Saturday, June 27, 2009

June 27: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, "Trout Mask Replica"

Artist: Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band
Album: Trout Mask Replica
Year: 1969
Label: Reprise

Go an listen to the strangest, most avant record you can think of...I'll wait. Now, go listen to any recording from Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band and be amazed at how suddenly "normal" the music you chose suddenly sounds. Pulling elements of jazz, folk, and just outright odd sounds, there is truly nothing else in the history of music that even remotely resembles the music created by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. Though The Magic Band saw multiple lineup changes over their nearly twenty year existence, the group centered around the ideas of Captain Beefheart, and their sound has had a profound influence on everything from punk to jazz. One of the most obvious links is that listeners can clearly hear the enormous impact that Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band had on groups like The Fall, Primus, and even Joan Osborne covered one of their songs. Easily the finest recording of the groups career came on their third album, their 1969 release, Trout Mask Replica.

Many musicians and writers have noted before that, if there ever was a musical recording that truly personified everything it meant to "be" an artist, it is most likely Trout Mask Replica. When one examines how Trout Mask Replica came to be, there is one name that suddenly makes the stunning sound on the album almost a bit understandable: Frank Zappa. Zappa, who had just completed his first solo record since leaving The Mothers Of Invention, seems the perfect producer and collaborator for the highly experimental approach of Captain Beefheart. Though Zappa does lend his voice to a pair of tracks on the album, it was moreso his approach to the actual recording process that impacted the album. The songs for the record were composed by Beefheart (real name Don Glen Vilet) in a most unusual fashion. As the story goes, Vilet, who had never played piano, composed randomly on the piano until he found a melody or rhythmic pattern that he liked. Once he found one, drummer John French would transcribe his patterns into proper musical notation for the rest of the band. The duo would then take all of the fragments and piece them together into larger compositions, and assign the pieces to different instruments. The resulting product often sounds as if the band is working through a "free jazz" improvisation, yet the reality is, they are playing a strictly orchestrated arrangement.

Though many musicians have gone through the ranks of The Magic Band, the lineup found on Trout Mask Replica is easily the finest single grouping of the band. The music ranges from wild, chaotic celebrations of noise to very classic sounding blues numbers. On the more "normal" end of the spectrum, there is the completely improvised, "China Pig." Recorded on a cassette recorder at Vilet's home (with former Magic Band member Doug Moon on guitar), the song is as simple and standard a blues song as you'll find anywhere. The two songs that fall on either side of "China Pig" present such a stark contrast that the shift in mood is almost unsettling. Guitarist Jeff Cotton and Bill Harkleroad play absolutely flawlessly on Trout Mask Replica, and the duo remain two of the most highly respected guitarists in history. Shifting on a dime from crushing chords to intricate finger picking and then to slide guitar, it is nothings short of stunning that ALL of the music for the entire album was recorded in a single recording session (though the band had practiced for months beforehand). John French is easily one of the most talented drummers in history, and his ability to constantly adapt for the tempo and style changes, as well as attending to the myriad of non-drum percussive requirements is extraordinary. The final two members of this incarnation of The Magic Band were Mark Boston on bass, and Vilet's cousin, Victor Hayden on bass clarinet. While the latter is often lost in the mix of musical mayhem, Boston's bass takes on multiple personas throughout Trout Mask Replica, and it is often mistaken for other instruments. As has been proven throughout the history of music, even the strangest, most seemingly chaotic music, can still be truly amazing when it is being performed by exceptionally talented musicians.

Much like the music, the voice, delivery, and lyrics of Captain Beefheart are beyond unmistakable. Somewhere between Tom Waits and Howlin' Wolf, you'll find a sound that isn't quite exactly like the voice of Captain Beefheart. Raspy, full of energy, yet strangely disjointed from the music at times, the vocals on Trout Mask Replica represent another display of the human voice being used less as a vehicle for lyrical delivery, and more as an additional instrument. Even when Beefheart sings acappella, in the way he chooses where to pause and inflect his voice, there is still an element is beyond simply traditional "singing." It is clear to anyone that a majority of the vocals seem to be a bit off time from the rest of the music. It is mostly due to the fact that, during the recording process, Beefheart was in a separate vocal booth, and refusing to wear headphones, he "sang" to the reverberations coming from the studio monitor speakers. However, the vocals are close enough that, not only do the songs only sound slightly disjointed, but the odd separation actually works in the favor of the overall sound. A majority of the lyrics on Trout Mask Replica are basically strange, surrealist poetry. Filled with nonsense and borrowed phrasings, Beefheart took the ideals of "free jazz" and be-bop, fused them with the beat poetry style, and in the process created an entirely new way of being a "singer."

One can call the music of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band strange, avant, and genius until the end of the world, but until you experience it first hand, you simply cannot grasp the amazing brilliance in their music. The way in which the band experiments with the elements of jazz, be bop, blues, and rock music produces a sound that remains unmatched to this day. Legendary radio DJ, John Peel, stated it best when he said in 1997, ""If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart…I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I'll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week." Truly a match even for the wild styles of Frank Zappa, the influence of Captain Beefheart can be found in everything from punk to hip hop. Trout Mask Replica was also no small effort by the band, with the original pressing spreading a full twenty-eight songs over four sides of two records. With many of the songs clocking on at well over three and a half minutes, the sheer amount of music on the album is enough to make it significant in its own right. While both the music as well as the overall catalog of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band are rather sizable and intimidating, their 1969 album, Trout Mask Replica, is a work of genuine musical genius and well beyond an essential for all music collections.

Standout tracks: "Moonlight On Vermont," "China Pig," and "When Big Joan Sets Up."

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