A Review Of Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica: Side One.
By Nick Saunders. 14th July 2020
If you’ve ever been recommended this album by a friend you’ll likely already have a lot of preconceived notions just from hearing the title. It’s bad, a joke, pretentious or cacophonous. It’s an album a lot of listeners are introduced to because of how strange it is or how weird and “out there” it’s perceived to be. Its reputation most certainly precedes this record.
You may have heard anecdotes from the recording sessions about Don Van Vilet or Captain Beefheart as he was known, throwing drummer John French down a flight of stairs because he couldn’t “play a strawberry” on the drums. You might have heard that the group were recruited for their young age and naivety by Don and were effectively kept under house arrest for months on end as Don acted as both director and dictator, pushing them to their absolute limits with sleep deprivation and ritualistic recording sessions. People want to see your reaction when you hear Trout Mask Replica for the first time. They want to know your thoughts immediately. Even the surrealist horror of the album cover pushes you away with one hand and pulls you back with the other.
The fact that Frank Zappa “produced” this record just adds to the intrigue and mystery. It’s said Zappa kept a very hands-off approach and allowed the band to record most of the songs in a functionally live recording environment. From most accounts, Zappa wanted to interfere with this project as little as possible.
All of these notions aren’t without merit. On first listen this album is headache-inducing and maddening. It took me around seven years to finally finish the album and even then I couldn’t say I outright enjoyed it. I appreciated it sure, I liked what it was trying to achieve but could you ever really enjoy this record? Yes. This album is an arduous listen but if you put in the work your reward is ten-fold. You might not enjoy this album even after eight or nine full listens but throughout its 28 tracks are little pinholes of light through the thick, suffocating fog and tangled vines of melody. With every listen these pinholes expand until finally, you can see it for what it is. A beautiful, quite traditional, blues & jazz-inspired rock album.
The album begins with the track “Frownland”. We’re immediately thrown in at the deep end. Several instruments are playing seemingly different songs at the same time and in different time signatures. The guitar jags and juts as the bass guitar happily bobs along in the background. The drums aimlessly putter about and then like lightning Don’s voice cuts through the noise and provides a strong backbone to the song, pulling each instrument toward him. He opens with the lyrics “My smile is stuck, I cannot go back to your frownland” and if you can focus on the lyrics you’ll realize this song is about turning away from what has come before and finding a paradise to be free from pain “Where a man can stand by another man, Without an ego flying, With no man lying, And no one dying by an earthly hand”. Pretty standard stuff for the era although poetically written as was the Captain’s forte.
Before you have much chance to react the song is over and the second track “The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back” starts. A lo-fi ode was sung solely by Don without any backing instruments recorded on what sounds like the cheapest device available. The jaunting nature that’s shown here certainly doesn’t do much to dispel the myths. Its placement on the album is seemingly out of sync with the previous track although its placement would arguably feel the same anywhere on the tracklist. The song feels almost Syd Barrett-esque with it’s twisted fairy tale imagery and a tale of fishing with a girl named “Bimbo Limbo Spam” upon a backdrop of “white flake river-boats” passing by, and hands “full o worms and pole fishin’ with a cork bobbin’ like a hot red bulb”. The imagery is quite playful and soft with an edge that feels like it could be ripped directly from an acid nightmare.
This album is full of extreme juxtapositions and after hearing the previous child-like ditty we’re forced back into a song that brings forth imagery of the holocaust where we find Don “still crying ‘bout the burning back in world war two” and “sweet little children with eyes rolling back in their heads crying please stop the misery” and then turning towards the future with lines like “begging the lord don’t let the third one land”. The vocals are low and almost sultry though tinged with a straining madness. The saxophone meanders and wails as though it’s crying out for its mother. The guitar replays sharps lines changing speed and tempo throughout as though it’s looking for its misplaced car keys while the drums sweetly pop along. The end of the track has a brief outro from Mark Boston which sounds like a half recorded conversation where he states “it’s attracted a lot of rats” and “he took a stitch ‘beatin’ them. Thrashing them, hit them hard to get them out of there”. As the track fades out he ends with “Then started shooting em up the walls directions and on the wall thought he was gonna get killed. Certainly in the second world war comparisons between Jews and rodents were made often and perhaps that was the idea when including this snippet.
