Review Summary: A bizarre (yet wholly influential) exploration of Jazz, Blues and Garage Rock from one of Frank Zappa's childhood pals.
If you’re hard pressed to find an answer to the following question, listening to Trout Mask Replica is probably something to do:
What does a dying trumpet sound like?
Spread over the course of 28 tracks, Mr. Don Van Vliet (otherwise known as Captain Beefheart) answers this question, as well as many more, in the span of about 78 minutes. And somehow, though most of this time is spent releasing what can only be described as aural diarrhea, does so both as clear as day and as murky as swamp water. Van Vliet himself does most of the trumpet playing, despite a seeming lack of knowledge on the instrument. His playing is a journey into the darkest corners of the human psyche, bizarre, tuneless spurts of sound that pay no heed to key or time signature. Trout Mask Replica itself is very comparable to one Frank Zappa (an early pal of Van Vliet) but often times takes the late great’s work to even further extremes.
Like Rock and Roll itself, Captain Beefheart’s music has roots in the Blues, but by combining it with free jazz and minimalist soul he turns it into something completely bastardized and new. Lyrically, Beefheart is just as disgusting and freaky as one might expect him to be, with topics including (but not limited to) the holocaust, overweight women and bodily functions, certainly fitting subjects for such a disparate array of sounds. And if it was possible for sound to have a smell no doubt Trout Mask Replica’s odor would be one of the most intriguingly foul (perhaps a combination of dried sperm and wet manure). It takes a good long time to get wrapped around the concept, but, like a car wreck, it’s hard to turn away, despite how much you might really, really want to. And eventually, when you warm up to it, it’s one of the coolest, most innovative car wrecks you’ve ever seen (if that makes sense at all).
Zappa, who is credited with whatever production was to be done on the album, molds each track into a jagged representation of the minds that created it so perfectly, it is almost hard to comprehend. Each instrument is clean and clear, whether in the midst of an inter-genre sound orgy or alone, backing nothing but Van Vliet’s rugged howls of anguish and/or pleasure. The guitar parts, intelligent, though spindly (like some high school gym class reject) twist like serpents around bass parts that grumble and drums that rattle. Another listen and its clear just how important Trout Mask Replica was for late 70’s post-punk acts such as Pere Ubu and even for college rock stalwarts like the Pixies. Guitarists Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton set the pace for most tunes, and lay down a few hooks where they can. The guitar work on Moonlight On Vermont is brittle in tone, but the song’s strong garage rock riffs are perfect examples of the Magic Band’s talent (another prime one being the nifty jam section that closes out Veteran’s Day Poppy and ultimately the entire album). Van Vliet’s terrifying baritone leads the group through surrealist poetry while they do their best to keep up or just fall behind for kicks (dig those spastic drums!)
On songs like My Human Gets Me Blues, Beefheart explores god and Jesus like a senile alcoholic in a communist whorehouse, over what could be considered the most straightforward blues rock track on the album. Other times he takes a second to confuse sans-music, like on Well, where his gruff vocals are alone and naked (with a little reverb, maybe) and to tell you the truth, it sounds just like opera. Strange, sad opera. But sandwiched between When Big Joan Sets Up (where Van Vliet sings a bizarre, nauseating ode to a fat woman, while the band goes off on free jazz tangent after free jazz tangent) and Pena (I don’t even know what’s going on in this song, but it has something to do with genitalia and voice altering devices) anything remotely normal can sound like opera, I guess. Trout Mask Replica is everything you could possibly think it would be, the kind of truly disgusting, oddly surreal and candidly brilliant experience most ears will never experience twice.