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Monday, September 21, 2015

Captain Beefheart – Safe as Milk

Year: 1967
Record Rating = 9
Overall Rating = 12


This title couldn't be more inaccurate: this album is neither "milky" (by which I mean pale) nor "safe". Dangerous as Drugs – because clearly this album was written and possibly recorded under the influence of some heavy stuff – would make a lot more sense. Yet in its own way, the title is also perfect. Perfect, because the standard logic of things does not apply to a man like Captain Beefheart. Heck, he justified the name "Beefheart" to the press by claiming it was because he had "a 'beef' with society in his heart"… How much weirder can you get? Maybe the title is short for something, like As Safe as Milk Is Green With Pink Polka-Dots.

With that said, listening to this record I felt a bit deceived because of the first track. I was expecting something to make Zappa seem tame and I hear… slide guitars that sound like they've been recorded hundreds of miles away? Indeed, the opening "Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do" starts off sounding like an ol' dusty Delta blues, with Ry Cooder doing a sort of Robert Johnson imitation and the Captain sounding like a cross between Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf (though the psychedelic opening lyrics, "Well I was born in the desert, came on up to New Orleans/Came up on a tornado sunlight in the sky/I went around all day with the moon sticking in my eye" can either be considered prime Beefheart weirdness or a cross between his weirdness and the aforementioned bluesman Johnson's). It then picks up and turns into a dusty blues-rocker, with more of Cooder's ragged slide licks and Beefheart's howling, along with a boogying rhythm section, but the combination of those three things and Beefheart's weird lyrics means one thing: this ain't no regular blues.

So the rest of the LP follows pretty much the same pattern. You take a bluesy track, you fiddle around with the chords, you sing it bizarrely, and you might even add some unique instrumentation. And amazingly, it works the whole time – none of the songs ever dip below "pretty good" in my book – making it the most diverse and probably eternally interesting blues-based record in existence. The first side is probably the most consistent, with all but one being a highlight. The second track, "Zig Zag Wanderer", definitely surpasses the first for me. It starts with a distant gong sound and someone menacingly whispering "ziiiiiiiiigggggg zaaaaaaaggggg" before turning into a menacing garage rocker with sloppy twangy lead fills over equally sloppy power chords, a ridiculously thick bassline (more memorable than most guitar riffs) and a rough vocal from Van Vliet echoed by some excellent "tough" harmonies from the Magic Band.

The next track, "Call On Me", happens to be the non-highlight of the side, but it's still quite good. It's actually closer to a soul(!) number – which makes sense given the title; isn't that the most generic soul song name you can think of? Clearly Van Vliet thought so – than a blues one, but despite (or perhaps because) of its title, it's not just any regular soul number, but closer to the Rolling Stones covering a soul classic and toughening it up, with ecstatic, tremolo-laden guitar chords and fills backing Beefheart's barking, further from his traditional Howlin' Wolf resemblance and a lot closer to sounding like soul-star Otis Redding. Hmm, I'm starting to wonder why I don't consider it a highlight. It's probably because the preceding two and following three are so great this one kind of slips through the cracks (although some consider it a sloppy attempt at being soulful, but that seems to be the point, if you ask me!)

Anyways, while I put the fourth tune as the best song, any of the next three can take its place. I guess "Dropout Boogie" wins over for a number of reasons. First, it's the only time someone ripped-off the riff of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" rather than their "All Day and All of the Night" (as in the Doors' "Hello, I Love You"), and manage not only to get away with it, but to make you not even realize that's what it is by fuzzing it up and looping it into a single groove. Second, it occasionally veers off into different rhythms, like when the marimbas take over during the instrumental interludes playing the middle portion of the "You Really Got Me"-style riff, giving it a proto-proto jazz fusion feel, or the weird, tricky guitar licks that transition from this section back into the main one. Third, Beefheart's vocals are killer on this one: the hoarse tone he uses to make fun of the life of an everyman from dropping out of school to marry and support his teen girlfriend who I believe is pregnant with a child (that's the impression I get) is perfect. And there's probably more, but these are just the ones off the top of my head.

