Friday, December 17, 2010
Captain Beefheart (1941-2010)
Trout Mask Replica is the most fucked up, most avant garde, most indescribable album to ever enter the rock and roll canon. I've been listening to it for years and I still have yet to figure out what the hell it is. The track that sticks with me the most, "Orange Claw Hammer", can be heard above. It comes up so often on shuffle that I think it's haunting me.
Alternatively dissed (Christgau: "Very great played at high volume when you're feeling shitty, because you'll never feel as shitty as this record") and praised to the skies by critics, I think John Peel said it best: "If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work." I think the dissonance and delusion and disregard for the audience are things that maybe you can only latch onto if you are an artist or have experience with that sort of postmodern frenzy. This isn't to say that you can't think it sucks. After a decade or so of listening to it, I haven't figured out whether or not it's any good myself. But it's compelling and I keep coming back to it, so that's something.
Captain Beefheart is the nom de art of Don Glen Vliet, a child prodigy at sculpture who soon turned to painting and the blues. He was a high school friend of Frank Zappa, and makes Zappa look square, so that should give you an idea of what we're dealing with here. What I've heard from earlier albums from His Magic Band was more blues-oriented and traditional compared to what they recorded in 1968. He had accomplished musicians play unfamiliar instruments in unfamiliar ways and created melodic and rhythmic patters almost randomly but assembled the parts in deliberate ways that were performed exactly. The end result was a tension between skill and naivete and formal construction and improvisation. Plenty of people dismiss this potent stew as the work of tripping hippies banging away at instruments, but then they level that sort of tired accusation at anything more complex and unfamiliar than Thomas Kincaid. Think whatever you want, as long as you think about it. Let me know when you figure it out.