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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, "Safe As Milk"

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
"Safe As Milk"
Buddha (1967)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

There are thousands (or at least hundreds) of artists that are "experimental," that blend genres, that are eccentric. In the world of rock music, I would narrow the list down to three figures who stand atop the metaphorical mountain of such artists: Frank Zappa, Tom Waits and Don "Captain Beefheart" Van Vliet. All three are commonly associated, but militantly individual from each other. We'll get to see plenty of each during this trek, but "Safe As Milk," the debut from Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band is as good a place as any to start.

Vliet, like loads of artists we've already listened to, isn't content dawdling in just one genre. We've seen the incorporation of jazz elements, classical elements, world elements; you name it. Unlike the rest of these artists however, Vliet doesn't feel the need to combine them. Captain Beefheart isn't an "alternative" artist; It's an act that can and will partake in several genres with no regard for the song that preceded it.

Check out tracks four through eight. "Dropout Boogie" is an otherwise normal rock 'n' roll number, aside from Vlien's comical and goblin-esque voice. "I'm Glad" is an R&B/soul track featuring (again, comical) falsetto background vocals and understated guitars. "Electricity" is the highlight of the album, a song that could be described as country-western thanks to a slide guitar (played by up-and-coming legend Ry Cooder) that blends curiously and marvelously with a space-age theremin as Vlien revisits his sinister voice. "Yellow Brick Road" sounds buoyant like a children's TV show theme, and "Abba Zaba" (named after a candy bar) uses African percussion and Juju-style pedal steel guitar (as with King Sunny Ade). Vlien's "tribal" approach to vocals for the track is almost offensive.

Most, including 1001 Albums, choose to highlight the album's bluesier portions as the most representative of Beefheart's style. It's a fair argument, as the genre takes the lion's share of the tracks on "Milk" (including the opening three), and served as Vlien's jumping off point into music. Guitarists Cooder and Alex St. Clair have no issues capturing the Delta feel, and Vliet, not exactly a vocal virtuoso, feels no shame in howling just like Howlin' Wolf. The difference is that the lyrics in tracks like "Zig Zag Wanderer" don't make much sense at all.

The genre-jumping stunt that Vlien pulls off on "Milk" is a risky one, and it'll alienate most mainstream listeners. Still, one can tell from the placement of "Call on Me," an almost normative song, that he still had mainstream ambition for his pastiche of an album. Perhaps, after that fell through, he was inspired to go all in and craft "Trout Mask Replica," a truly wacky classic that we'll see later.

INTERESTING FACT: I found this series of events to be far more interesting than a mere fact. A "Herb Bermann" was listed as a cowriter on eight of the tracks on "Safe As Milk," however no one, including Vlien, claimed to know anything about him. He was presumed to be an entity dreamt up by Vlien until 2000 when a journalist finally tracked him down for an interview. Here's a link to the tale of a Captain Beefheart fan who spent an awful lot of time hunting him down.

Electricity by Captain Beefheart on Grooveshark

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