Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica
Released June, 1969

Week 8 gives us Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s third album “Trout Mask Replica”, released June, 1969. The album was produced by Beefheart’s old mate Frank Zappa. I guess that gives you a bit of a heads up as to how it’s going to sound… let’s just say it’s a little different to Aretha Franklin’s efforts in Week 1. According to Wikipedia “Trout Mask Replica” is “regarded as an important work of experimental music and a major influence in alternative rock”. I’d say that’s a fair call. The album and Don Van Vliet (a.k.a Captain Beefheart) himself have gone onto influence a plethora of musicians and different genres of music. It was ranked #58 on Rolling Stone magazines “500 Greatest Albums of all Time” list. There’s a whole heap of folklore that comes with this album. Van Vliet kept the band locked in a cabin for 8 months rehearsing the album for up to 14 hours a day. It is said he was quite the dictator demanding they did things a certain way, and repeatedly. This sent them all slightly crazy until Zappa pulled them out and they then laid down the album in studio in just 6 hours. Whether there is truth in all of this or it’s just a case of epic trolling, it is easy to believe that an album such as this was born of such a situation.

I’ve spent a whole week trying to work out how to review “Trout Mask Replica”. It’s like trying to describe the colour blue to a blind person, or explaining to a deaf person how a child’s laugh sounds. It’s an album that is impossible to define. It’s like a surreal painting for your ears. I can look at a piece of surrealist art and be able to tell you if I like it or not without necessarily telling you why. That is what “Trout Mask Replica” is like. It makes absolute sense yet no sense at all. And like any form of art that is pushing the boundaries you will either resonate with it fully or absolutely hate it. There are parts of it that I hated upon first listen that ended up being my favourite tracks. Then there’s the dissonant guitars, horns and pianos which grate on the nerves. But amongst the dissonance there are some really sweet little melodies and a softness that sits so well amongst the chaos. This album and those guitars made all of my favourite bands make sense. Tom Waits. The Pixies. The Birthday Party/Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The White Stripes. Primus. Sonic Youth. PJ Harvey. They Might Be Giants. Gomez. Pavement. Heck, even the frantic moments of Radiohead’s “Kid A” gives a nod to Beefheart.  I now understand those bands on a whole other level and appreciate that what they do may not be possible if it wasn’t for Beefheart leading the charge.

The only gripe I have about this album is that it bangs on a bit. I reckon it could’ve held a bit more clout if it was a single rather than a double album. But who am I to question anything about this album?  Maybe if you took out certain parts it would no longer work as a whole. And I think it is that which makes this album so thrilling. “Trout Mask Replica” is an album that demands your attention. It’s very unlikely that you’ll put it on first time and declare it a masterpiece. This is an album that at first slaps you around and leaves you thinking “what did I just experience?”… but the seed is now sown and every time you go back and listen that weird and gnarly tree that is “Trout Mask Replica” gets a little bit bigger and imposing as it slowly reveals itself to you. By the tenth listen you’ll wonder how you ever thought you wouldn’t like it. Or you will still declare it to be the biggest load of self indulgent crap you’ve ever heard… and that’s okay too. This isn’t an album for everyone and you will have to work at it. As a double album that clocks in at 75 minutes you really have to want to connect with it. Take the time though and you might surprise yourself.

Fast and bulbous, got me?

