Captain Beefheart is one of those unfortunate fellows in music history who everyone knows for one album that also happens to be his most polarizing. As such, digging further into his catalogue requires almost constant comparisons to that album so as to not lose the interest of the turboplebes who only know the words to “Frownland.”
I fall broadly into this camp, though without the comic wording of course. I love Trout Mask Replica, but I’d be lying if I said I was 100% confident that further digging into Beefheart’s catalogue wouldn’t reveal something better than his reputed masterpiece. Surly the man must have made something more accessible, more diverse, better composed, all that stuff?
And he did! Shiny Beast (also known by the alternate title of Bat Chain Puller) shows Beefheart as a more serious experimenter, a tighter writer, and generally working at a more professional level. It’s not exactly ABBA, but since the weirdness is less abrasive and the runtime less bloated, it’s actually relatively accessible for the good Captain. It’s got super-twisted melodies, some neat musical ideas, and the goofy, absurd lyrics that you want from Cap. It’s a more robust, more palatable, all around better album.
And I don’t like it as much as Trout Mask Replica. Not even close, really. The reasons are mostly arbitrary and personal: the four-to-five day period where I listened to nothing but Trout and realized it was one of the greatest things I’d ever heard was one of the most important stretches in my musical history, after all. I had a feeling of triumph and ego after “defeating” Trout Mask Replica that I can’t really switch out with an album I found extremely enjoyable from the get-go.
But that’s not why I don’t give Shiny Beast a higher mark then Trout Mask. There’s another element largely missing from it: joy. Not that Shiny Beast is a miserable album or anything, but it all feels a bit academic, like “Okay, we’re gonna put some reggae instruments in there, and some blues melodies here, and some jazz here, and it’ll be really cool and artsy.” It certainly is cool (“cool” is probably the operative word for this album), but it’s also subdued. The ultimate charm of Trout Mask, though all its jarring abrasiveness, is that it’s so goofy and lovable that it’s worth coming to terms with. The nonsensical humor, insane vocals, and chaotic music aren’t there because they’re trying to make some kind of bold artistic point (at least not entirely), they’re there because it’s FUN. Weird and uncompromising fun, but fun nonetheless. It exists purely for its own sake, and if you can reach the point where it doesn’t monstrously disagree with your ears anymore, you can pop it in for an absurdly giddy fit of insanity.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that “not as good as Trout Mask Replica” isn’t anywhere close to a criticism. Four of the songs are done in a semi-Trout-ian matter. The opener “The Floppy Boot Stomp” features memorably growly vocals, even by Beefheart standards. “You Know You’re A Man” produces a fantastic groove and incorporates goofy horns. “Bat Chain Puller”…isn’t very good, actually, but at least chugs. “When I See A Mommy I Feel Like Mummy” feels like Trout Mask meets big band, with a brilliantly bonkers melody and arrangement.
Outside these, almost everything is distinct. “Tropical Hot Dog” takes Beefheart’s twisted blues to the tropics, with interesting instrument choices and a wonderfully wacky yet robust melody. “Ice Rose” is just a flat-out amazing piece of Zappa-ish jazz fusion, with great melodic twists a-plenty. “Harry Irene” is almost downright NORMAL, with a loungy feel and a decidedly non-Beefheart vocal performance (though it’s great anyway) that lets you focus on the oddly pleasant melody. “Owed T’ Alex” is a bluesy swinger that dangerously approaches “rocker” territory more than once. “Candle Mambo” boasts an upbeat, surprisingly danceable melody, incorporating more interesting tropical and Latin influences. “Love Lies” is actually quite affecting, in a Beefheart sort of way. “Suction Prints” is another superb instrumental, which boogies and grooves its cacophonic heart out, providing a reasonably satisfying conclusion to the album. Well, okay, the actual conclusion to the album is a creepy spoken word track called “Apes-Ma”, but come on, are you gonna tell me that the Beatle’s career ended with “Her Majesty”? Of course you are. Because it’s awesome.
Shiny Beast is a weird, upbeat, general good-times album, probably the Beefheart album to throw on during a party if for some reason you can only put on a Beefheart album. The demented grooves, engaging playing, and shockingly creative melodies are reason enough to laud it as a Beefheart classic, even if I miss the spontaneous goof-off atmosphere of Trout Mask and am not wild about “Bat Chain Puller.” At the very least, it’s far more accessible then Trout Mask, so if Beefheart scares you this might not be a bad place to start.
Thematic Content: 3/5
Experience: The Beefheart Club. Like, an actual club, with like a DJ in a trout mask, and a bar consisting of nothing but safe milk, and fried squid with dough on the inside and a polyethylene bag on the outside, and decals all over the walls that are flavored so you can lick them, and of course a dance floor.
9/10. Best Song: Ice Rose