HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

11 October 2009

Captan Beefheart and His Magic Band - 'Trout Mask Replica' (Reprise)

It feels like the Underbite has hit on a bunch of classic/infallible/etc. albums lately but looking back it's really just this and Pet Sounds. But I should stick to my policy of trying to actually say something new, worthwhile and (I guess) personal about these rather than repeating clichés and foregone conclusions. So what can I actually draw from listening to this, for the millionth time? The words flow by like a river, albeit one very familiar; pause button edit techniques recall Gyson but i think of Anton Bruhin dancing with Charles Olson. I used to listen to this and be amazed at the logical patterns that emerge, for example the ending rodeo of 'Pachuco Cadaver'. Now I just try to feel it - it's all about Drumbo for me tonight. The Captain may have been pissed off at John French (leaving him off the credits) but at least he was smart enough to keep him prominent in the mix. The date printed on the back of this cover reveals this to be a late 70's reissue, and it's in great shape so I can hear every wispy cymbal flick and thud-thud. About midway through you need a break, which is why I can't imagine listening to this on CD. It's not the most demanding record ever made - I am listening to it quite casually - but it's such a complete vision that it feels like one complete symphony in 28 movements. Yeah yeah yeah, this'll get the "changed music forever" tag of course, but what's remarkable is listening in sequence cause I just did Strictly Personal and Mirror Man - even though those are 'transitional' works, blending between the edgy 4/4 stomp of Safe as Milk and more open, damaged compositions -- it's still a giant leap forward from that stuff to Trout Mask Replica. It helps that everything gel'd into a summit of personal expression and power - not just the utterly demented approach to rock songwriting, but the artwork and lyrics have stepped it up a few notches. 'Martian blues' is what they always call this stuff right? Sure, you can hear the remnants of that tradition especially in stuff like 'China Pig' but really, entire genres of music and thousands of musicians have still never progressed past this album. And no one has ever really equaled it as an accomplishment either. The raw sexuality of Beefheart's lyrics has always seemed like the perfect fit for music at least somewhat based in the blues - and it's pretty flagrant here, like 'My Human Gets Me Blues' and 'Big Joan'. The soprano sax that spits out all over this album makes sense too - I mean, that's the load he's shooting right? Also, 'Veterans Day Poppy', with it's awesome half-time bridge and Vietnam-era lyrics is a hell of a closer, and one of the most underrated Beefheart songs in general. Raw, primitive, insert whatever adjectives you usually read here -- it's all true, and it's maybe one of the pieces missing from earlier records. The story that's emerged from Drumbo and the others, about how this record was created through a brutal cult-like regiment, should make the bleeding hearts among us reevaluate Trout Mask's greatness, but I don't really care. Does anyone believe something this intense could be created through normal conditions? I like how certain songs reveal more traditional music characteristics, for example 'She's Too Much For My Mirror' has chord changes that remind me of Steely Dan or something. This is probably not the point, but rather a bad habit that I gravitate towards when trying to re-evaluate the very familiar.

9 October 2009

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - 'Strictly Personal' (Blue Thumb)

