Category Archives: ’60s Weirdness

Album Review: The American Metaphysical Circus

"...etched on a mirror in back of your mind..."
“…yesterday’s shadows wash up with the tide…”

 

It’s funny how matters of musical significance sort themselves out over time—this is important because x, this isn’t, because y, et cetera—and there’s little better evidence of this than the continued obscurity of Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies. A loose collective of West Coast studio musicians presided over by experimental musician/composer Joseph Byrd, the group has always been overshadowed by Byrd’s previous project, The United States of America. Each group only ever released one studio album, but where The United States Of America has gone on to retrospective acclaim as one of the greatest albums of the ‘60s, The American Metaphysical Circus never broke out in the same way. Why?

Well, for starters, it’s redundant to the narrative: The United States works best as a singular achievement, and its particular blend of electronic modulation and psych-rock doesn’t beg for a follow-up. People already had one United States; they didn’t need another. As well, where the USA’s album was across-the-board experimental and forward thinking, The American Metaphysical Circus is strange more in its context than its content—whimsical sing-alongs juxtaposed with twisted psychedelia, for instance. Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies were undeniably a more fluid act than the United States (both in lineup and style) and this album shows it; where the USA put forth a musical palette and let it carry the listener along, the Field Hippies album turns on a dime.

Now, you might be wondering why I’m spending so much time illustrating the differences between the two projects. Frankly, it’s because I’m tired of hearing The American Metaphysical Circus put down as an inferior attempt to replicate The United States Of America’s success—Byrd revealing just how much he needed the other members of the band. The albums have different aesthetics, different aims—even, to some extent, different tones. Where The United States was dense, weird, and often frightening, The American Metaphysical Circus is lighter, looser, and more scattershot, I think to its benefit. It’s a different project, lesser in some ways, but that doesn’t mean it can be dismissed out of hand. It’s a great album in its own right, and deserves more consideration than it’s so far been afforded.

All that said, on with the review.

The album is divided up into four suites of material—basically, mini-concept albums, each with an overarching aesthetic or theme tying its songs together. The first, The Sub-Sylvian Litanies, is both the most overtly psychedelic part of the album, and the one that most recalls Byrd’s work with the United States. “Moonsong: Pelog,” in particular, is a clear attempt to recall the soft, gauzy quality of Dorothy Moskowitz’s singing; Susan De Lange does a serviceable job here, but her finest moment is undoubtedly on “You Can’t Ever Come Down,” where her arrogant, androgynous tones ground the track in a way Moskowitz would never have been able to manage. The American Metaphysical Circus as a whole is far more down-to-earth than its predecessor, and there’s no better example of this than the aforementioned “You Can’t Ever Come Down.” The song has its roots in an earlier USA track, “You Can Never Come Down,” which Byrd apparently updated and rerecorded for this album. The compositions are practically identical, but look at how it’s altered for the Field Hippies version: warped violin replaced with searing guitar, carnivalesque keyboards replaced with a wall of background noise the melody seems to ride in on. It’s a wonderful track on its own, but juxtaposed with the earlier take, it really hammers in just what Byrd was bringing to the table for this album.

The second suite, American Bedmusic I, is where all the album’s “political” material resides, most notably the off-kilter, rollicking “Nightmare Train” and jeering piano rocker “Invisible Man.” It’s by far the most conventional segment of the album (with the possible exception of “Patriot’s Lullaby”) and as a consequence, probably the weakest—the songs are uniformly enjoyable, but there’s little here that couldn’t have been performed by a dozen other psychedelic acts of the time. Byrd’s experimental tendencies are largely subsumed in favor of straight songwriting; results are mostly positive, but it’s clear that he’s not playing to his strengths. The lyrics here (and throughout the album) are generally more straightforward than on The United States, with each song settling on a single concept and running with it throughout—this as opposed to the USA’s delicate, druggy stream-of-consciousness. Not to say it can’t still be trippy—just look at any song off The Sub-Sylvian Litanies or “The Elephant At The Door”—just more focused overall.

