you're eating too much and going to the bathroom too much... and Apes-Ma, your cage isn't getting any bigger, Apes-Ma". Don't we all feel like that sometimes? Thumbs up.