Strictly Personal is always a bit savaged in the record guides, claiming that Bob Krasnow ruined it with his overtly 'crazy' production. I used to think this was nonsense and that Strictly Personal was underrated, great even -- but listening now I agree that Krasnow is to blame for whatever is lacking here. This isn't so much because it's whacked out with reverb and flange (cause those parts are cool, like some dub-blues-psych hybrid) but because the production is just bad. If you listen to the first part of 'Trust Us', the drums sound like they're being played underwater (though not in a good way), and the whole performance feels like the highs and lows have been sucked out, leaving only a gross-timbred middle section. I understand that the technique of rock music production wasn't as developed in 1968 but given how many other amazing records came out at this time , I don't why they couldn't get this one right. Again, it's a shame because Don's songwriting has developed another stage in its complexity, with some proto-Trout Mask brilliance. 'Son of Mirror Man - Mere Man' is one work of genius, even despite the mismatched levels and farty bass sound. I've always wondered about that title - is 'Mere Man' the name of Mirror Man's son, or is this song about the son of someone named 'Mirror Man-Mere Man'? This song though enters a new realm of melting ice cream on the hoods of racecars - a realm opened just earlier with the bendy overlapping end of 'Trust Us'. Side two opens with 'On Tomorrow', a dark screaming song that melts into the sublime 'Beetle Bones n' Smokin' Stones', a taste of the animal-deranged vocal stylings that the good Captain later became famous for. The Mirror Man Sessions CD has the better, longer, unaffected versions of a lot of these tracks (like 'Kandy Korn') and overall is a better listen -- probably one that renders Strictly Personal obsolete -- but we'll get there on the Cinderblock tip soon enough. The good moments here are great though and it's certainly a transitional work. Though the Beefheartian vibe is true California all the way, I manage to incorrectly assign a imagistic geography that places it in some weird South that may actually be under the surface of the Earth's crust. Certainly the bluesy deconstructions are responsible for this, but they weren't consciously thinking about deconstruction when creating these records (at least I hope not!) so maybe that's why it actually rocks pretty hard.

6 October 2009

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band - 'Safe as Milk' (Buddah)

Here's an eccentricity of my filing - I file Beefheart records under B, not under C. Usually I go by surname, ie: Roy Harper under H, with exceptions if the name is fake (Henry Cow does not go under C). By this logic Captain Beefheart is a C, yet I just so completely think of them as "Beefheart" records that B is what's natural. Safe as Milk is pretty visionary, if not totally 'unfuckwithable'. Part of what makes it great is the uncertainty of that vision. Here we have nascent Van Vliet which is the first of many periods. Nascent, then Singular (Trout Mask + Decals of course), then Fumbling (to which I'd even add The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot to the two that everyone disowns) and then that wonderful late period Rebirth. Safe as Milk lurches around between post-garage tunes teetering on the edge of novelty ('Yellow Brick Road') to absolute scorchers ('Electricity', 'Zig Zag Wanderer'), with a few diversions into balladry ('When There's Woman', and 'I'm Glad' which is like Tom Jones channeled through the ol' brickbats). And then songs that seem to fall in-between, like 'Autumn's Child'. Many of these songs are a lot more complex than you would think, full of changes and weird melodic movements, but it still sounds 'direct' (probably because I'm comparing it to Trout Mask). 'Electricity' has this squealing guitar that sounds like a theremin or something, and it pops up throughout the song, which is one of those details I try to listen for when hearing a record I've heard a bunch of times before. There's a cloud of 60's production haze around these songs that Beefheart never really revisited; Strictly Personal goes off the deep end with studio effects and then the 60's were over, weren't they? I like that - at times you could almost imagine these cuts alongside something by Love, maybe on a California radio station.

3 October 2009

Beach Boys - 'Smiley Smile' (Capitol)

