Let there be great rejoicing among the multitudes of Beefheartians: the Captain has returned to the land of the Warner Brothers. For some inexplicable reason this bizarre genius shines on this new LP after several years of uneven recordings for another company (Mercury). Now Beefheart fans who remember the past glory of classics like Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby can once again look ahead to recordings by the Magic Band.
Beefheart is a completely well rounded artist who paints the graphics for his covers, writes music and lyrics, and sings and plays several instruments. His lyrics arc to ’70s rock music what Bob Dylan’s were to the ’60s. While Dylan is credited with being the first to introduce lyrics that dealt with politics and subjects other than banal teenage love, Van Vliet introduces lyrics that deal with subjects other than love or banal politics. Obviously not a member of the Woodstock Generation, Captain Beefheart is a poet who uses obscure metaphors and veiled imagery.
Beefheart’s subjects range from traditional blues (compare to Robert Johnson’s Me And The Devil Blues the Captain’s The Floppy Boot Stomp) to infidelity (Love Lies) to a witty ballad that sounds suspiciously like a takeoff on the Beatles’ Rocky Racoon (Harry Irene).
Throughout, his lyrics are powerful and intriguing. Beefheart is adept at using words and images not commonly associated in poetry to describe and shape his stable of oftbeat characters (e.g. Bat Chain Puller).
But this is an album of music, not poetry. Instrumentally the Magic Band is very sophisticated and a very tight unit. Tepper and Redus on guitars play a curious blend of blues, hard rock and jazz; opposed to the Southern rock (Allman Brothers, for instance) use of twin guitars for unison melodic lines, Tepper and Redus utilise contrasting lines to create a satisfying tension. The percussionists’ emphasis is not strictly on time-keeping though time is not free – no training (even Tripp’s Boston Symphony stint) would have prepared these drummers for Beefheart’s polyrhythmic demands. The captain’s presence is so compelling his Howling Wolf voice, his control of the band, his strikingly personal imagery – as to overshadow the more than adequate contributions of Fowler and Feldman, but there are no slouches in the Magic Band.
Each instrument plays melodically (including the drums) with everyone responsible for their own rhythm. That is not to say Shiny Beast resembles free jazz in any respect. The music is very structured but it seems to be built around the interaction of the artists and their ability to play together. Lines are woven and exchanged freely, with Beefheart as the single most cohesive factor. His vocals draw things together, making the whole sound work.
It is impossible to describe this LP without using phrases as meaningless as “excellent” or “fascinating”. Let it suffice to say Shiny Beast is an important alternative to contemporary popular music.