Beefheart was more of an instinctive artist – no less a harsh taskmaster than Zappa, but one whose genius was tapped from his inner child, albeit a pretty weird little child...
Sun, Zoom, Spark: 1970 to 1972 (Limited Edition)(4CD)
Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band
Rhino / Warner Brothers
CD 1: 15 tracks / 38:48 CD2: 10 tracks / 35:59 CD 3: 12 tracks / 37:30 CD 4: 14 tracks / 46:39
It's a bumper-crop of Beefheart this season. Following closely on the heels of the bootleg-quality Live From Paris 1977 (Gonzo Multimedia) we have a four disc boxed set from Rhino Records featuring Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band's three studio albums which followed the landmark Trout Mask Replica, and a fourth disc containing a collection of outtakes and unused tracks from that same period. The elaborately-packaged set, Sun, Zoom, Spark is a delight for Beefheart fans but the proviso is always this: The Captain is an acquired taste and not to be entered into lightly...
Beefheart, whose 'civilian' moniker is Don Van Vliet, is best known for his Dadaist musical landmark, the aforementioned Trout Mask Replica – a vinyl double-album produced by friend and sometimes co-conspirator, Frank Zappa. It should be noted by the casual observer that, while some people think that Frank was strange, Zappa himself found his friend Don to be somewhat of a frustration. Zappa was a musician's musician – a writer of densely-notated compositions that required the utmost musicianship and an ability to improvise with a sophisticated jazz approach in a sometimes-classical format. Beefheart was more of an instinctive artist – no less a harsh taskmaster than Zappa, but one whose genius was tapped from his inner child (albeit a pretty weird little child) as opposed to any intrinsic fixation about musical structure. In fact, Beefheart saw musical structures as something to play with, like a child playing with a piece of clay – something to be squeezed, twisted, pulled apart and put back together again.
Sun, Zoom, Spark includes Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid, and Clear Spot in remastered form, all sounding clear, deep, and full of sonic details coming to life more than they ever have before, offering a more detailed listen to the layers of percussion, bass, and fractured guitar parts, not to mention the deep-to-screamingly-high vocals of Beefheart himself. Art Tripp's marimba seems to be a much more vital player in these remastered albums, and of course The Captain's frantic wailing on sax and harmonica are better appreciated as well.
Of course the key to understanding Captain Beefheart is to know that he's a 20th century artist – a painter, a sculptor, and a poet as well as being a musician. If you looked at him on an evolutionary curve, you'd see Van Vliet starting out as a sculptor, becoming a blues-based rocker who evolved into an abstract expressionist musician, continued as a painter, brought his abstract approach back into a blues form, and ended up in the end as a painter who also performed blues-based abstract music.
On these albums we hear Beefheart starting to reconcile blues with his Trout Mask abstractions. By the time we get to Clear Spot, The Captain is playing with more earth-bound riffs, using his intimidating ocean-deep Howlin' Wolf influenced vocals in a more recognizable blues-riffing style, but still prone – out of nowhere - to break out in that inimitable hoarse falsetto. The lyrics, like the music, can be dense and challenging or light and humorous ("I Love You, You Big Dummy"). Familiar blues themes, ranging from romantic abandonment ("Click Clack") to boasting about sexual prowess ("Lick My Decals Off, Baby") live side-by-side with more traditional romantic sentiments ("Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles") and child-like observances of the world ("Golden Birdies") - just remember, we're talking about a pretty unusual child here...
The Magic Band? The personnel changed over the years but guitarist Bill Harkleroad and drummer / marimba player Art Tripp are common to all three albums, with additional drummer John French also a frequent Magic Band member. Learning Beefheart's music through The Captain's verbal instructions and demonstrations via piano recordings, whistling, etc. the band successfully interpret the artist's musical vision in a way that carries the Van Vliet fingerprint from album to album. Of course, ten and twelve hour rehearsals also played a part...
Sun, Zoom, Spark is essential for the long-time fan but comes with a warning for newbies: you might want to do your research first.