Gospel Music For A. R. Byrd III consists of one song, the aptly titled “Gospel Music.” It’s easily the best of the more accessible tracks here, with its good-times organ melody and brassy horn arrangement; an instrumental, it serves as a good segue between suites, not to mention proof that Byrd could write straight-faced genre entries as easily as winking pastiches.

The final suite, The Southwestern Geriatric Arts and Crafts Festival, is by a pretty wide margin the weirdest thing on the album. It’s the part where I went from enjoying The American Metaphysical Circus, to loving it; for you, it might well be the point that Byrd’s ambition devolves into kitschy excess. The suite ranges from kooky pastiche (“The Sing-Along Song”) to warped psychedelic rock (“The Elephant At The Door”) to surreal, ad-jingly musique concrete (“Leisure World”) and back again. Both the most inconsistent stretch of the album and the most experimental, it’s probably the farthest removed from any of Byrd’s earlier work. The theme here is of course old age and death, oddly communicated with the most cheerful set of tracks by far. A reprise of “The Sing-Along Song” brings the album to a gentle (if somewhat creepy) close, and makes one wonder where Byrd would have gone had he continued in this vein.

This whole sequence of songs displays a sort of throwback-psychedelia aesthetic, largely eschewing the electronics present on the other suites in favor of instrumentation that would sound more appropriate a few decades earlier. It’s intricate and formal in a way most psych-rock of the time isn’t—more surreal than overtly trippy. What The American Metaphysical Circus presents is a literary high, impeccably orchestrated while simultaneously darting wherever its fancy takes it. This kind of detachment can be what turns a lot of people off of this album—the sense that the artists are just fucking around to no real end. If you aren’t wholly engaged in everything that’s going on, something like “The Sing-Along Song” can easily come across as a joke on the listener; sort of a “let’s see how much of this you’ll take seriously” kind of thing.

The American Metaphysical Circus is, as its title promises, an odd mishmash of ideas: the political, the mystical, and the childish all thrown together into a collection of seemingly unconnected suites. And that’s really where the record’s genius lies: by making no pretensions to cohesion or consistency, it somehow ties everything together better than any framing device could have. It really does sound like a circus—a collection of wildly varying acts, some looking to the past, others firmly grounded in the present, and still others thinking forward to the future. In that way, it displays far more ambition than The United States Of America ever did, and even if the USA ended up better fulfilling that promise, The American Metaphysical Circus still stands as a testament to Joseph Byrd’s truly unparalleled musical vision.


Essential Listening: You Can’t Ever Come Down, Patriot’s Lullabye, The Elephant At the Door

Album Review: Trout Mask Replica

Trout Mask Replica is the third studio album by Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, released in 1969 on Straight Records.
“…you couldn’t have done this if you knew what you were doing…”

 

To say that Captain Beefheart is one of the most polarizing figures in popular music is just about the least controversial thing you can say about him. You’ll find less negative current-day criticism of him than you will contemporary (sample reaction from 1970: “when I first heard Trout Mask Replica, I about puked”), but that’s mainly because the only people listening to Beefheart nowadays are the people who want to listen to him. Reactions to his music today remain just as extreme as they were back in the day, and he deserves credit for that alone.

Still, that’s making him sound like a deliberately “difficult” musician, to be listened to in rapt, silent contemplation. Say what you want about him, but he can hardly be accused of lacking soul. In fact, if there’s any common thread to Beefheart’s long, knotty career, it’s the ferocity with which he threw himself into his songs. He could howl like Chester Burnett while singing nonsense about a Babette baboon, and you never questioned his sincerity for a second. That’s the biggest difference between him and frequent collaborator Frank Zappa—while Zappa spent his career well removed from his subjects, tongue firmly in-cheek, Beefheart wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty with his songs. If anything, this dedication is what many people find off-putting about his music. You might not doubt Beefheart’s sincerity during the abrupt whooping that ends “Sugar ‘n Spikes,” but at the same time, he comes across as more than a little deranged.

