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While Trout Mask Replica is doubtless the Captain's most famous work, it has never sat well with me. I'm usually best with such things when I take a deep breath and throw some money at a copy and sit down with a sense of ownership, but I've yet to feel that compulsion regarding Trout Mask yet, so it remains dusty on the shelf of memory. Safe as Milk, however, does not suffer the "refuse to wear a headset, sing to the beat of studio leakage instead, leaving vocals out of sync" problem (?) that Trout Mask does. The Zappa connection--a guided run-down of Strictly Commercial from my father pushed me toward listening to the Mothers for the first time many years ago--did lend itself toward trying, but I don't always have the patience or right state of mind to deal properly with the weirdest of music, believe it or not (all depends on where the line is for you, past which music gets "weird"!)
I would hear songs like "Yellow Brick Road", "Zig Zag Wanderer", and "Sure Nuff 'n Yes, I Do" from behind me in the same room on occasion, and eventually they leaked into my consciousness. "Yellow Brick Road", in particular, I remember starting to click really well. I eventually sucked it up while living up there and picked up the album on CD, and, later, on vinyl, as it was a 180g reissue for a price that was quite reasonable indeed for the MSRP-laden pricing of teensy indie record stores "land-locked" into the mountains without competitors for sixty miles except each other.
The slide guitar that opens "Sure Nuff 'n' Yes, I Do" makes it clear immediately that the blues were the primary inspiration for the song. The gravel of Beefheart's (aka Don Van Vliet) voice is entirely appropriate for the music, bringing the right kind of soul to fit the sliding melody's blues. John French's drumming is not far off from what appears on recordings of Muddy Waters and Elmore James doing variations on the song best known as Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" (which the song is clearly based very directly upon), but it adds just a bit more to the rhythm than usually appeared there. There are conflicting reports as to who is responsible for that slide guitar, as Alex "St. Clair" Snouffer is credited for guitars, but Ry Cooder is known to have played on at least a few tracks, and some think this may be him as well (he is definitively credited as arranging it). It's the kind of uptempo blues that gets toes tapping uncontrollably, though, and the musicianship is absolutely in the right place for the song. Van Vliet is the star for a reason, though, of course: his voice is not just gravely, it's vaguely elastic, pulled upward to near cracks at moments, squashed, frog-like at others. It's never done with the feeling that it's to make anyone laugh, but there's no real pretension about it either--just emotive performance.
"Zig Zag Wanderer" is more unique, the guitar no longer slide-based, and Jerry Handley's bass playing as a near match for it. French plays the snare hits as short rolls, a neat touch that fits the groove of the song very well. When the guitars drop to let Van Vliet sing only with the rhythm section, French switches briefly to direct, single hits instead, that emphasize the space between Van Vliet's voice and the two remaining instruments. Much like "Sure Nuff 'n Yes, I Do", it has the kind of gut-tugging desire for movement and rhythm built into it that is the direct inheritance taken from the blues.
Seemingly somewhat out of place, "Call on Me" is more resonant of other late '60s rock, with a guitar that sounds vaguely Byrds-ian for much of the track, and a basic rock and roll drum beat. Beefheart's voice is more distinct in character than a lot of vocalists aimed for in that range of rock at the time, though: the gravel and the push and pull for emotion he takes from his influences in the blues (like Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker) are not what pop was aiming for at the time, either, really. The song kicks into a footstomping rhythm briefly throughout, and lets the guitar really shine, not quite soloing, just taking on a bluesy lead.
The first real hint of the possible oddities of Beefheart, "Dropout Boogie" has Van Vliet pushing his down into a strained but powerful and controlled croak. The bassline is almost overpowering, and the extreme fuzz and distortion on the guitar lets it act less as the melody the bass is empowering, and more like a light, shaky glaze on the thumping bass. It's dirty and rough, but when a piano enters on a similarly intense but more ramshackle rhythm, it's like the song forgot what it was for a moment, but the bass and guitar remind it. The repetitive lyrics further the idea that this is a song driven purely by rhythm. Van Vliet is credited with the bass (!) marimbas on the song, too, which take it into a sort of peculiar territory as it fades out on the same rhythm, but now underpinned with that bass marimba.
Possibly the weirdest song only because it's the least weird, "I'm Glad" is one of only a handful of songs credited solely to Van Vliet (many are co-written with Herb Bermann, long thought a myth or joke, but who has since been discovered). The song is practically doo-wop, and calls to mind, in a way, the doo-wop experimentation of Van Vliet's school friend Zappa, though the attitude and voice Beefheart brings is more directly soulful and pleading. The high-pitched backing vocals are the most reminiscent of the often tongue-in-cheek works Zappa did, but they're so overshadowed by Beefheart's excellent vocal, that they become completely reasonable in place, and even logical.