Well. What can I say about “Trout Mask Replica”? Aside from that it’s absolutely brilliant! Err… Maybe brilliant isn’t the right word, but entertaining definitely is! It’s a shambles, it’s messy, it’s all over the shop, but it’s hilarious! My first listen was at the gym. It’s awful hard to do any crunches when you’re trying not to laugh! Now, I doubt if the good Captain intended it to be funny, but there’s something about it that made laugh on every listen. I can imagine that “Trout Mask Replica” is not an album for everyone, I expect there’s a number of people that would rip their headphones from their ears and yell “What is this rubbish?!” But I can dig it. I love Beefheart’s versatility with vocals. He goes from low, gruff, spoken word, to crazy, high, almost shrieking. And he was quite the musician too, playing harmonica, saxophone, flute, piccolo and horns. The band recorded the whole album in one six hour long take. They were very well practiced (not that you can really tell…), which probably came from Beefheart’s dictator-esque way of running the band. He had them locked in a house, practicing up to 14 hours a day! If I could say anything negative about “Trout Mask Replica”, it would be that there is probably too many tracks. 28 tracks at an average of just under three minutes a track. Towards the end of the album, they can start to feel like they are running together… 28 really is a lot of tracks, even when they’re mixed up with spoken word and free jazz. This album is definitely staying on my iPod, and it’s made me very eager to get to the Zappa album in afyccim. By the way, the album cover is an unedited photo. What?!

I suspect that “Trout Mask Replica” is an album mostly appreciated by artists and musicians. It’s not exactly the kind of album I see being played at a dinner party and it’s pretty much impossible to listen to while doing anything requiring full attention. It’s chaotic, discordant, at times to the untrained ear would just sound like self-indulgent drug- fuelled noise, however having studied and practiced contemporary styles of composition, I can understand how hard it would be to write, rehearse and replicate such a disorderly sound in the studio. That’s probably why the 20 instrumental tracks of the album were recorded in just 6 hours, less room for error if it’s all done at once while you’re on a roll! Captain Beefheart’s free-jazz-meets-rock immediately reminded me of the post-punk alternative rockers, Primus, famously responsible for composing the theme song of South Park.  The poetic lyrics, although seemingly nonsensical, conjour up vivid surrealist concepts and I was thinking to myself at one point, ‘that sounds like a Salvador Dali artwork’. A quick Google search revealed that ‘Dali’s Car’ was directly influenced by a Dali artwork “Rainy taxi”. I also kept thinking that the album reminded me of my favourite BBC comedy ‘The Mighty Boosh’, which frequently employs crazy musical interludes reminiscent of the free jazz style. I did a bit of research and found that Mighty Boosh creator Noel Fielding has cited Frank Zappa (producer of Trout Mask Replica) and Captain Beefheart as huge influences. I’m sharing this trivia with you because it’s important to reveal the ways in which Trout Mask Replica shaped modern music and culture. I didn’t think I could get into this album, but I’m glad I gave it a go. Just keep an open mind, ok.

Wow. Just wow. I thought this was one of the worst things I had ever heard when the album’s opening track ‘Frownland’ blared through my car stereo. I was hit by aurally abrasive guitars that didn’t seem to be playing the same song as each other and a vocal that sounded like it belonged elsewhere. Was the vocal from one track mixed up with another? What are the bass and drums doing? Nothing seemed to fit. The second track ‘The Dust Blows Forward ‘n’ The Dust Blows Back’ offered a small relief from the noise, with a lovely melody that sounded like it could have been on any number of country/folk albums. The only thing setting the song apart from that genre is the lyrics and the fact that Van Vliet sings it with no accompaniment. As soon as the last line was delivered I was assaulted by the noisy and ominous ‘Dachau Blues’, mourning the death of Jews in the Nazi prison camps. That’s quite a journey in only three songs and that sets the tone nicely for the rest of the album. It took me several listens to realise that I kinda liked it. I would find myself singing ‘Ella Guru’ or ‘My Human Gets Me Blues’ or humming the outro of ‘Veteran’s Day Poppy’. One of the most surprising moments comes from ‘The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica)’ which apparently was created by Magic Band guitarist Jeff Cotton ringing album producer Frank Zappa (yes, THE Frank Zappa). While the Mothers of Invention rehearse, Jeff spouts off some freshly written Captain Beefheart lyrics over the phone, which explains why the track sounds quite polished compared to the rest of the record. This album is certainly worth the time and effort to get to know, but it isn’t for everybody.

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