I have a confession to make - I'm a very late bloomer with the Beach Boys. Actually, I listened to a greatest hits tape a lot when I was in 2nd grade - stuff like 'Help me Rhonda', 'Surfin' Safari', 'In My Room', 'I Get Around' - so maybe that makes me an early bloomer. But it's only in the past 12 months that I really went back and got into SMiLE and post- records. I mean, I've always been cool with that stuff, always liked Pet Sounds as much as everyone else and enjoyed what I've heard of the 70's records, but I never had the total psychedelic breakthrough that was purported to be there lurking in the hours of incoherent SMiLE bootlegs (if only you could have the energy to assemble it yourself). The 2004 Brian Wilson version was decent enough, I guess, but hardly the stuff of legend. And this copy of Smiley Smile's been on my shelf for years, which I used to play just to hear 'Heroes and Villains'. But at some point last year I gave SMiLE another chance, and oh boy, did it hit me. I think everyone just needs to find their own most satsifying SMiLE bootleg. In my case, it was the "Purple Chick" edition (which I'm sure some savvy Googlers can find elsewhere on Blogspot), which rather unconventionally attempts to assemble a coherent version of SMiLE by following the 2004 edition's sequencing and titles, but 95% drawn from the 60s outtakes. There's a few occasions where they have to put the 2004 mix in for a few bars, usually just to link sections together, but I forgive this - it's an incredible package and a feat of excellent editing, and it comes across as the brilliant, almost perfect vision that it's meant to be. For a lot of last winter I would fall asleep listening to this version on headphones, hearing a million screaming voices in the background murk of 'Barnyard' and having American-spiritualist allegorical hallucinations during 'Cabinessence'. I've seen the light, as the saying goes, and maybe the fact that I had to 'work' a bit makes it more special -- I mean, what if you could go down to Best Buy and plunk down some cash for the real legit SMiLE? But now a decade-plus of rock, pop and psychedelic obsessions make sense. Maybe I should go back and listen to those High Llamas records I dismissed back in college. Anyway, to get back to the topic at hand, Smiley Smile - going back to this after hearing the unfinished majesty of the real SMiLE is difficult. Really, I find it almost unbelievable that B. Wilson would even allow this to be released. This is really the sound of giving up - the troubled perfectionist who says 'fuck it!' and just dumps out whatever he cares about the least to make a product. Am I being hard on Smiley Smile? I think not. The version of 'Heroes and Villains' is weak compared to any of the bootleg versions (though it's such an amazing tune that it still stands up even in this form) and 'Vegetables' immediately follows. But there ends the highlights. 'She's Going Bald' is a promising beginning that ends in an unsatisfying bit of studio fuckery - hardly the worst Beach Boys track ever, but just a hint at the aborted "humour" component to SMiLE and so completely tossed off here that it's hard to really enjoy it. The casual becomes the sublime in 'Little Pad', one of the stronger songs even though there's not much to it. 'Good Vibrations' is 'Good Vibrations' but since that was a previously released single it doesn't really count, though it's sure nice to be included here in blistering mono. 'Wonderful' and 'Wind Chimes' are really frustrating because they just sound lazy compared to any of the bootleg outtakes - a lot of the instrumentation behind these tracks is a stripped down synth/organ, almost as if Brian played everything himself just to get it finished. 'Whistle In' ends the record on a forgettable bit of filler, which is all this record really is. Even when I hadn't properly Heard the real SMiLE outtakes, this felt like filler + a few good songs, which is generally how the public received it (if my history is correct). For those people who don't have the guts to venture into bootleg territory, this and a few songs from later records is all you'll get. ('Cabinessence' from 20/20 is perfect, and ditto for 'Surf's Up' when it finally appeared on the album of the same name). And that's hardly enough to base a myth on, so start here and then go find those bootlegs.

2 October 2009

Beach Boys - 'Pet Sounds' (Reprise)

It's nice to find this late 70's reissue cause it's actually in mono -- 'the way Brian cut it', according to the back - and when those thunderdrums crash in, you can really feel the thick mono moat. With records as classic as this, I find the act of logging these screeds in the Encourager Template a bit half-hearted. I don't really want to add to the rock canon inflation of Pet Sounds, nor do I feel any need to be contrarian -- it's a great record, where previously less relevant tracks will over time emerge for their day in the sun, and enough has been written about it already. At the moment it's 'Sloop John B' that endlessly revolves around my brain, drawing comparisons to other traditional versions I've heard (and Joseph Spence's awesome guitar pluckery-fuckery comes to mind), and side B's sleeper classic 'Here Today'. My camera is offline at the moment and I couldn't find an existing image of the cover I have online (which is the same photo as the classic green/yellow one, just with a dull brown border around it) so this will have to suffice. I'm kinda bummed I don't have more to say about this, but really, what else is there to say?