Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Captain Beefheart [extended]

  • Trout Mask Replica [Straight, 1969] B+
  • Lick My Decals Off, Baby [Bizarre/Straight, 1970] A-
  • Clear Spot [Reprise, 1972] B+
  • The Spotlight Kid [Reprise, 1972] B+
  • Mirror Man [Buddah, 1973] B+
  • Unconditionally Guaranteed [Mercury, 1974] B-
  • Bluejeans and Moonbeams [Mercury, 1974] B-
  • Bongo Fury [DiscReet, 1975] B
  • Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) [Warner Bros., 1978] A
  • Doc at the Radar Station [Virgin, 1980] A-
  • Ice Cream for Crow [Virgin/Epic, 1982] A-
  • Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-82) [Revenant, 1999] C+
  • The Dust Blows Forward: An Anthology [Rhino, 1999] A
  • I'm Going to Do What I Wanna Do: Live at My Father's Place [Rhino Handmade, 2000] B+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica [Straight, 1969]
I find it impossible to give this record an A because it is just too weird. But I'd like to. Very great played at high volume when you're feeling shitty, because you'll never feel as shitty as this record. B+

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Lick My Decals Off, Baby [Bizarre/Straight, 1970]
Like Trout Mask Replica, this music is so jumpy and disjoint it's ominous. But after some acclimatization you can play it while doing the dishes, and good. Beefheart's famous five-octave range and covert totalitarian structures have taken on a playful undertone, repulsive and engrossing and slapstick funny. N.b.: us new dinosaurs had better kick off our "old dinosaur shoes." Or was that "Dinah Shore shoes"? Both. A-

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Clear Spot [Reprise, 1972]
This one really does rock out--it's got the Blackberries, horn charts, everything the promotion department could ask except a hummable tune. Much womanizing, of course--rather less, er, allusive than usual but laced with the unexpected, as in the title "Nowadays a Woman's Gotta Hit a Man," a prescription from which Cap exempts himself. But what makes it work is that it really rocks out. B+

The Spotlight Kid [Reprise, 1972]
Cap's much-bruited commercial bid turns out to have all the mass appeal of King of the Delta Blues Singers, complete with modernized terraplane and an avowal of primitivism in which the Kid threatens to "Grow Fins." All the primordial themes are here--sex, love, poverty, destiny, ecology--and the Howlin' Wolf imitations are as dense and heartfelt as the music. Still, Robert Johnson cuts him, and primitivism is rarely better the second time around. Maybe the Stones could cover "I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby." But if this were all it's cracked up to be, that wouldn't be the only candidate. B+

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Mirror Man [Buddah, 1973]
Recorded one night in 1965, these four pieces, which go on for more than fifty minutes, seem insultingly sloppy and thin at first--lacking Beefheart's later rhythmic assurance and aural density. But in their linear way they're pretty crazy and pretty involving. Makes you wonder why the Captain got left out of all the blues jams that followed in his wake. B+

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Unconditionally Guaranteed [Mercury, 1974]
I've always suspected that underneath the naive surrealism the Captain might be a dumbbell, and now that he's really (really really) trying to go commercial he's providing proof. This time he really (really) does it--writes dumb little songs with dumb little lyrics and dumb little hooks. Maybe all the dumb dumb parts can be blamed on svengali and cocomposer Andy DiMartino. And I admit that a lot of these are passable ("Magic Be") to wonderful ("Sugar Bowl") dumb little songs. But they're still dumb. Really. B-

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Bluejeans and Moonbeams [Mercury, 1974]
Supposedly, this album consists of outtakes from Cap's previous Andy DiMartino LP, but if anything I prefer it. "Party of Special Things to Do" (mama told him not to come) and "Observatory Crest" (Beefheart's first make-out song) surround his cover of "Same Old Blues" so cunningly that after a while you start to forget J.J. Cale, and before you know it you're at the funky harmonica features that closes side one. B-

Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart/The Mothers: Bongo Fury [DiscReet, 1975]
This sentimental reunion album, recorded (where else?) in Austin with (what else?) additional L.A. studio work, is dismissed by Zappaphiles and 'Fhearthearts alike, but what were they expecting? Perhaps because there's a blues avatar up top, the jazzy music has a soulful integrity, and though it's embarrassing to hear the Captain deliver Frankie's latest pervo exploitations, the rest of the songs are funnier because he's singing them. B

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) [Warner Bros., 1978]
Inspired by the Captain's untoward comeback, I've dug out all his old albums and discovered that as far as I'm concerned this is better than any of them--more daring than Safe as Milk, fuller than Trout Mask Replica, more consistent than Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Without any loss of angularity or thickness, the new compositions achieve a flow worthy of Weill or Monk or Robert Johnson, and his lyrics aren't as willful as they used to be. Bruce Fowler's trombone is especially thaumaturgic adding an appropriately natural color to the electric atonality of the world's funniest ecology crank. A

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station [Virgin, 1980]
Beefheart is an utter original if not some kind of genius, but that doesn't make him the greatest artist ever to rock down the pike--his unreconstructed ecoprimitive eccentricity impairs his aesthetic as well as his commercial reach. Only don't tell grizzled punks now discovering the boho past, or avantish rockcrits who waited patiently through the cleansing storm for musicianship to come round again. In synch with the historical moment for once, Beefheart offers up his most uncompromised album since Trout Mask Replica in 1969--never before have his nerve-wracking harmonies and sainted-spastic rhythms been captured in such brutal living color. Me, I've always enjoyed his compromises, which tend to be crazier than normal people's wildest dreams, and wish he'd saved some of his melodic secrets for the second side. A-

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow [Virgin/Epic, 1982]
Two cuts have no lyrics, one has no music, and guess which your humble wordslinger prefers. Ornette or no Ornette, the Captain's sprung delta atonality still provides surprising and irreducible satisfactions, but his poetry repeats itself more than his ideas warrant. Any surrealist ecologist who preaches the same sermon every time out is sure to provoke hostile questions from us concrete-jungle types. A-

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-82) [Revenant, 1999]
If you have any doubts about needing this handsome $94-list package, you don't. If you're moved to ask pop-friendly me, you don't. Every CD box is larded with marginalia, but the good folks at Revenant--who last year reckoned Charlie Feathers cut 42 "essential" tracks between 1954 and 1969--live for it. They believe consumers should share the thrill of digging through the crates, palpitating as the voice of genius emanates from a dusty reel of tape. So instead of winnowing out an hour or so of lost songs, jelled jams, and unjust outtakes, they throw in a 13-minute CD of dim studio chatter, a minute of Don Van Vliet playing the harmonica over the telephone, etc. Take it from pop-friendly me--if you've spent more time with the Captain's free sessions than with Ornette Coleman's, you need to get your priorities in order. C+

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: The Dust Blows Forward: An Anthology [Rhino, 1999]
The proof of his avant-gardism isn't the rejects and weirdness of Grow Fins. It's that the music (if not the poetry) on his finest albums--Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), and Doc at the Radar Station (1980), with the insufficiently fluent Trout Mask Replica (1969) a distinct fifth behind Ice Cream for Crow (1982)--is more gripping and coruscating than ever. But only Trout Mask is in print domestically. And while this double-CD lifts heavily from all while pulling him as far out of shape avantwise (blame Frank Zappa) as popwise (blame Ted Templeman), it also documents, more songfully than he ever cared to, the progress of blues that were progressive to begin with. That's right, blues, no matter what he says, from Skip James and Elmore James to Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer, who Don Van Vliet may never have heard and who should only be so dense and nutty. Another referent: the Band at their careening best. Another: Pavement. Repressive tension, explosive release; sprung rhythm, fugueing melody. All that. A

I'm Going to Do What I Wanna Do: Live at My Father's Place [Rhino Handmade, 2000]
Title protestations to the contrary, Don Van Vliet promos like a good touring artist should, supporting a near-great album that 22 years later has left the catalog (for the nonce) as nine de facto bonus tracks reprise his illustrious underground career. Live on this November night, his music was slacker and more forceful than on the studio Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). His anointed helpers weren't improvisers, not hardly. But they were a fairly magic band. B+

See Also