Thursday, January 13, 2011

Forever Strange

Captain Beefheart, a.k.a. Don Van Vliet, at left, with Trout Mask Replica producer and old chum Frank Zappa.

There are records, a great many of them, that sound just great the first or second time you hear them, and then quickly deteriorate in terms of interest or originality.

There are, also, records that are ahead of their time, ones that were perfectly alienating in their day and then, over time, as other artists come up to speed, begin to seem not that unusual.

And then, there are records, very few, that just plain stay strange, that never get ordinary, no matter when you hear them.

This is the case with Trout Mask Replica. It takes off like a rocket, goes far into deep space, and never comes back. It's still out there.

It's the most alienating, polarizing album in the entire history of rock music. Very much a love it or hate it experience, with little room in between. It's the kind of record many people hate on first listen, and then grow to love and admire. It is, also, the kind of record some people hate after repeated listenings. ("The problem is, after six plays, Trout Mask Replica still sounds fucking awful," writes John Harris in a 2006 Observer article.) But I seriously doubt anyone in either camp gets used to it. Forty years after it's release, it still jumps out of the stereo (or whatever device you may choose) and attacks you, demands to be reckoned with.

What is there to get? Well, it dawned on me yesterday, in the midst of listening to an earlier Beefheart album, Safe as Milk, which is definitely worth a listen to anyone with an interest in Trout Mask Replica.

Safe as Milk, first of all, gives the lie to anyone who thinks that Trout Mask is some kind of joke, that it's bad music performed by people who had no idea what they were doing. It's downright foot-tapping. The Magic Band (which in its earlier carnation featured a young Ry Cooder) was an exceptionally skilled blues band, backing a singer with a decidedly idiosyncratic, avant-garde sort of vision. Safe is a far more conventionally listenable experience, but you can hear where Beefheart was going with his future masterpiece.

I think of Trout Mask Replica as an act of both demolition and liberation. Destroy all tradition, destroy the past, go back in time to the first time someone ever picked up a guitar, pretend you are that person, and deliver your own barbaric yawp into the microphone. I'm not sure he wants your foot to tap. It looks back to Dadaist art, Jackson Pollock, and Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, and it looks forward to punk rock, Sex Pistols, and most definitely Tom Waits.

It's primitive, it's modern, and after a dozen listens, it still sounds fucking gorgeous.

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