The next track, “Ella Guru” comes marching in with a gorgeous, lazy distorted guitar perfectly matching Don’s relaxed frame of voice on the verses. The lyrics spray and spit here about a person “walkin’ looking like a zoo” and knowing “all the colours that nature do”. There are layered vocals with a high pitched almost chipmunk like refrain following each of Don’s lyrics that then lead up to one of the most catchy and powerful vocal melodies on the record. Although the lyrics on the chorus are repeated “Ella Guru, Ella Guru” it’s impossible not to notice the pop sensibilities here. We also have the famous phrasing “That’s right, the mascara snake, Fast and bulbous, tight also” which pops up again and again throughout the album. The song is succinct and riotous and probably one of the first songs you can grasp on to as a complete object until subsequent listens.
All the proto-melodic goodwill built upon the previous track is again pushed aside and we’re treated to a vocal-less cacophony that sounds like a free-form jam by the name of “Hair Pie: Bake 1”. If you know anything of the recording sessions you’ll already know nothing on this album was left to chance or not practised to death which makes the incredibly loose (even by the rest of the LPs standards) sounding and unstructured nature of the track pretty impressive. Once more we hear the squealing saxophone stuttering and meandering as if finding it’s footing on a steep ledge. Playfully enjoying the space it encompasses by itself for the first minute or so until it’s encroached upon by the guitar work increasing in volume, slamming and thrashing in a fairly restrained fashion shortly followed by light drum footsteps. The rhythm section gradually suffocating the brass until it’s volume is covered by each part becoming a solid living life form. Each section jumps to the foreground before being pulled back into the swelling mass beneath. I have to say I absolutely love this track. It’s like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew mixed with the arrogance of “Great Gig In The Sky” by Pink Floyd. It’s messy and brash and it doesn’t give a shit. This is further proven by the conversation attached at the end between Don and what appears to be some children who have wandered over to the house to see what the noise is. Although they say that they think the track is nice, you can almost feel the confusion and fear in their voices when speaking with the unhinged Captain Beefheart. Don confidently tells the children the composition is called “Neon Meate Dream Of An Octafish” and while the children try to process this he changes tack and admits that he’s mistaken and the song is called “Hair Pie”.
If there’s one song on Trout Mask Replica that you could get away with playing in the background at a house party it’s the next, “Moonlight On Vermont”. The guitar immediately rushes up to greet you with a very traditional blues-rock style opening that wouldn’t sound out of place on a thousand albums from the 1970s. Don’s growls burst on the scene like a howling wolf. As the structure starts to loosen around the verses with the instruments slightly falling back into the more jazz styled strutting the chorus barges through and thunders in crooning “that goes to show you what a moon can do”. The second chorus returns just as powerfully exclaiming that “everybody’s gone high society”. If Trout Mask Replica has anything resembling a fist bumper this is it. With its sing-along chant of “gimme that old-time religion, gimme that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you!” Don retains such presence and control of his voice the entire way through cementing his stature and command as frontman.
“Paducho Cadaver” starts with Don relaying once again that “a squid in a polythene bag is both fast and bulbous”. We then hear a joyful, bouncing rhythm walking along like a puppy with its head held high. This then slows and fades into twinkling and erratic guitar work, bending notes at points as Don meticulously and coolly tells the story of a girl driving along who “wears her past like a present” whilst the “pachucos start holding hands” and “sissys don’t dare to glance”. Once again we find the lyrics take on a structured and detailed yet relentlessly abstract quality. They keep a foot firmly in both camps and recall both the brush strokes of late Picasso and the long-form storytelling of Hemingway. Lyrics like these are where Don shines. He knows where he’s going but he doesn’t have the route planned out. The instruments pick up to an almost rockabilly level of jostling as he croons that “her skin is as smooth as the daisies”. We often find the instruments retain a strong level of connectivity with each other before finding their own path briefly before meeting up once again.
As the album seems to ebb and flows from quiet beauty to terror-inducing noise between each track enter “Bill’s Corpse” with Don tunelessly screaming and screeching almost aimlessly. Scrunching up his tunes and stretching them out as he saw fit. The vocals produced slightly higher than the other instruments which are left to their own devices, flitting and dancing around each other and Don as though they were all in separate rooms. The lyrics are, however, stunningly beautiful and rapturous with Don singing about “Various species grouped, together according to their past beliefs, the only way they ever all got together, was not in love but shameful grief”. Don seems to be lambasting the state of affair he finds his country in at the time and lashing out against lady liberty and her falsities.