Yet the other soul song on this side, "I'm Glad", could have easily taken its place, if only because it's actually *gasp* beautiful. Whenever Frank Zappa did doo-wop, it was to make fun of the inane love lyrics and cheesy vocals yet pay tribute to his love of their melodies, but with Beefheart, in this particular case, decides to exploit this simplicity in a far more touching way: the backup falsettos repeating "so saaaaddddd, baby" or "so glaaaaddddd, baby" are instant hooks, and the heart-on-sleeve soulful mumbling turned-to howling lead vocals from Beefheart might even be able to draw a tear from your eye, if you allow it to. And side closing "Electricity" is just amazingly weird in the traditional Beefheart way: the weird yet intoxicating rhythm from the thumping drums, the snappy, bubbling bassline and twangy yet aggressive guitars, Beefheart's intentionally strained vocals moaning the title in a variety of weird ways (stretched-out vowels, nasally pronouncing parts of it at times, and other parts and other times), and lots of Theremin buzzing around to make it sound like you're inside of some sort of psychedelic electric circuit, it's often considered to be one of the quintessential early Beefheart songs for a good reason, you know.

Side two is a bit "weaker", yet is at the very least quite consistent, with three highlights and three still pretty good non-highlights evenly distributed (yep, in my book, it goes good-excellent-good-great-good-great). The side opener "Yellow Brick Road", aside from a reference tone from the studio, starts off rather traditionally, with a cheeky little country tune with quiet shuffling rhythm section and and a memorable slide melody which the Captain imitates in his best "redneck" voice, suddenly becomes a weird aggressive rocker whenever the refrain of "Yellow brick, black on black" comes around, where he howls out like he was suddenly possessed, and the rest of the band stomps out an according power chord-based rhythm, before going back to the little country-blues tune as if nothing happened, until the next refrain (which makes the whole "possession" comparison seem a little more… real, I guess?).

The highlight that follows is another favorite of mine, "Abba Zaba", and is as revolutionary as "Dropout Boogie" and "Electricity". This time, Captain Beefheart takes on a quasi-African tribal rhythm with contrastingly oriental-sounding guitars (the melodies they play sound Chinese or Japanese at times, I think) – the first example of World music 13 years too early, mayhaps? – and concocts an irresistible groove, not only with this music (although the best part might just be the one where the drums get to be alone for a couple of seconds as they gradually build the full groove back up), but the vocals as well, as Van Vliet sings a series of probably nonsensical pseudo-chants like "babette-baboon-abba-zaba-zoon" and the like, to a catchy melody that's just as cross-cultural as the music (I hear shades of African and east-Asian themes, but a bit of Indian and even Amerindian ones as well). One thing's for sure, it's hard to get this out of your head, even if in your head the words you might here are even more made up than the ones used… You don't know how many times I'll have this tune in my head and I hear variations on abba-zuba-ziba-zimba-zappa-zoop (haha, that sounds like the "zip-zoppity pudding pop"-type exclamations of Bill Cosby).

Anyways, the still good non-highlight that follows is the most "traditionally" bluesy original, "Plastic Factory", with a descending blues riff and a fine Howlin' Wolf-esque vocal singing a sort of update to Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man" but that's mostly made distinctive by a) the shift to a pounded rhythm rather than shuffled one for the one-line refrain and b) a fantastic harmonica part from Van Vliet, played in sharp, somewhat distorted venomous jabs. The minor key soulful pop-rocker "Where There's Woman" comes next, and aside from the gloomy, slowed-down tribal rhythm and rising guitar riff, it's the vocals, either the punchy harmony vocals or the Captain's tackling of the fine main melody, that make the tune make the grade. It's followed by the only cover, "Grown So Ugly", by lesser-known Louisiana blues musician Robert Pete Williams, and is probably the weakest tune on here, even if overall I enjoy listening to it: Beefheart's rabid, intentionally ugly vocals suit the subject matter just fine, and the distorted combo organ and the "ooh, baby" falsetto it backs are pretty catchy.

Finally, the closer "Autumn's Child" attempts to tackle beauty, though in a different way than "I'm Glad", as this is a more foreboding beauty. I don't know whether it's the hippie ballad vibe of the harmonized parts, the weeping Theremin part or the near-the-edge-of-breaking-out-in-tears lead vocal from Van Vliet that makes me like it, but it's definitely a dark, autumnal ballad that, while not quite as memorable as the other ballad on the LP, is overall one of Beefheart's most touching moments and makes an excellent closer. It goes without saying that an album this strong, this revolutionary and even this emotionally attractive is pretty much guaranteed at least a 12 (and maybe one day, even a 13). Usually, I turn off the CD by the time we get to the bonus tracks, though. I don't know whether they're from the fall '67 sessions or the 1968 sessions for the ultimately scrapped It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper double LP, but either way the full albums containing material from these sessions are more interesting. This is basically a full LP's worth of decent weirdo-blues jams, but none of which make your jaw drop from playing or are particularly unique or memorable. At least half of these tunes are done better elsewhere, and I'm going to hold off on describing them until I get to those LPs. But don't let that stop you from getting this album, with bonus tracks for completists and without for everyone else.

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