Sunday, December 20, 2009

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Doc at the Radar Station

Although I was a huge fan of Frank Zappa since the late 60’s/early 70’s (whenever it was that I first heard We’re Only In It for the Money – still my favorite Zappa record), and though I think I saw Beefheart with Zappa once (though my memories of that era are often dimmed with time and abuses), I never really discovered the Captain until my “noise phase” in the early 80’s. This was probably one of the first records of his that I heard and that surely has something to do with the fact that it is also one of my favorites.

Starting off with an off-time guitar riff, “Hot Head” is actually a sing-along tune in a demented way. The Magic Band’s interplay in this and throughout the entire record is difficult to wrap your head around as it all sounds like it shouldn’t work at all, but it somehow does. They manage to keep the tempo moving so that it practically rocks, despite the dissonance and a-rhythmic qualities. But, I have always loved those who traverse the edge and this easily sounds like it could collapse into complete chaos at any moment, yet never completely does.

More of the same in “Ashtray Heart” – catchy yet crazy and somehow relatable – “she used me like an ash tray heart”. While no one might have previously thought of it in those terms, you know immediately exactly what he means. This does break down a bit more than “Hot Head”, which seems fitting considering the subject matter!

“A Carrot is as close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” is still a little disjointed, but is a downright pretty interlude before “Run Paint Run Run” with another infectious rhythm and group vocals propelling it along. Driven by a noisy slide guitar and no percussion, “Sue Egypt” remains bouncy and memorable with its balance of cacophony and pretty embellishments that fight for supremacy.

“Brickbats” is a free-form jazz odyssey that shows off the tightness of the band, and continues to highlight Beefheart's bizarre lyrical content. The crazy interaction of the band is again prominent in “Dirty Blue Gene” which is almost impossible to follow as individual instruments, so you have no choice but to take it as a maddening whole. I love the line “she’s not bad, she’s just genetically mean”.

This is followed by “Best Batch Yet”, which is one of the less distinct numbers on the record, though maybe that might be due to the fact that it has some of the more standard rhythms here, though that is definitely subjective! A couple more short interludes are “Telephone” and “Flavor Bud Living”, which don’t really have time to gel, but are interesting, nonetheless.

There is some terrific guitar interplay and riffs in “Sheriff of Hong Kong” and the song churns along with cool energy and electric power. Much more of a spoken piece (though still accompanied by the band) is “Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee”, with Don’s insane wordplay.

This record is a wild mix of jazz, punk and avant noise ala the early Velvet Underground and as I love all of those elements, I totally dig this, but some might find it a little hard to take.

A friend of mine told me a story of seeing the Magic Band at the Troubadour in Los Angeles early on and while he didn’t really care for them, something made him stick around for the second show (by hiding under the stage, as I remember the story!) and after seeing them again, he was hooked and a loyal fan! I can totally understand this – they are kinda jarring, but something makes you wanna hear it again and again.

I know that Trout Mask Replica is supposed to be the ultimate Captain Beefheart record, but to me, this is one of his best.

(The good Captain is also an acclaimed artist and his painting adorns the cover of this record.)