Fran's Five Star Albums #2 | Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band - Trout Mask Replica | Elusive Little Comments

Trout Mask Replica is Captain Beefheart’s third album, released in 1969 and produced by Frank Zappa. The album is violently experimental, and may be the greatest surrealist, avant-garde album ever made. 

The album explodes with the opening track, Frownland. The guitars are almost completely out of time, the bass is seemingly random, and the drums sound like they are being hit by someone with no ears or sense of rhythm. Yet it works. It works really, really well. Beefheart’s violent, gruff voice mixes with the chaos perfectly, and makes the track sound defiant. It’s the perfect opener. Beefheart had found many difficulties with past record labels, due to having a lack of artistic freedom, and this song is like an explosion of creativity like no one had heard before. The lyrics themselves, the way in which he “will not go back to you frownland” even suggest the same thing. 

The Dust Blows Forward n’ The Dust Blows Back is a solo vocal track which is seemingly Captain Beefheart just spouting random sentences that rhyme. As a matter of fact, it probably is; in one interview, Beefheart said himself that he just recorded it sitting in his living room on a cassette. This may sound like The Dust Blows wouldn’t be a good track, but who hasn’t sung gibberish and made up rhymes off the top of their head at some point in their life? Children do it all the time, and Beefheart is a child. He is carefree and creative, his mind still soft and open even though he was 28 when he made this album. Perhaps this is what future music will sound like. It’s abstract, and some people don’t get it, but who needs realism when we have photographs and film? 

Dachau Blues is an anti-war song. The topic of the holocaust makes its lyrics poetic and brilliant, but the real highlight of this track is the music. It’s often suggested that you listen to Trout Mask Replica as it plays in the background, and this song is a perfect example, because the music is so interesting that parts will catch your ear. If background music catches your ear, then it is good music. It breaks your concentration and sparks interest. No pop songs can manage this, that’s why they play Top 40 Radio (or whatever it’s called nowadays) in offices and places of work; it’s easy to listen to without breaking people’s concentration. It isn’t interesting.

Pachuco Cadaver is probably my personal favourite from the album. Beefheart is intense with his lyrics on this one, and the poeticism is something else. It tells the story of a car, most probably a low rider (though it’s hard to tell with Captain Beefheart), and it does it with an abstract skill that only the Captain has. 

Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish is his description of a wet dream. The description is very pleasant; “Impaled on 'n daeman, Mucus mules, Twot trot tra la tra la,Tra la tra la tra la, Whale bone fields 'n belts”. If it doesn’t make sense to you, then don’t worry. The music is what really makes this song special. The trumpet(?) solo at the end sounds like a dying whale, and it is one of the most apocalyptic noises I've ever heard.

China Pig is most likely the easiest song on the album, and is mostly comprised of improvisation between Beefheart and guitarist Doug Moon. I’ve always thought of it as an ode to a piggy bank, and not many people have the ingenuity to create music about something so small and unimportant, but Beefheart does.  Making up lyrics on the spot is something quite unique to Beefheart. I personally think more musicians should do it. He is like the Jackson Pollock of music, just without the money.

Pena opens with speech, and the words “Fast ‘n’ Bulbous” are used quite a few times throughout this song and the entire album. There is a moment when you can hear laughter, and Beefheart laughs and says how he “loves those words”. This tiny introduction sums up Captain Beefhearts entire musical style for me. If it makes him laugh and it brings him some sort of joy, then he will make it. The lyrics to this track are spoken by Annetta Jimmy Semens instead of the Captain, and his high pitched voice cuts right into your ear drums. The hallucinatory descriptions of sex match the screaming in the background, and the screaming in turn matches the guitars. I’m not sure what sexual experiences Beefheart had that made him write these lyrics (“Out enjoying the sun while sitting on a turned on waffle iron, Smoke billowing up from between her legs, Made me vomit beautifully, And crush a chandelier”) but I would sure like to find out.

The next track is another solo vocal by Beefheart, Well, and it is deeply apocalyptic. It’s almost as though he is describing how it would feel to die. Big Joan Sets Up is the love song of the album. Beefheart is singing about a big ol’ lady who he wants to be with so long as she gains some self confidence. The intro is my favourite part, when Captain Beefheart mimics the violent guitar with his violent voice, and the song has some wonderful trumpet solos that could be described as jazz. Or maybe jazz if jazz was being stabbed violently with pieces of glass. 

Sugar ‘n Spikes is a two and a half minute description of big city life. It’s done in Beefheart’s incredibly unique way, and his style definitely matches the chaos and nausea of a big city; it is bluesy, poetic, and nothing matches. Every instrument does its own thing when it wants to, but they still work as one. 

The Blimp is another favourite from this brilliant album. The track consists of Captain Beefheart reciting a poem over the phone to Frank Zappa (which Zappa recorded), and this was then laid over a Mothers of Invention track. It finishes with laughter from Zappa as he says “that’s beautiful”, this sums up the album for me. Yes it is funny and a little bit batshit crazy, but it IS also beautiful. And I think that is what’s important.

One thing to think about is the fact that whenever this album was played live, Beefheart and his band would get it note for note, with no mistake. The entire thing is intentional, despite the fact he wrote it on the piano when it was his first ever time playing one. He actually used to play the sections while another band mate wrote them down, as Beefheart told him which instrument was which. Eventually, the Captain just said “You know what to do.” and made him guess which instrument was which. He even recorded his vocals with no headphones in an entirely different room, so he could only slightly hear the tracks from a window outside. Another thing to remember is that Beefheart locked his band in a shack for eight months while they wrote and recorded the album, and only ever let them leave to buy food once every week or so. If this doesn’t produce an interesting album, then no other techniques will.

The best way to think of this album is like an abstract painting, you can ask yourself “Is this art?” if you want, or you can laugh at it, or you may find some hidden beauty in it, or you may just write it off as rubbish, but you will definitely have an opinion on it. The album isn’t generic or easy going, and why should music be generic and easy going?

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