Keeping all that in mind, Captain Beefheart can be a bit of a tough sell. Unlike a lot of musicians considered “difficult” at the time, the intervening decades have done little to soften his image, and it’s not as if popular tastes have shifted to the point of finally embracing him. The people who like his music now are probably the same sorts of people who liked it back then; if anything, stripped of historical context, it probably sounds even weirder today than it did back in the ‘60s. You’re unlikely to find another musical artist who can claim such a wide-ranging influence, and yet whose music still sounds so alien.

Compounding that difficulty is the fact that no one can seem to agree on what the best entry point into Beefheart’s discography is; ask three people and you’ll probably get three different responses. Some favor the warped blues-rock of his debut, Safe As Milk, in a “follow the artist’s progression” sort of way; others suggest the rhythmically dense Lick My Decals Off, Baby as more representative of his overall style; still others, the jangly, slower-paced The Spotlight Kid, as his most conventionally melodic release. You might get someone who recommends Bluejeans & Moonbeams as well, but you can just ignore this person. All of these suggestions have merit (excepting the last one) and all might serve as perfectly valid entry points. That said, the definitive Captain Beefheart album—the one that best conveys the sheer scope of what he was trying to do—remains 1969’s Trout Mask Replica.

Trout Mask Replica occupies an odd position in the Captain’s discography—his most well known release (I hesitate to use the word “popular”) while simultaneously being his most “out there” by a pretty wide margin. As a result, many people looking to get into his work choose this album as their entry point, get 80 minutes of wall-to-wall insanity thrown at them, and promptly swear off Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band for good. Indeed, fans of Beefheart who consider Trout Mask Replica overrated tend to accuse it of excess more than anything else. Of course, that same excess is what its most devoted admirers (and I count myself among them) love so much about it. Simply put, Trout Mask Replica is by far the strangest, most challenging album Beefheart ever put out, and if you really want to get to the core of his artistic vision, then look no further.

The opening track, “Frownland”, more or less sets the tone for the rest of the album—all of the ingredients for a typical rock tune are there, but so at odds with each other it barely sounds like they’re playing the same song. The two guitars are each playing completely different melodies, it’s hard to tell whether the drumming is unorthodox or simply incompetent, and Beefheart appears to be singing along to something else entirely. As if to throw you off balance once more, the album promptly follows this up with an a cappella poem, recited by Beefheart and recorded on a cassette recorder. Two other such poems appear on Trout Mask, and are the closest the album comes to giving the listener room to breathe.

These tracks also showcase the album’s fairly DIY aesthetic, in the flubbed line-readings (and subsequent corrections) Beefheart nevertheless chose to leave in. Horror stories about his controlling attitude towards fellow band members during the recording process abound, but the final product sounds like the farthest thing possible from any sort of control freak’s vision. At one point, during the skit leading into “Pena”, Victor Hayden (referred to on the album as “The Mascara Snake”) audibly cracks up—it’s one of several moments where the mask of obtuseness is allowed to fall away.

There’s a tendency, when discussing Beefheart, to disregard his lyrics as nonsensical, or relevant only in how they sound—to view them as scatting with words, basically. It’s hard to argue that his songs live or die on their lyrical content, but at the same time, they remain so surreal and darkly humorous that it would really be a shame to dismiss what’s being said outright. Take the track “Pena”, which would come across as a twisted cousin to dirty blues if the instrumental backing wasn’t so bizarre. Or “My Human Gets Me Blues” and its array of oddly poignant imagery (“the way you were dancing, I knew you’d never come back”), all gathered together under an affecting, if not strictly grammatical, chorus. The Captain’s vocals range from skronking to hooting to screeching across the board, like an old bluesman on bath salts; if anything, his voice is what people object to above all else. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but for the most part, it fits the lyrics and the instrumentation—as strange as the former and as jagged as the latter—and for my part, I can’t imagine these songs sung any other way.

