Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica (1969)

"I was able to turn myself inside out." - Don Van Vliet

I digitized this album over a year ago, and it’s been haunting me ever since. I’ve never felt so under-equipped to write about music before. Trout Mask Replica is quite possibly the most confounding record my dad owns. (Meaning the record itself is confounding, not the fact that my dad owns it – I’m more confounded that he owns so much Paul Anka.) I thought perhaps if I was patient, let it settle in, something would come to me. But after listening to the record several times, it’s still an enigma, wrapped in a conundrum, floating in a pool of cacophony that kind of resembles the blues.

If you’ve never heard of Captain Beefheart before, here’s a little primer. He’s eccentric.

I mean, really, really, really eccentric. So eccentric, I wouldn’t be surprised if the etymology of the word eccentric was traced back to when someone first tried to describe this guy. His real name is Don Van Vliet. (At least, that was his moniker as an artist) He was a weirdo, a west-coast space cadet gifted with insane talents as a visual artist, writer, and vocalist. His vocal range spanned four octaves. He started sculpting when he was three. He claimed to have remembered being born. If Dos Equis did their “most interesting man in the world” commercials in the sixties, Van Vliet would have been a candidate for the role. 

He met Frank Zappa when he was a teenager, and their friendship directly lead to Van Vliet being able to make Trout Mask Replica, his third record, but first to be produced by Zappa. With Zappa at the helm, he basically gave Van Vliet carte blanche, artistically and financially. And Van Vliet took full advantage. 

The stories about the recording of Trout Mask Replica sound terrifying. The album was recorded after an eight month rehearsal period, during which the entire band was forced by Van Vliet to live communally in a tiny house in suburban LA. Members of the band likened the experience to being in a cult – Van Vliet emotionally terrorized the band, and visitors even called the house, “Manson-esque.” There was little to no money, very little food, and rehearsals were non-stop and intensive, averaging about 14 hours a day. It was so bad that a few musicians attempted escape, and Van Vliet punched guys and threw them down staircases. Not cool.

After the painful eight months passed, the band recorded the 28 songs that became Trout Mask Replica relatively quickly, and when they were finished, Van Vliet spent a few days dubbing in his gruff vocals over their already recorded instrumentals. It was at this point Zappa realized Van Vliet was creating something singular and odd, and rather than offer guidance or help, he took a hands-off approach and allowed Van Vliet to operate under the clarity of his own vision. 

And man, what a vision. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before, and it’s more than forty years old. I guess it comes off mostly as “avante-garde,” but classifying it is cheap. John Peel, the legendary British music journalist may have nailed it when he said, “If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.' 

Yup. It’s just…a big, sprawling, incredible piece of….art. Not a Monet, or a Rembrandt…no, this is modern art. Jagged, strange, and absurd, yet somehow moving and thoughtful. This is definitely not something you want to throw in as background at your next dinner party. It’s the kind of album you listen to on headphones and let hit you hard, like a spinning mass of twisted metal and wood – it’s a messy sculpture made of sound. 

I’ve posted a few tracks below that I think best exemplify what this album is all about. Or, at the very least, will give you a good idea of what it sounds like, mostly. But I can’t suggest enough trying to listen to the whole thing, at least once. In my mind, there are two things it reminds me of – The Minutemen’s album “Double Nickels on the Dime,” and John Waters’ movie “Pink Flamingos.” Don’t know why. Can’t even try to explain it. It’s just the feeling I get from those is in the same ballpark. A feeling that I can’t really describe. Which I hope is what Van Vliet was going for all along.

I chose to skip rating this album in my typical "out of 5 stars" ratings. It just doesn't seem right. If you've got any thoughts on this one, just let me know in the comments!


Trout Mask Replica - Important Tracks:

[ mp3 ]: Captain Beefheart - Frownland

[ mp3 ]: Captain Beefheart - Moonlight On Vermont

[ mp3 ]: Captain Beefheart - Orange Claw Hammer

[ mp3 ]: Captain Beefheart - Sugar 'N Spikes

BONUS: Found this clip of Van Vliet on the Letterman Show, circa 1982. Pretty fascinating. You can get a good idea for how "out there" he really was.

The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968)


"The cover really gives the wrong impression, doesn't it?"

Uh. Yeah. All "sidecar" jokes aside, I cannot speak for the physical chemistry between Dillard and Clark, but I can say this - this is a hell of an album. They may resemble a kooky TV sitcom couple (or just a regular couple), but when Doug Dillard and Gene Clark got together, the product was one of the best country albums of the sixties.

Gene Clark was the original lead singer of The Byrds (before that whole "Gram Parsons" guy), while Doug Dillard was the heart and soul of his own band, The Dillards. Clark is considered one of the most under-appreciated artists of his time - a fantastic songwriter with a great ear for a hook but a strong sense of history and affinity for classic American country music. If you haven't listened to his great solo record Echoes...well, I hadn't. So I totally understand. I'm not judging you. It's really good, though.

Back Cover
And so is "The Fantastic Expedition." It got a timeless feel, like all great bluegrass and country music. The songs sound like they've existed forever; they unfold effortlessly upon first listen, and become familiar very quickly. 

The opener, Out On the Side, is a great introduction to both the album and Gene Clark's songwriting. Very reminiscent of his work with The Byrds, it rolls along at an easy pace, and the vocal harmonies on the tag line are wistful and haunting at the same time. Being full of wist is a tough emotion to pull off, but it's pitch-perfect here.

Train Leaves Here This Morning is probably my favorite track. With a jug-band base line and an expert minimalist banjo part by Doug Dillard (minimalist except for the killer fifty-two second solo in the middle) , it could be the soundtrack to a sixties version of 3:10 to Yuma starring Peter Fonda that I just made up in my head. Mostly because it's about a train, and so was that movie.

This album is the perfect kind of record for this project. For music junkies like myself, there is no better feeling than exposing someone to something new, and seeing them love it. And from father to son it's even more special - every time he pulls a record out I've never heard, it feels like I'm fifteen again, and he's showing me something new. It's our common language. I may not have inherited his analytical intellect or his obsession with statistics, but with every Dillard & Clark sent my way, and every Wilco I send back to him, we grow closer.

Who knows? Maybe someday he'll even get me to like Jackson Browne.

- N.W.

4.5 / 5.0 DADS

4.5 / 5.0 SONS

Essential Tracks:
[ mp3 ]: Dillard & Clark - Train Leaves Here This Morning

[ mp3 ]: Dillard & Clark - Out On the Side

**** Full album not available to stream. Read rave reviews and buy it HERE.