It happens every two or three years. Captain Beefheart, easily rock’s most abused underdog, after fifteen years of beating his head against fame’s door, issues another of his brilliant, confounding vinyl missives – vivid demanding documents of colliding technicolor imagery, exhausting primal rhythms divided into bizarre fractious and alien instrumental eloquence and the critics cry “Breakthrough! Hitsville! This is the one!” The rock comics’ oracle has predicted Beefheart’s commercial triumph so many times it’s no wonder the AOR mind-slaves dismiss it as the empty bluster of a few dozen typewriting malcontents.
But just maybe this time he’s really pulled it off with this album’s breathless opening shot, “Ice Cream For Crow.” “Turn up the speakers / Hop flop sqwack / It’s a keeper,” Beefheart bellows in an awesome tubercular rap over new drummer Cliff Martinez’s whiplash boogie rush, roaring like a demon-possessed caller at some offworld square dance. The song’s double-time crack with the polyrhythmic fragments flying off Jeff Moris Tepper and Gary Lucas’s steely choogling guitars is guaranteed to liven up the platter selection at even the hippest rock disco, at once giant steps ahead of today’s plague of synthetic funk records, yet still deeply rooted in its elemental John Lee Hooker rasp and Beefheart’s glass-shattering Boy-oh-boy blues harp bursts.
And it you think I’m just crying wolf here, note that Epic Records which distributes Virgin is releasing “Ice Cream For Crow” as a single (with a non-LP instrumental B-side). The dance-floor beckons.
As a whole, Ice Cream For Crow – Beefheart’s twelfth album on his eighth label (if you include Epic and count Warner Bros. twice) is a spirited successor in the recent Shiny Beast and Doc At The Radar Station line of Trout Mask Replica-rooted experiments with some bold distinguishing marks. With the exception of “Ink Mathematics” and “The Witch Doctor Life,” in which his voice tumbles over the words in cracked growls, crusty croons and wizened trollish cackles, Beefheart does not so much sing here with his usual octave-defying bravado as rant, rave and rap like a poet in motion over the boiling beat cauldron of the Magic Band. He bitterly swallows the Molotov lyric cocktail of apocalyptic fear and barbed religious imagery in “The Host The Ghost The Most Holy-O” (“Why, not even a rustler’d have anything to do / With this branded bum steer world”), read in a stony monotone heavy with dread and scolding over Martinez’s choppy drumming and the guitar’s pleading whine. In a lighter mood is “Cardboard Cutout Sundown,” a typically Beetheartian word landscape of a picture-postcard desert evening intensified by the overlapping contrast of pointed melodic stabbing and altered Western twang in the Tepper-Lucas guitars.
Which is the other thing Ice Cream For Crow is all about – guitars and Beefheart’s inventive harmonies and voicings for the instrument. Consider Gary Lucas’s solo spot “Evening Bell,” an astonishing exercise (in the style of his brief Doc outing “Flavor Bud Living”) in knuckle-cracking inversions and flamenco trills played live on a Fender Strat (the bass sound is actually the low F string tuned down to D). Then consider that Lucas transcribed the piece note-for-note from a piano study by Beefheart. That combination – piano-based note clusters and jagged electric attack – gives the Magic Band’s ensemble guitar frolics a physical rock ‘n’ roll thrust belying the daunting complexity of Beefheart’s song structures. Which is one way of saying that “The Past Sure Is Tense” and the fearsome instrumental traffic jam underneath the free verse of “Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat” both cook with smarts.
Ice Cream For Crow does not have the expanded orchestral colour of Doc (with its Stravinskian string synths), and at times Beefheart’s poet-speak takes on the tones of a lecture-in-rhyme. But with the rockum-sockum of the title track on one hand and the harrowing guitar stutter and Beefheart’s overdubbed crying-geese sax duet of “The Thousandth And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Pole” on the other, what you can’t dance to you won’t be able to ignore either. Maybe this won’t sell big. But like Beef heart says, if you’re gonna eat crow it might as well be ice cream. Dig right in.