Trout Mask Replica closes with its most outwardly straightforward song, “Veteran’s Day Poppy”, but even then, Beefheart makes sure to leave the door open for a more druggy interpretation of the titular flower. There’s not much in the way of a common thread here, beyond “strange people doing strange things,” but there doesn’t really need to be one—the album revels in its own absurdity, and that’s enough to bring it all together. The liner notes for the album transcribe everything phonetically (“Uh man’s gotta eat” appears exactly as it does here) which helps contribute to the very warts-and-all aesthetic—as if Trout Mask Replica wasn’t rough enough around the edges already.

In fact, Frank Zappa, who produced the album (although the degree to which he was involved remains disputed) initially proposed to give it a “field recording” quality by doing all of in the house where the band was staying. This idea was largely scrapped, but a few holdovers from these sessions still made it onto the final product; of Trout Mask’s 28 tracks, 4 (“The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back”, “Hair Pie: Bake 1”, “China Pig”, and “Orange Claw Hammer”) were recorded on cassette back at the house. Many of the album’s most intriguing qualities stem from this “thrown together” feeling—throughout it, you get a sense of different styles, different aesthetics, different visions clashing, and Beefheart’s stroke of genius was in leaving it as it was, warts and all. Everything from Delta blues to free jazz to garage rock enters the mix at some point, and they all work together seemingly by virtue of not working together at all.

Not to call Trout Mask Replica in any way unprofessional. Captain Beefheart clearly had a very specific vision for this album, and anyone who thinks this kind of organized (yes, organized) chaos “just happens”, or is easy to pull off, has never tried. Look at the way the lead guitars play off each other in “Sugar ’n Spikes”, or how the percussion in “Hair Pie: Bake 2” chops up the main riff until it seems like the track is shaking itself apart. The album may not be conventionally pleasing to the ears, but neither is it just 80 minutes of non-musicians fucking around.

Ultimately, Trout Mask Replica’s greatest strength may be its scope. It touches on just about every facet of Captain Beefheart’s music, from the thrashing electric blues of “Moonlight on Vermont” to the stalking free jazz of “Hair Pie: Bake 1” to the abstract experimentation of “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish.” It’s not his most accessible, and it’s certainly not his most inviting, but it is his most complete. If Beefheart established his own musical universe with his previous albums, then Trout Mask Replica expanded the borders beyond what anyone had thought possible. Zappa might not have thought much of Beefheart-land, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a place worth visiting—however you first happen upon it.


Essential Listening: Dachau Blues, Moonlight On Vermont, Pena

Album Review: We’re Only In It For The Money

We're Only In it For The Money is the third studio album by California band The Mothers of Invention (known mainly for Frank Zappa's leadership of the group), released in 1968 on Verve Records.
“…your whole attitude stinks, I say, and the life you lead is completely empty…”

 

Frank Zappa occupies an uneasy place in the pop canon. On the one hand, he’s proven to be an influence on everyone from John Zorn to Kool Keith; on the other, his work—especially in its later years—has a tendency to devolve into crude, unfunny in-jokes or self-important experimentation for the sake of it. Beyond that, you often got the sense that he thought himself too good for pop music. Between the abrasive musique concrete of his early years and the spun-out classical that dominated his later ones, Zappa often seemed like he was writing music solely for his own enjoyment—something that can be a little hard to get past, even for people who claim to love every minute of “Revolution 9.” Even at its poppiest, Zappa’s music is still incredibly short on emotional resonance; you’d probably hate to hear the fates of most of the characters in his songs, if he put any effort into getting you to care about them. It’s probably not a coincidence that his most celebrated song, “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” is almost entirely instrumental. And as if all that wasn’t enough, there’s often an underlying sense in Zappa’s music of being talked down to—that the message comes first and foremost, and that it’s really more important to educate you than entertain you.

