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Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica CD (album) cover


Captain Beefheart



3.75 | 350 ratings

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5 stars Well, folks, here it is. The big one. The Blimp. The life-changing, perspective-altering, avant-garde totem/behemoth that is 'Trout Mask Replica'. You'll love it or loathe it, 'get it' or remain forever nonplussed by it - but one thing is sure; you'll certainly have an opinion about it!

First things first: I'm not about to try and tell you that You Must Like This Album. Far be it for the likes of me to take sides in the endless scrap over this most polarising of all works of art. I begrudge nobody his or her personal taste in music, and if this just isn't your cup of tea, well. that's fair enough.

But I do ask (nicely and politely!) that you give it a fair go, if you're going to give it a go at all. It is possible to love this music - genuinely, sincerely and without any hint of po-faced, self-conscious, avant-hipsterism. honestly! It might take a bit of effort, but it's well worth it. Because - and this is, for me, the true importance and worth of 'TMR' - whether or not you ever come to like or love this music, it has the power to push you through the arbitrary cultural boundaries that are drummed into us like Pavlovian responses, in such a way as to open you up to a whole new musical landscape. Get your head around this one, and never again will any music hold any horrors for you. (I know that reads back as pretentious blather, but it's true. No way could I have come to enjoy some of my favourite music without having had my musical expectations confounded and poked in the eye by 'TMR'.) After this, nothing will ever seem so unapproachable that you can't at least give it a go. (Maybe it's a bit like the musical equivalent of bungee-jumping or having a tattoo. Scary in prospect, but somehow rather satisfying in hindsight. And downright addictive for some!)

This is one of those records where you need to just expose your ears to it - without trying to listen/concentrate/decipher. Just leave it on in the background, and after a while, the 'musical signposts' - the pattern - will emerge, and you'll start to get a feel for it, enjoy it even. Music is all about patterns, and 'weird/difficult music' is usually just a matter of unfamiliar patterns. Once you get familiar with it, it won't seem unapproachable or unstable any more.

So, with that lengthy preamble taken care of, on to the music!

I don't think there's much point giving a song-by-song rundown. There's an awful lot of 'em, and you'll come to your own conclusions anyway. I'll keep it more general - except to say that the song that 'did it' for me was 'Moonlight on Vermont'. Still my favourite, too!

The sound of this music is pretty hard to describe, but I'm game if you are, so let's try. Words that spring to mind include: jagged, spiky, refreshing, nonsensical, wired, gritty, sparkling, crunching, uncompromising, hoarse, angular, bristling, raw, and - strange as it may seem - humorous. You'll see others describe it in terms such as 'avant-blues', and that's a pretty handy label for it. But 'it is what it is', as they say. Rather unique. There are other bands who manage something of the clashing-yet-precise, angular-guitar sound (how about Ahleuchatistas?), but mostly they don't quite achieve the same sense of fun, the ornery-mischief-making feel, the desert-sweat-and-desperation, of the Real Thing. For that you need a Large Personality such as Captain Beefheart - and they don't come much larger than him, do they?!

Many people react with horror at what they assume is a chaotic, unrehearsed, improvised, undisciplined free-for-all freak-out session. But in fact, nothing could be more disciplined, more precise than this. There are many and varied tales of the tyranny of Don Van Vliet - tantamount to psychological abuse, by some accounts - as he sought to drum his peculiar vision for this utterly outlandish music into the souls of his band mates. These compositions will most likely sound artlessly jumbled to you at first. Only after a few listens can the sheer profusion of pointillistic detail resolve itself into something coherent. Let me just say that almost forty years later, the original members of the Magic Band could still play these pieces, note-perfect, as seen and heard at their reunion concerts. That's pretty amazing in my book!

That brings me on to the stupendous talent that is. Drumbo. John French - percussionist at large. It's through his patient translation of Beefheart's ideas into something that human beings could understand, and reproduce, that this music exists at all. And his drumming on this album is what holds everything together. It has a rough, clattering, hyperactive feel - the sound of it is like an angry man, albeit one with an astute sense of rhythm, kicking over all the dustbins in the street! Underpinning the raucous rattle is the kind of finesse that can martial multiple, concurrent time signatures, keeping everyone in check, without ever littering the music with heavy-handed cues. I love how this music can paradoxically feel loose and strict at the same time! And yet, on the original LP, French wasn't even credited. I don't know if that was mere oversight, mischievous mystery-mongering, or an intentional slight of some kind.

The other thing that I can't fail to mention is Don Van Vliet's vocals and lyrics. His voice is as big and scary as a haunted castle. There are stories of him frightening microphones to death with the vastness of it. Reports of him having an 'eight-octave voice' are somewhat exaggerated, but you can tell how he could get away with making the claim! The combination of his fearsome yell with the frequent outbreaks of childlike wonder that punctuate his singing and recitations is an odd one, but somehow it works. The words themselves are something else! Oftentimes they appear to be nonsensical until suddenly, they slide into focus, and you realise that he is talking in constant metaphor. The imagery elides together like two magic lantern slides viewed at once. Every now and again, you'll have a little 'Aha!' moment as, out of blue, a morsel of meaning falls into place. The wordplay is endless. An atmosphere of impatient intelligence - done with one thought and on to the next before the first has been fully expressed - resonates through this peculiar poetry. Multiple meanings, rhymes that fall in together and gather pace like a lyric stampede, disappearing over the horizon before you've had time to work out what's going on. It all feels thrillingly one step ahead of your game.

After ten years of listening to this record, it still sounds to me like the words have been translated - perhaps inadequately - from some very complicated alien language, able to express ideas and sentiments that we mere earthlings can only guess at. and it's dangerously quotable. Something about such gnomic utterances as 'fast and bulbous' has made them like passwords to a secret conclave of Beefheartian initiates. Walk around with that on your t-shirt and you will find a delighted smile of recognition on the face of any fellow muso-weirdo whom you encounter.

There's a strange meeting in the personality of Captain Beefheart between an idiot savant, a nature-loving synaesthete, and a calculating salesman. I think I like him best when the fool's mask slips and he could almost be winking at you, admitting that he's pulling your leg just a little bit.

Frank Zappa (himself present here in the role of bemused accomplice) used to propound the idea that music is. whatever you decide it is. 'Music' is simply sound, or even the absence of sound, arranged or bounded to suit the purposes of an individual. And that's what I take from this album - that mind-blowing sentiment, that sudden feeling of freedom from the constraints of what convention has decided music should be. It really is possible to enjoy any kind of music, from pop to noise - you just need that old cliché, 'an open mind'; and this record could be the key to opening yours!

(On the other hand, it might just be the key to your next migraine, in which case I hope you will forgive me for having taken up your time!)

Anyway, whatever expression is plastered across your face in reaction to 'Trout Mask Replica', when it comes to me. my smile is stuck. By now I'm sure you know what I'm going to say. Five stars, people! Five stars.

song_of_copper | 5/5 |


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