In the spring of 1969, the inauspicious release of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica, a double-album featuring 28 stream-of-consciousness songs filled with abstract rhythms and guttural bellows, dramatically altered the pop landscape. Yet even if the album did cast its radical vision over the future of music, much of the record's artistic strength is actually drawn from the past.
This book examines how Beefheart's incomparable opus, an album that divided, rather than united, a pop audience, is informed by a variety of diverse sources. Trout Mask Replica is a hybrid of poetic declarations inspired by both Walt Whitman and the beat poets, the field hollers of the Delta Blues, the urban blues of Howlin' Wolf, the gospel blues of Blind Willie Johnson, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. This book illustrates how Trout Mask Replica was not so much an arcane specimen of the avant-garde, but rather a defiantly original declaration of the American imagination.
Narrator Andy Caploe gives an excellent performance of this edition of the series 33 1/3. The music in question is Trout Mask Replica, by the band Captain Beefheart. Narrator Caploe's voice is low and musical, and conveys the same level of engagement in reading the text as the author, Kevin Courrier, conveys in writing it. This is a passionate, in-depth look at Trout Mask Replica, and includes history and analysis of the music as well as the author's personal biography as it relates to his love for this band.
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A live one.
Whether you are a fan of the good Captain's music or not, this, his most celebrated LP certainly makes for one of the worthiest subjects of this series of books. The making of the album is an extraordinary tale of a spectacularly iconoclastic artist imposing his vision upon us and his long, long suffering collaborators.
It's a story of far more intrinsic interest than the majority of those behind the creation of music LPs --so much so that I suspect that this is one instance where you don't even need to be terribly familiar with the actual music in order to enjoy the book. Don Van Vliet was a truly remarkable character emerging out of an extraordinary cultural milieu (late 60s California) and the way the period is tangentially evoked is a big part of the pleasure to be had here.
As an historical overview, this is a pretty fair-handed and well-informed one. It touches all the key bases and doesn't overly pander to the posturing fandom often associated with the Zappa/Beefheart crowd. Although the author's devotion does slip into hyperbolic overdrive from time to time (you probably won't agree with some of his 'insights'), it's not as excessive as too often tends to be the case for my taste in the 33 1/3 series (and rock writing generally).
Importantly, the band's vital collaborative contribution to the music is emphasised and Beefheart's image as cult hero and central creative force behind TMR isn't permitted to unfairly overshadow the others.
Having said that, be warned that this is very much the American school of rock journalistic essay mode of writing. It's a bit poe-faced and self-consciously a contribution to positioning of Rock at the heart of cultural discourse sort of thing. The author is serious Zappa fan, after all.
As cultural commentator, though Kevin Courrier is at pains to bring out the influence of the visual arts on Beefheart's approach to music (particularly Dada and Abstract Expressionism), this rather obvious point isn't really gone into terribly insightfully I thought. In fact I felt the positioning of the album as important cultural artefact was a bit tenuous. Here it's individuality is more convincingly stressed in terms of the Rock context specifically rather the general one. But the thesis presented is not as pretentious as this may make it sound and the main thing is that basically the book is a cracking story: a fun-filled trip well told.
On the down side I have to say that I hated Andy Caploe's 'actorly' approach to the narration. I would have much preferred a more neutral reader. Anyone who didn't try to evoke the distinctive speaking manner of the likes of Beefheart and Zappa would have been better. When he's not performing characters like it was a novel, Mr. Caploe sounds like an ernest nerdy American fan, ponderously chewing up the text.
This overly mannered delivery is distracting. And hard work until you get used to it. I felt it made the thing impossible to listen to in a single listening. But to be fair, the content is so rich that it would be a bit much to manage in one go anyway.