This album has a goddamn long history. All of these tracks were recorded by Beefheart and the 'Magic Band' in October/November 1967 and were intended for his second album, to be called Mirror Man. Naturally, though, they were sacked by the record company who sure didn't expect the guy to rev up in his ferocious eccentricity at such a high speed. Still later, in 1968, some of these tracks were patched up by a producer and released in far less 'offensive' form as the Cap'n's second official album, Strictly Personal (without Beefheart's consent either!).
Still later, some of the original sessions were taken up and issued in 1975 as Mirror Man, presumably with the aim of restoring Beefheart's spoiled reputation after the two 'disastrously commercial' 1974 albums. Finally, still later, as late as 1999, the entire sessions, or at least, a major part of them, were salvaged and put together on one CD to form this disc. So naturally, this is the one album to have if you're interested in the progressing schizophrenia of Monsieur Coeur-de-Boeuf.
What's out here? Nine tracks, spread over 76 minutes - a stark contrast with the short near-minimalism of Trout Mask Replica. As the album progresses, the average running time of the tracks grows shorter, but the first four of them easily break the ten/twelve/fifteen minute barrier and run even further. And these aren't really complex progressive epics taking you in all possible directions; nope, these are lengthy sprawling blues jams, with two guitars, a harmonica and a mean old (er, young) bearded guy shouting out senseless lyrics about riding on tarotplanes and reformed candy corn.
They are not even really 'defiant' as far as typical blues structures go. There's almost no dissonance, even if the guitars aren't exactly meant to easily coordinate with each other; there's a lot of memorable riffs all over the place, and there are no 'solos' in the traditional sense, if you don't count the harmonica.
But dammit, I like this stuff. Now let me see, of course 19 minutes for something as stripped-down as 'Tarotplane' is is a bit TOO long, and the same goes for 'Mirror Man' and '25th Century Quaker'. But they certainly have an aura to them ('kiss my aura, Dora', as ol' Frank would say!), a strange aura of mystery and evilness that can't be transcribed all too well. It certainly has a lot of Beefheart's deconstructive mystification going on - essentially, like on TMR, they're playing this stuff to befuddle and confuse the listener, but it actually works better on here because there's no better way to befuddle and confuse the listener than to entice him with a musical form (generic blues) he thinks he knows too well and then suddenly transform it into a launchpad for something that eccentric.
These lengthy jams are essentially grooves. What do we like about grooves? The rhythm. The energy. In a metaphoric sense, a groove is as good as a certain pattern of life. You take upon a groove in the same way as you go through a certain life experience, be it funny, brutal, or sad. And these grooves certainly have that 'pattern' approach to them - only where a typical blues jam can be associated with life as it is, a Beefheart groove should be associated with life as it could be.
If I don't make myself clear, let me just remind you that this is a Captain Beefheart review. What did you expect, some Bay City Rollers algorhythm? If that's the case, I could remind you that '25th Century Quaker' possesses a first-rate slide guitar riff, with a strange Eastern flavor to it, and is thus fit for meditating to it. The best of all these lengthy tracks, though, is 'Kandy Korn', which begins almost as a pop song, with a funny vocal melody and an upbeat poppy bassline, but then goes into this lengthy and very jangly instrumental passage which is downright uplifting after all the subtle evil of the preceding three blues jams.
Then there are five shorter songs which are all in the same vein (i.e., they could all be fifty minutes just as well). 'Safe As Milk', which never made it to the original album, certainly rules... what's that, something like a country-rocker crossed with hard rock patterns? Something like that, ending in a competition to determine the best 'string scraper' for miles around.
'Beatle Bones 'N' Smokin' Stones' is supposedly a sneering attack on the meaningless 'psychedelic' lyrics of the Beatles and the Stones circa 1967, although the very idea of a rambling beatnik poet deriding a rambling psychedelic poet might seem kinda queer. At the best, it's WAY subtler and more 'polite' than Zappa's derision of the entire hippie counter-culture. You gotta love the Cap'n singing 'strawberry fields forever', too.
'Moody Liz' and 'Gimme Dat Harp Boy' have their moments, too, and you know what? The mean old Cap'n knows how to attract your attention, because every now and then out of all the trippy jamming jumps out a little pretty riff, like you know, very pretty, the one you could have been waiting for all your life! Like on 'Moody Liz', at 2:15 into the song. And then it goes away and you're waiting for it to come back, and it does! It does!
I'm gonna bring you to a conclusion now, because this review isn't really getting anywhere at all. You might want to know why the album earns a 9 when it sounds nothing like Safe As Milk and is universally deemed inferior to TMR. My irrational answer will be short and will go like this: "because it pleases my inner organs just as much as Safe As Milk and much more than TMR". My rational answer will not be much longer and will go like this: "because it still manages to preserve a good balance between accessible understandable music and eccentric weirdness". That said, you have to grow yourself some tolerance towards long unterminable blues jams. Maybe getting yourself some live Cream albums wouldn't be a bad idea.
by George Starostin
1. Tarotplane - 19:06
2. 25th Century Quaker - 9:48
3. Mirror Man - 15:44
4. Kandy Korn - 8:04
5. Trust Us - 7:20
6. Safe as Milk - 4:12
7. Beatle Bones N' Smokin' Stones - 3:09
8. Moody Liz - 4:30
9. Gimme Dat Harp Boy - 3:31
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
*Captain Beefheart – Vocals, Harmonica, Oboe
*Alex St. Clair Snouffer – Guitar
*Jeff Cotton – Guitar
*John French – Drums
*Jerry Handley – Bass
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