Monday, 20 June 2011

Review #24

Bat Chain Puller - Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band

After the fiasco of his two Mercury albums - Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams, both released in 1974 - Beefheart was a lost cause. In vain he released two self-conscious bids at commercial success, but it fired back: not only did these pithy albums sky-rocket in the charts, it also alienated his own fan-base. It was a fan-base that had grown to appreciate him for all the eccentricities that that made him so special.

A stint in Zappa's band followed, until the bearded musical polymath agreed to fund his next album. This album, sadly, has yet to see the light of day.

Beefheart's contractual situation was always wrangled - conflicting papers from different record companies claimed his ownership. Most decisively, Zappa sued his own manager and, in that complicated legal process, prevented the release of the album.

This is a huge shame. If the album had seen the light of day it would have announced Beefheart's comeback with aplomb. Beefheart, throughout the seventies, had been making compromises. Due to the obtuseness of his music, it was always clear that it could never reach wide audiences. Failure after failure followed until Van Vliet realised that all he needed to do was do what he did - and do it well.

The only way to hear the album is through bootlegs, meaning that the mixing is not as it should be and that the sound isn't crystal clear. There are good copies available, though: the one I stumbled across in Soulseek is fine.

Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) is wrongly regarded as a re-recording of this album. Only five of this album's tracks appear on it, and anyone has taken the time to seek out a copy of the original BCP will realise that it is a different kettle of fish altogether. Ten of the twelve album tracks would be re-worked in his three subsequent releases: Shiny Beast, Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow.

The music in the album returns to the unbridled wildness of his earlier days, though it still has a little more cohesion. It is far less frenetic than the controlled mayhem in Trout Mask: the guitars sound angular and the complex signature drumming is there, but it doesn't rocket ahead so fast rapidly and anxiously. The drumming in Trout Mask, though it may not seem so at first, was centred around the other instruments. This is also the case here: the scraps of music are held together by the arhythmical drumming, though it is more paced and relaxed.

The opener 'Bat Chain Puller' was centred around a drum rhythm: the windshield wipers in Don's car. And the rhythm sounds just like that. Drabber than the version on 'Shiny Beast', it is a funky and foot-tapping in a strange Beefheart sort of way (my dad once put this on thinking that he had an African music cd on the player and he started dancing to it - which he never does - completely unaware that it was Beefheart!).

The lyrics are back to free-association and weirdness. While Beefheart's voice by this point was gravelly and cracked, he couldn't really sing as he used to, but he delivers it methodically and humorously. "Bat Chain" he deadpans. "Bat Chain Puller," he continues, before vociferating "BAAAAAAAAAAT CHAAAAAAAAIN PULLER." Again he draws from rural and wildlife imagery, the subject of his expressionist oil paintings, to flesh out these non-sensical - though hilariously entertaining - lyrics.

'Seam Cooked Sam' is a song with very complex guitar lines, which coalesce and intertwine atonally. Beefheart 'reads out' a surreal poem. This intriguing oddity never resurfaced in any of the later re-recordings.

'Harry Irene' is far superior to the Shiny Beast version. It's mainly the timbre of the keyboards that make this one special, ironically sounding like a lounge combo. The good thing like a track like this is its levity: something good to be placed amongst an abundance of complexity and difficulty.

There is a return to 'spoken word' tracks on this album. Two are featured on the album. 'Poop Hatch' is a little repetitive, not helped by Beefheart's tired delivery that a critic remarked sounded as if he were reading from an extensive shopping list. The closing track 'Apes-Ma' is full of his characteristic humour, clocking in at 40 seconds. "Your cage isn't getting any bigger, Apes-Ma."

And then there's two instrumentals. 'Flavour Bud Living', here played by the drummer and musical arranger John French, is substantially different on this version. It is played far more quietly and contemplatively, in contrast to the more accelerated and Oriental-tinged version rendered by Gary Lucas on Doc. The lovely guitar and piano duet 'A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond', a very melodic and cohesive piece, is exactly like the version that appeared on Doc.

The 'Brickbats' version that appeared on Doc is much better because here the cacophonous sax is mixed far too loud, obscuring all the stimulating musical activity. Every time I put BCP on and this comes on, I root for the skip button.

There are two rollicking blues-rock tracks which, by Beefheart standards, are fairly orthodox... yet still far from normal. 'Floppy Boot Stomp' and 'Carson City' they are played with more vigour and bite than in the Shiny Beast versions, though Beefheart's delivery on the BCP tracks are below par.

By far, the album's highlights are the tracks 'Odd Jobs' and 'The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole'. They sound like what would have happened if Stravinsky had been persuaded to write a rock song. Both clocking in at over five minutes, which for Beefheart is long, they are meticulously crafted and superbly rendered. The lyrics are memorable as well, the former track describing the absence of a charismatic tramp and the latter a tongue-in-cheek Beefhearterian allegory. These two songs are the best tracks from Beefheart's late period material.

The Zappa family trust own the rights to the tapes, yet they continue to abstain from its release... Hopefully if more laudatory reviews and write-ups like this appear on the internet they may get their finger out... Release the fucker!


Anonymous said...

Nice review. The original album has now been mixed and readied for release. Gail Zappa has confirmed it

Simon King said...

Yeah, I heard about that, but the problem is that ZFT rarely keep to their promises... I got excited by that announcement, however like the rest of their promises, it rarely comes through... Fingers crossed, though... Gail Zappa said BCP would be out on January - still waiting...

Anonymous said...

Have you got it yet? It sounds amazing. A revelation to finally hear it in full stereo-separated, non-hiss smothered clarity. Gail makes good

Simon King said...

Man, I'm waiting so fucking much for this album. (I already pre-ordered it.) I ordered it to my university address, but I'm back home for a week. Literally can't wait, it'll just be like a brand new Beefheart album!