REVIEW: Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica (1969)

“My smile is stuck; I cannot go back t’yer frownland.” – Don Van Vliet

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & HIS MAGIC BAND – Trout Mask Replica (1969 Reprise)

Produced by Frank Zappa, written by Don Van Vliet.

I’m no professional musician — not even close.  I can’t speak that language, so I can’t explain to you why Trout Mask Replica is pure genius. I can tell you that it is not for everybody. Frank Zappa once said, regarding the public’s attitude towards popular music: “Give me something that sounds exactly like something that I already like.” With that sarcastic comment, Zappa hit the nail on the head. Most listeners want music in standard (4/4) time, with familiar tones, and based on familiar scales. If you fall into that majority, do not buy Trout Mask Replica.

I’ll give you an example of the weirdness within, right out of the liner notes.  “Captain Beefheart plays tenor and soprano saxophone simultaneously on ‘Ant Man Bee’.”  [My emphasis]

TROUT MASK_0003Those who have studied music, particularly free improvisation, find Trout Mask Replica to be utterly brilliant. It is an ugly duckling of an album, something that seems stark and unforgiving on first listen, but revealing more depth and beauty the more you hear it. There is much to be enjoyed here. The drumming (by Drumbo aka John French) shatters preconceived notions about tempo and timekeeping in a rock/blues context. Bass clarinet is present, a rare instrument these days to be sure, and not an easy instrument to appreciate. The guitar and horns are harsh and difficult for the average listener to digest coming across as nothing more than a cacophony. Often, it sounds as if all six musicians are playing different songs at the same time, and that is not too far off the mark. Yet, these conflicting parts mesh and intersect at key moments, creating an overall effect of, “It sounds wrong, but right.” With repeated listens, it begins to sound more right than wrong. Bits and pieces gradually coalesce, and suddenly it clicks. There are hooks here, catchy guitar parts that reveal themselves slowly.  The howling moans of Don Van Vliet are always enticing.  I love his “old man” voice on the scratchy “The Dust Blows Forwards ‘N the Dust Blows Back”.

The music is playful (“Ella Garu” for example). Captain Beefheart plays homage to Americana on “Moonlight on Vermont”.  “Pachuco Cadaver”, the most immediate piece here, is catchy and pop-like in its structure. Yet Trout Mask Replica‘s prime influence in the blues, both at its most ancient and futuristic simultaneously. If that’s even possible, then Beefheart did it right here. Then again, “Hair Pie: Bake 2” is just pure jazz.

TROUT MASK_0006If you gave it a shot and you didn’t like Trout Mask Replica, then that is a question of personal taste and you are not wrong. However, nobody can say that this is “not music”, or that this is the work of “amateurs”. It takes years for musicians to be able to compose and play music of this stature. If you don’t appreciate it, that’s fine. AC/DC are still making records. A lot of people can’t appreciate Edgard Varese or Ligeti either. Yet their music continues to live on years after their deaths. So will it be for Don Van Vliet & his Magic Band.

After repeated spins, I believe that even the most jaded of listeners can find something to enjoy if they try. Whether it be Van Vliet’s gutteral blues howling or the loud and aggressive slide guitar, there is much to be loved on Trout Mask Replica. If by chance you are a Beefheart fan already, or are slowly becoming one, there are some interesting companion pieces to be had:  The one I want is Grow Fins: Rarities 1965-1982.   It’s a 5-CD box set containing two entire discs of Trout Mask outtakes and sessions.

Buy this if you like experimental Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Mike Patton, the works of Edgard Varese, early (Easy Action and Pretties For You) Alice Cooper, or free improv.

5/5 stars

25 comments

  1. Great review Mike, attempting to describe the indescribable!

    I found a cheap, dusty copy of this on a market stall decades ago. It half intrigues, half repulses me – in a good way. Dachau Blues is the best example of that, to me.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I know that feeling. I used to hate Kiss when I bought Destroyer and expected more heavy songs…took about five years to get into them when I bought Alive. Then I discovered that Destroyer was actually good too.

        Also… all Hair/Glam/80s Hard Rock ever was blasphemy as a kid… now I like it a lot.

        Didn’t like Motorhead. Faith No More, the list goes on…

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        1. You know what? Same with Destroyer. (It’s funny how much we have in common.)

          I expected it to be REALLY HEAVY just by the cover art. I LOOKED heavy. But it’s one of their softest albums, really.

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  2. I got into Beefheart the easy way. Through his later, more accessible albums. When I finally got around to this I was pretty well immersed. I still prefer those easier albums (in Beefheart terms). I find Trout Mask claustropobic but make no mistake it is a masterpiece of epic proportions. It’s just not for everyone. That aid, the Grow Fins outtakes are revelations. If you can find that set for a decent price, grab it. Be warned however that the total music time spread across 5 discs here could easily be crunched down to 4 cd’s, You do get a great DVD included and some beautiful packaging (hard as hell to read tho). A must.

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  3. Nice review Mike. I remember back when I took a stab at this on The Eclectic Ear last February you commented that you applauded my courage! LOL. I’m glad you got to it too!
    The analogy that John Peel made to describing this work using terms used in visual art (such as abstract expressionism) seems key to digging free jazz or improvisation. It’s almost a different way of listening. Sometimes you just want to see (or hear) something colored outside the lines, and sometimes you don’t.

    http://timbrosnan.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/retrospective-trout-mask-replica-captain-beefheart-the-magic-band/

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    1. Ha! Look at that, I did say that too. Yeah, it’s an intimidating album to talk about with plain English words, but you did it!

      I agree with John Peel’s analogy. It’s a different way of listening for me, certainly. I wouldn’t use this as bedtime music. Waking up music, that might be interesting…

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  4. Another record I always meant to get. Dammit Mike. I first heard about this guy through a mix tape from my buddy Brian, he included a song of his called I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby. That’s right, mix TAPE. Anyway I liked it, put him on my want list and proceeded to not buy it for years. Thanks to your review, he’s bumping further up the priority scale.

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      1. Wesley Willis! Been a LONG time since I did that on a mix tape. But I did own one of his albums. I ended up selling it later, because I couldn’t justify owning it just for mix tapes.

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  5. Excellent review. I first got this album in the ’90s after XTC’s Andy Partridge raved about it in a UK magazine. I’ve listened to it more than a dozen times since then and I really like it…but I’ve never fallen in love with it. Musically it’s astounding but Don’s voice gets a little grating after 70+ minutes (and you know I have a high tolerance for non-traditional vocalists). I always feel uneasy when the album ends, which I’m sure was the good Captain’s intention. Trout Mask Replica boils down to one phrase for me: “Fast ‘N Bulbous.” I always find it stuck in my head for days anytime I play it.

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    1. Fast n’ bulbous. Me too Rich! Fast and bulbous. I love the way he is sure to enunciate bulbous.

      I think this album is really best appreciated with a break between “sides”. I choose to pick the halfway point personally. But on vinyl you would have had to get up, flip the record, possibly dust it, and drop the needle. It gives your brain a few moments to “reset” and I think that’s part of the experience here. Don’s voice can grate, as can a lot of things on this record.

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  6. Also:

    I knew it! Here in the stacks I have a DVD, Volume 1 of the Old Grey Whistle Test (I really do need to review it), and my memory said there was Captain Beefheart on it, and lo and behold there was!

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    1. Ahhh, thats the Tragic Band, given that it was a collection of musicians not really hip to Beefheart, thrown together at the last minute when the Magic Band finally got sick of Don and walked out. Still a very cool performance.

      Liked by 1 person

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