“Sweet, Sweet Bulbs” is another song that initially conjures images of fairy tales with its garden imagery and flowers with brave faces. However the longer you pay attention the easier it is to grasp lyrics like “her hominy smile, her hominy snatch” and “Her garden gate swings lightly without weight, open to most anyone that needs a little freedom, for God’s sake, oh, come as many as you can, In dark or light you’re free to grow as flowers, Share her throne and use her toothbrush, And spend some interesting hours” we can see like all the best songs about fucking, Don sends us one way whilst subtly telling us another story. Although the chorus’ are relatively directionless this is another song that can easily be gravitated towards early on.
One of the themes of Trout Mask Replica seems to be introducing ideas and songs earlier on in the record with them either reoccurring or becoming apparent later on. “Neon Meate Dream Of An Octafish” was mentioned at the end of “Hair Pie: Bake 1” when Don mistakenly gets the titles confused. It’s not hard to see how he got the two confused. Although NMDOAO contains psychedelic vocals wet around the edges with a distorting reverberation the musical portion of the track has a lot in common with Hair Pie. Whilst not as loose a structure as Hair Pie, this title has a similar feel and contends with wailing sax, climbing and falling guitars picking at the seams and drums puttering gently around the edges. The composition feels like it could easily stretch on forever but then it dies as quickly as it rose. Lyrically it’s a word soup of phrasing and language. Smatterings of meaning mix like paint tossed gently with repetitive themes and rhymes bouncing off each other.
“China Pig” finds Don with a lonely blues guitar, stripped back and almost naked compared to the previous song. Don’s vocals are quiet to the point it’s difficult to make out the lyrics whilst a blues standard is plucked and prodded over the top. In the latter portion, you can hear Don jiving and clucking like Muddy Waters. The production is similar to “Dust Blows Forward..” and retains the very lo-fi production. I find this song to be one of the few tracks that doesn’t have too much to hold my interest but your mileage may vary. It certainly doesn’t feel out of place but I feel its omission would not have left a hole.
“My Human Gets Me Blues” is another of my favourite tracks and exudes the bone-rattling vigour Don excelled at. His voice shakes and moves the earth as he yells and punctuates the silence left by “China Pig”. The snares and cymbals move quickly, a focused effort that drops in and out around repetitive guitar lines. Basslines come out of nowhere and rest just under Don as he rumbles and roars. The lyrics were seemingly written at a time when Don and drummer John French were not on good terms although it’s unclear whether any of the lyrics have any real cohesive gel. The line “The way you were dancin’, I knew you’d never come back, You were strainin’ to keep your, Old black cracked patent shoes” were possibly written about John’s tap-dancing but then he starts the song with the lyric “I saw you baby dancin’ in your x-ray gingham dress, I knew you were under duress, I knew you were under your dress” and later mentions “Dress you the way he wants cause he never had a doll, ’Cause everybody made him a boy, And God didn’t think to ask his preference” in a possible reference to gender fluidity although I don’t think it’s clear whether it’s mentioned here earnestly or in jest.
The track “Dali’s car” brings the first half of the album to a close but was initially the first song Don and John wrote for these sessions. Since Don had no formal musical training he had John transcribe the intricate, chaotic passages in this instrumental composition so the others could play them. Taking Don’s ideas directly from his head and turning them into something tangible. From the first opening chords, de-tuned and slack then followed by soft twinkling notes, it’s worth noting how perfectly it sums up the entirety of Trout Mask Replica. Dirge and beauty constantly blending and mixing to create something completely unlike any of the parts on their own.
If you’ve made it this far into this album for the first time, congratulations. It’s not an easy ride but it’s not meant to be. Trout Mask Replica exists to challenge the listener and to subvert ideas. It’s purposefully obtuse and confusing. Its manic structure is unlike any other album recorded by a rock band and has far more in common with Ornette Coleman or the Bitches Brew era of Miles Davis. I feel that TMR was never intended to be listened to in one long stretch. It’s longer than most commutes after all so I will end the review of the first half here and return for the second at some point in the future. I promise you though, if you keep at it this album it will open up for you and occupy your thoughts for a long time to come. Even if you never enjoy it fully you will certainly never forget it and all art should strive for that in some form or another.