While known for telling, ahem, stories, Van Vliet alleged that the song "Electricity" was responsible for ruining a label contract for the group (it has since been stated this is not the case at all). Bermann, after he was found and interviewed for his role in this, stated that this was a standing poem for him, which Don asked him if he could put to music. The opener seems normal enough, but when the cymbal wash and the rein-pulling guitar pick repetition pulls it to a halt, Beefheart begins singing over the wandering semi-Eastern slide guitar and more cymbal washes, until a tom roll pulls in one of his most notably weird vocal choices: "Eeeeeeelectri--sity" he croaks out over this, dragging that first "E" from the start all the way to the end. As if his voice gets stuck here, he keeps singing in that low, squashed croak for a few more lines, then comes back to his normal voice. A bouncing bassline pulls in a theremin (!), the slide guitar and the most ecstatically brilliant drum feel on an album that is driven by feel. Beefheart allegedly shattered the microphone recording this track (!?), but it's that push/pull of the slide and drum that sends this thing rocketing into the sky.
Because why not, "Yellow Brick Road" opens with a voice (that of producer Richard Perry) saying in educational-film style: "The following tone is a reference tone, recorded at our operating level," followed by a wavering electronic theremin-style sound warping up and down. The slide and shuffling, clickety-tap drum beat and Bermann's weird lyrics call to mind Beefheart wandering down some kind of bizarre fantastic yellow road, describing what he's seeing. The chorus has a thundering bassline and distant, echoing vocals from Van Vliet himself. And, damn, is this thing catchy and bouncy. It's still not a wonder it was the first song to stick in my head.
The weirdest song (judging more externally) is definitely the one half-named for a candybar: "Abba Zaba". A semi-tribal drumbeat is joined by very high, clear, picked guitar and then a variety of extra percussive instruments, and strange, strange lyrics from Van Vliet. The song shifts periodically into only momentary stylistic departures. It's heavily percussive but for a sort of bridge halfway, wherein an odd instrumental break composed of bass and drum occurs. It's still very pleasant to listen to, and not totally out of keeping with the album--if you aren't paying close attention, you could be forgiven for not noticing how odd it is. In the context of blues and rock just slightly contorted by the interests and ideas of Beefheart, a song that is neither but built from those same interest and ideas fits quite well.
Pulling out some great harmonica work, Beefheart opens "Plastic Factory" himself, with a more slow-rolling track, croaking and cracking his way through a description of a factory and why it is not the place for him--lyrically (Bermann, again), this is very in tune with the working class subject matter in plenty of blues stuff, despite the peculiar choice of specifically burning phosphorous and the identification of a "plastic factory" as the location in question. It's the right voice for Beefheart to accompany his harmonica with, though, of that there's no doubt. Keep an ear out for the outro, where the the guitars build and drop waves a few times only to leave the harmonica as the last fading sound.
Somewhat reminiscent of the sounds of some of the blues-inflected, semi-experimental (and much "safer") artists of the same time frame, "Where There's Woman" is spacious and disjointed, conga drums and lightly echoed, intermittent drum hits are like an extended bluesy jam--somewhat reminiscent of the "Gris-gris" segments of Dr. John's work (though his first album was not released until the next year--but I wouldn't have guessed it was an influence anyway). When it reaches the chorus, everyone doubles in speed and energy, no longer leaving space between any parts of performance, the second chorus just building to a relative frenzy.
The guitar that opens "Grown So Ugly" is just tasty blues work (no surprise this one is most definitively credited to Ry Cooder). When Beefheart comes in singing, "I got up this morning", you hear the instruments answer him, and think it will be some variation on the clichéd blues riff, or perhaps something like the more standard but more often real kind of instrumental answer to a line in the blues. As previously, French carries the beat further, at the end suddenly switching to drag it into a more complex musical phrase, which the guitar and bass follow him through on. Instead of letting his voice crouch low and frog-like, Beefheart floats his voice up at the cracking top of his register, for a lot of the song. In most other respects, it's structured like many blues songs, though the ringing riffs that make up the latter half are unusual in this context.
The album closes with "Autumn's Child", based at open on a simple melody played on guitar and answered in bass. Suddenly backing vocals and theremin (probably) come in: "Go back ten years ago", like a group shouting a command. The instruments punctuate it, and then go back to more spacious, wandering melodies, that lay the ground for the mid-ranged passionate, blues-hurt singing of Beefheart, themselves abruptly responded to with that (musically) shouted group phrase. A high bassline moves the song along rapidly, the guitars playing shortly, sharply and speeding up the feel even more, but slowed by Beefheart's voice--well, likely the other way, but it feels as if he's leading them back to this slower speed.
I felt very restricted by the limitations of my musical knowledge here, but it's also difficult to express the feel of a well-played blues group, which is all about feel, usually. It's best to hear it, but it's good to understand the kind of constructions at play here, however roughly, to know that this is a sort of deviant blues-rock album, but not to lean too heavily on the deviant--likely the most emphatic assumption to make if the name Beefheart means something but not much. This is a very "normal" album, and is often at least semi-shrugged at by Beefheart fans as a result--his challenges and influences related far more to Trout Mask than Safe as Milk, but, for my money, at this point in my life, I'd rather listen to Safe as Milk, and I will most definitely and happily enjoy doing so.
- Next Up: The Cars - Shake It Up (yes, bit of a jump)