Review for Grow Fins by Ramsay Pennypacker

This review appeared in the 30th June edition of the Philadelphia Weekly, 1999. Many thanks to Chris Previti for sending it along.

More than any other artist, Don Van Vliet – aka Captain Beefheart – defined Surrealism in rock ‘n’ roll. Like Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte, his work was based on startling juxtapositions – a blues riff suddenly shifting into free jazz, three different rhythms playing against one other with vocals bellowing above. For almost 20 years, Beefheart released a series of brilliant, gleefully absurd albums that often hinted at deeper, far darker truths. “Dachau Blues,” for example, from his 1969 masterpiece Trout Mask Replica sounds almost laughable in its clattering cacophony. But listen closely and it’s anything but funny.

Naturally, this music never found a wide audience, and Beefheart eventually retired to a more lucrative career as a painter. His impact continues to reverberate, however. New Wave avant-gardists the Residents, Pere Ubu and Public Image Ltd. borrowed freely from him. Modern-day bizarros like Beck and Pavement also display his influence, while Tom Waits’ later work would be unthinkable without the good Captain’s example.

Grow Fins, which collects five remarkable discs of demos, live tracks, outtakes and CDROM videos, not only shows the craft that went into this music, but also provides an excellent career overview. This box set traces Beefheart’s artistic development with an admirable attention to detail, from his beginnings as a relatively straightforward blues player to his semi-mainstream work in the early ’80s [shouldn’t that be mid-seventies? – Graham]. Most impressive are the two discs of background material from the Trout Mask sessions that greatly aid an understanding of that seminal album. With its profoundly thorough approach and obvious affection for its subject, this set ranks among the best boxes ever released. ****

– Ramsay Pennypacker

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