Trout Mask Replica
A year or two ago, I sifted through my music collection and realized that I was sick of every single song I owned. I hated Miles Davis and Eddie Van Halen, Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty. I wanted something new but had no idea where to look. I wanted someone to give me a list of great rock music, but I also wanted to know the person had a methodology for constructing the list. My Internet research lasted about three seconds until I cruised over to Piero Scaruffi’s online book, History of Rock Music. I don’t think any of my wishes has ever come true so quickly.
Scaruffi’s book is a history of truly alternative rock music. He carefully defines what he means by ‘alternative’: “[I]t has become customary to separate ‘mainstream’ music and ‘alternative’ music. If you do what I did (listen to the music without letting marketing & sales influence you), it is very unlikely that you will end up selecting the musicians who topped the charts, and very likely that you will be impressed by countless obscure recordings that were twenty years ahead of their time even though nobody heard them.”
When I read that, I realized that what I really wanted was to listen to music actively, to be engaged by it, rather than merely letting familiar and expected melodies echo between my ears. Just as I find it nearly impossible to be entertained by best-selling genre fiction, I quickly became bored with mainstream music and found Scaruffi’s kind of alternative music exciting and fresh.
When listening to alternative music, it’s best not to be doing anything else aside from flipping through the liner notes. You don’t drive a car, ride a bicycle, or work out to the avant garde for the simple fact that such art is inherently distracting. Experimental music is purposely composed to make you think, to assault your expectations about what music sounds like and what it can sound like. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica is one of the more famous and influential experimental rock albums, and if given the proper time and attention, it’s not nearly as unlistenable as it may seem initially.
It’s helpful to understand a little of where Captain Beefheart is coming from. He was born Don Vliet, and his interest in the Delta blues, free jazz, and rock n’ roll was cultivated by a close relationship with an important childhood friend, the influential Frank Zappa. They listened intently to Howlin’ Wolf and John Coltraine and all the roots of R&B. Vliet and Zappa were fascinated by the sutures of songs and the constructions of sounds: What were the pieces and how did they fit, and could they be rearranged and re-imagined? Zappa produced Trout Mask Replica and provided the voice (not the vocals) to two songs. The two performed live and collaborated on albums throughout their careers.
There are many, many albums out there that are easier to listen to than Trout Mask Replica. Captain Beefheart’s first album, the appropriately titled Safe as Milk (1967), might be a good introduction to the band, but it really doesn’t prepare you for Trout Mask Replica. You’ll just have to take the plunge. For some, Trout Mask Replica may be old hat, but that is the nature of any art. One person’s Shakespeare is another person’s Danielle Steele.
Trout Mask Replica opens with “Frownland,” a brief, anti-mainstream garage-rock anthem in which the guitars and percussion do their own things while the vocals try to growl things together. The song becomes a premise for the entire album: The world of mainstream expectations is sad, complacent, and static. The alternative rock band must attempt something new.
The second track, “The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back,” is an acknowledgment that, as much as we’d like to make it new, the anxiety and residue of influence remains. The track is an a cappella folk tune that wavers and recovers, recorded to sound like an old vinyl from your grandparent’s attic. It’s likely that the third track, “Dachau Blues,” will offend many people: It sounds like a very, very dark Holocaust joke, taking the form of the ultimate blues.
In just the first three tracks, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band have re-imagined rock, folk, and the blues. And the album’s weirdness continues. There are the demented cartoon punk-imp vocals of “Ella Guru” and “Pena,” the jazz-fusion saxophone squawks of “Hair Pie: Bake 1” and “When Big Joan Sets Up,” and the high-treble antics of “Moonlight on Vermont.” There are even poetry jam sessions like “Pachuco Cadaver” and “Neon Meate Dream of an Octafish,” the latter of which is a funny send-up of language poetry. Beefheart also attempts a gospel hymn, “Well.” The band also bangs some things together to create concrete music (think the cash registers in Pink Floyd’s “Money”). Finally, if you’ve made it this far, you’ll hear “The Blimp,” a spoken word experiment.
Trout Mask Replica isn’t just a genre blaster, it’s also playtime with guitar rhythms and lyrics. Beefheart’s gravel-mouthed vocals have influenced everyone from Tom Waits to Curt Cobain. His fractured beats influenced the new wave and punk scenes, demanding that musicians think differently about time signatures and the relationship between the guitar and the drums. Lyrically, Beefheart tells expressionistic folk stories and surrealistic jokes, paints alien landscapes, and populates them with our more familiar demons.
Most importantly, Trout Mask Replica is not “noise,” nor is it unrehearsed jamming. Every note and beat is strict and tyrannically arranged by Beefheart. Noise is often misused as a pejorative and emotional reaction to cacophony. But it’s precisely the strange and difficult to understand nature of experimental music that makes it great. If you listened to mainstream albums around the time of Trout Mask Replica, they would probably be the catchy pop songs of the Beach Boys and the public domain melodies of The Beatles. For Beefheart, and all experimental musicians, that which is familiar and repetitious is alternately corny and offensive. Experimental musicians try to teach, and to reveal new patterns and methods of making music, not simply repeat and regurgitate ideas and formulas you’ve heard thousands of times before.