The Case for Why Captain Beefheart’s Awful Sounding Album, Trout Mask Replica, Is a True Masterpiece

I’ve had Trout Mask Replica in my collection for years. I can’t say I regularly pull it out to give it a listen, but I know I’d never get rid of it. It’s a sometimes impenetrable slab of genius, wrought from endless sessions and then a short burst of recording, led by a man who couldn’t read music, was prone to fits of violent anger, but dammit knew what he wanted. (And Zappa produced.) When I learned later that the house where a lot of this went down was located in the hills behind the suburbs of Woodland Hills, it made the insurrection of the album all the more magical.

But yes, it’s a hard one to get into. There are no “hits.” There’s no foot tappin’ pop (well, mayyyyybe “Ella Guru,” and only because I knew it first as a cover by XTC.) It’s discordant. Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart sounds possessed by Howlin’ Wolf trying to sing nursery rhymes on acid, and it often plays like members of the band are in different areas of the house with a vague idea of what the others are doing. (This is actually a bit close to the truth).

Vox’s continuing series “Earworm,” hosted by Estelle Caswell, attempts to convert listeners who may have never heard of the album, by taking apart the opening track, “Frownland.”

As Caswell explains, with help from musicologists Samuel Andreyev and Susan Rogers, Van Vliet melded blues and free jazz, and played it with a deconstructed rock band instrumentation. Drums and bass did not lock down a rhythm–they played independent of the others, with the bass even playing chords. Rhythm and lead guitar played two different time signatures each, and neither were easy, 4/4 rhythms. And then there’s the saxophone work, dropping in to squonk and thrash like Ornette Coleman. As Magic Band members point out, Van Vliet didn’t understand that a bass or a guitar did not have the same range of notes as an 88-key piano, which was Van Vliet’s songwriting instrument.

However, only jazzbos dig on learning about polyrhythms. There’s so many other reasons to appreciate Trout Mask. For one, it’s in the proud tradition of European surrealism but also comes from a particular “old weird America” that produced some of our most brilliant nutcases. (How many people, learning that Van Vliet was raised near Joshua Tree, nodded in enlightenment? Of course he was.) You want drug music, the album says…well then, this is the uncut stuff.

And then sometimes it really just hits hard: “Moonlight On Vermont” is relentless, with a corruscating guitar line and Beefheart worked up into a lather over “that old time religion.” He quotes Blind Willie Johnson, conflates paganism and Puritanism, and transcends both. (Maybe this is the gateway song for newbies?)

The Vox video precedes its defense with some negative reviews from the contemporary press, but this Dick Larson review from the time understood it from the get go, who writes about it as a giant step forward after Beefheart’s two previous, more accessible albums:

Dylan would sympathise with Beefheart’s ‘nature-and-love-trips’, but the Captain is faster and more bulbous (and he’s got his band). But this is it. In straightening out his music, he’s found some kind of religion. It may be in hair pies (yes!) or in Frownland, but mainly it’s people, children and country men and women. And this is a new delight for Beefheart – a rough outdoor humanity blended with humour and a rich verbal vomit of imagery.

It is a wild album, literally. There are field recordings in between the music, with sounds of crickets and a plane passing overhead. The LP art shows the band standing, crouching, and hiding in the overgrown backyard of the house. There’s mysterious things in the stream below and only some of them are fish.

Related Content:

Tom Waits Makes a List of His Top 20 Favorite Albums of All Time

Hear a Rare Poetry Reading by Captain Beefheart (1993)

Captain Beefheart Issues His “Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing”

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (6)
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  • Bill Pruitt says:

    A good intro is the Rolling Stone cover piece that came out the next year. TMR is good, but not as as good as Clear Spot which does have “hits.” or Lick My Decals Off, or Dust Sucker or Doc at the Radar Station. Thanks for the article.

  • Fred says:

    I like Beafheart, but it is difficult to listen to. I like it when he comes up in a random playlist, but to sit down and give an album a good listen, well I guess only us old hippies do that.

  • Frederick Harrison says:

    There’s a repeated line in “Moon on Vermont” – “Come out to show them” and it reminded me of an early Steve Reich tape loop from 1966 that repeated the same phrase slightly out of sync with itself. Coincidence or was Van Vliet quoting the Reich piece? Reich spent time at Mills College in Oakland, California during the early 60s so its possible that Van Vliet heard his work either through performance or via his association with Frank Zappa.

  • Walrus says:

    I’ve known this thing since a long time ago because of /mu/, and I usually don’t like avant-garde stuff but this is great. Should’ve listened to it sooner.

  • Matt says:

    I still don’t get it.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE Sonic Youth, for example. I love a lot of experimental music. This just sounds like it was rushed and crammed onto tape. The time signature changes come off as nonsense to me — like let’s overlay our work in different times then just SAY it’s genius and was intentional. Sometimes it works out by luck but most of the time it sounds like just a mess. Same with the production – I don’t hear by choice, I hear “we only have 6 hours of studio time.”

    Historically, I can see the relevance, but as a musical piece of work – even an experimental one at that – I think children simultaneously mashing out whatever on instruments with little to no musical ability would sound exactly the same as this. Just throw on some drum machines with somewhat overlapping rhythms and say you’re a genius on the way home. Becoming more familiar with the final result likely makes people feel it could be intentional.

    So it baffles me that so many of my heroes admire it and point to it. Is it just the irreverence of it that they really love? Seems to me that’s a very big part of it. They all went through No Wave because of punk aesthetics to begin with.

    In its defense, I’ll be back to try again in a few months/years.

  • Zanglezort Fleeblemanzen says:

    It’s not a classic, it’s a meandering, badly played pile of steaming horsesh*t loved only by hipsters and the hard of hearing.

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