Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: Trout Mask Replica

Peter Stenshoel writes: 

My colleague Gordon Henderson actually suggested this one, but it would only have been a matter of time before I brought it in.  From the vantage point of history, we can pretty much dispense with the silly stories that used to circulate about Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), and recognize him as a major artist of our time.  I was fortunate to hear Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band the month it hit the record stores in 1969.

It totally caught me by surprise.  Nothing like it had ever been recorded.  Even Van Vliet’s curiously delicious earlier output (Safe As Milk, Strictly Personal, Mirror Man) tended to see-saw the twin poles of blues and R&B on one side and psychedelia on the other - those were styles I knew.

But Trout Mask Replica broke new ground.  In fact, it only bears the faintest resemblance to rock music.  The Magic Band, which must be counted among the tightest music aggregations ever, rehearsed the material at a storied house in Woodland Hills, California.  (In fact the house is up for sale as I type this -- see below.).  The instrumentation -- electric guitars, bass, drums -- sounds normal, but the music they learned (by ear, not by notation) is replete with off-kilter time signatures, abrupt changes, endless ostinatos, remarkable polyrhythm (one instrument playing different rhythm against another), and a kind of charged tribalism.  Frank Zappa, who produced it, made sure the instruments were extremely well recorded (after first reportedly wanting to make it a “field recording”).

I’ll give you the kicker in a minute, but first know that Don Van Vliet, who wrote every note of the band’s music, is an inventive and powerful singer, who freely borrows from Chester Burnett’s (Howlin’ Wolf’s) grisly growl, but can also deliver soft edges and fiery colors, all frequently in the same song.  His poetry borrows heavily from Surrealism -- I find the poet Philip Lamantia shares a similar sensibility -- and Beefheart’s word-crafting borders on the unforgettable. Images like “an old navy fork, sticking in the sunset,” “A thick cloud caught a Piper Cub tail, a match struck blue on a railroad rail,” and “lipstick Kleenex, hung on a pointed, forked twig” left indelible images in my imagination as powerful as any Beatles or Dylan lyric. 

The kicker I promised above is that Beefheart sang the lyrics while hearing the band play one room away, through a closed door.  No artful sound foldback here; just singing while straining to hear the complex compositional forms played down the hall!  The result is that the vocals do not follow the music perfectly.  Now they are a bit soon, now a bit late.  Far from being a distraction, this invention makes the listen that much more interesting.

It’s not background music.  You need to try to carve out time to get to know it, if that’s even possible these days.  Think of it as a James Joycian stage play with music.

Gordon Henderson adds:

The Woodland Hills house where Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band conceived their album Trout Mask Replica is for sale. The house located at 4205 Ensenada Drive in Woodland Hills is known to fans as the Trout Mask house. Stories abound about the making of this unusual album:

-- Frank Zappa, who produced the album, wanted to record at the house, with engineer Richard Kunc, using a soundboard that was built into a briefcase.

-- Zappa wanted the album to be an “ethnic field recording” and most of the spontaneous narration and dialogue was recorded at the house.

-- Captain Beefheart AKA Don Van Vliet, suspicious that Zappa was producing his album “…on the cheap,” insisted that they record in a studio. The project was taken to Whitney Studios in Glendale.

-- The band was so tight, from more than six months of near constant rehearsals (at the Trout Mask house) that they finished all the instrumental tracks (two records) in four and a half hours.

If you’re interested in buying the Trout Mask house or just want to take the tour click here.

While we’re on the subject, Don Preston, who plays piano on the song The Blimp on Trout Mask Replica, is having a show of his artwork this week at Space Arts Center in South Pasadena. The opening reception is from 6–7:30pm Saturday, September 11, at Space, 1506 Mission Street, South Pasadena. Following the opening at Space there will be a tribute concert, We’re Only in it for the Love of Don Preston, at 8pm at the South Pasadena Music Center, 1509 Mission Street, South Pasadena.