See what we did there? Within the space of two sentences we took a profound statement and turned it into a disclaimer of sorts. This is the influence the Internet has had on the act of writing: the author, expecting to be criticized, insulted or worse for stating an opinion, girds himself in advance as protection.
While the statements above could easily be applied to each and any of the 700 and counting entries on this blog, it seems particularly apropos given the album at hand. Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band is lots of people’s favorite album of all time. Considering that those people have included Lester Bangs, Matt Groening, David Lynch, Tom Waits and even John Lydon, it should be obvious that it is not for everyone.
We’re compelled to discuss it here because of its place in the context of Frank Zappa, a man who for the most part did not have a high success rate when it came to producing music he himself did not create or perform. The one Grand Funk Railroad album he produced isn’t notable for much more than that fact, the GTO’s were predominantly occupied as “groupies” when they weren’t babysitting his kids, and we don’t even know where to begin with Wild Man Fischer. Frank had known the Captain since high school, and they found their way into the major-label music biz independently of each other. Their music is only occasionally similar, so even if you’ve digested the Zappa albums discussed thus far, your first exposure to Trout Mask Replica will result in raised eyebrows, whether you enjoy it or not.
Captain Beefheart had a husky blues shout, tempered by a humorous announcer’s voice. His obvious musical contributions were via saxophones and other wind instruments, blown free-style. His lyrics were alternately poetic or derived from blues and folk songs; presumably, he was the one who christened his band members such names as Antennae Jimmy Semens and The Mascara Snake. His lack of formal musical education resulted in songs that seem to lack any kind of structure, with everyone seemingly playing different songs at the same time. That would be a false assumption, as evidenced by the melodies and grooves that emerge from out of nowhere, either within a track or in one’s subconscious with ongoing exposure.
As with anything in the avant-garde, free jazz or progressive rock genres, an album like Trout Mask Replica requires patience, and not just because it fills four sides. The recording itself is very clean, except for the elements recorded from “field” sources. The cymbals are crisp and clear, but the rest of the drums often sound like oatmeal boxes. A song-by-song summary will not do it justice, and certainly not at this point in our education.
So basically, we can understand why some people love it, as well as why anyone else can consider it noise or a cruel joke (as a frame of reference, that’s pretty much how we feel about Sonic Youth). Its defenders can speak better to how it’s changed their lives and the world around them for good. Trout Mask Replica has the power to ruin dinner parties and wreck marriages, and should therefore be wielded with care. But, just like a pizza with anchovies, it’s up to the individual to try it out for him or herself. It just might be your thing.
Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band Trout Mask Replica (1969)—3