Keeping all of the above in mind, why would you want to listen to Frank Zappa?

For starters, his arrogance was (at least during his Mothers of Invention years) largely justified; there were simply no other pop artists at the time doing what he was doing. At their tightest, Zappa’s songs had all the immediacy and catchiness of the very best ad jingles, with lyrics that straddled the line between thought-provoking and just plain ugly. And nowhere is this dynamic better demonstrated than on the Mothers’ third studio album, We’re Only In It For The Money.

Nowadays, the aspect of this album most widely remembered is what it’s mocking: hippies, drug culture, manufactured rebellion, and various bands Zappa perceived to be sellouts. It does indeed go after these targets, fairly mercilessly (“Flower Punk,” in particular, takes shots at just about the entire hippie movement) but to reduce it to a half-hour piss-taking is to do the album a massive disservice. There are moments of genuine social consciousness here, and while they’re all too tongue-in-cheek to connect in the way truly great protest songs do, they can, at the very least, give the listener pause. Just look at some of the lyrics from “Mom & Dad”:

 

Mama, Mama

Your child was killed in the park today

Shot by the cops as she quietly lay

By the side of the creeps she knew…

They killed her too.

 

All this two years before the Kent State shootings. Overall, the album’s first half is where the majority of the hippie-bashing occurs—sometimes literally, as on the mass-internment dystopia of “Concentration Moon”:

 

American way

Prisoner: lock

Smash every creep in the face with a rock.

 

In contrast, the second half is largely a celebration of what Zappa viewed as the true counterculturals. Perhaps “celebration” is the wrong word, but he certainly treats his assorted freaks with more affection than the pseudo-bohemians of Side A. Even “The Idiot Bastard Son” seems to feel at least a little pity for its titular character, “abandoned to perish in back of a car.”

We’re Only In It For The Money ends on an unsettling note: the one-two punch of “Mother People,” in which the “other” people’s aggressions and anger finally boil to the surface, and “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a wordless six-minute sonic collage that sounds like Rubber Johnny’s death spasms. Zappa recommends accompanying it with the Franz Kafka story “In The Penal Colony”—perhaps just to drive the album’s consistently underlying sense of despair home.

Now, all this is not to say that the album avoids some of Zappa’s later-career pitfalls entirely—“Harry, You’re A Beast,” exhibits the kind of juvenile shock tactics Zappa would too often devolve into with his ‘70s output, and this lapse in taste is by no means an isolated occurrence. Overall, though, the lyrics here are probably the most focused and conceptual (not to mention grounded) of any of his albums, with or without the Mothers.

At times, Money can come across as mean-spirited. After all, it’s one thing to call the establishment phony; it’s quite another to accuse the stoned dropout rock n’ roller by the side of the road of the same. After all, if he’s not authentic, who is? And that’s the crux of why the album works: through the music here, Zappa’s providing a genuinely experimental alternative. Accusations of phoniness only work when you can prove you’re not the pot calling the kettle black, and Zappa does so time and time again here.

For starters, you’re unlikely to find any other rock albums of the time (excepting, perhaps, Joseph Byrd’s various endeavors) that make such prominent use of electronics. This is most prominent on the more experimental tracks, such as “Are You Hung Up?” or “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” but electronics are present throughout, either as segues from song to song, or acting a instruments in their own right. This isn’t Lumpy Gravy or Uncle Meat, mind you; Zappa’s classical instincts still largely play second fiddle to simply crafting catchy pop melodies. And does he ever—the songs are a wonderful kaleidoscope of pastiches, with the Mothers trying on styles like wigs—the wackier the better. From the jazzy, urban flavor of “Who Needs The Peace Corps,” to the doo-wop stylings of the two-part “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body,” to the comically-euphoric patter of “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black,” We’re Only In It For The Money’s music is consistently colorful and energetic.

Still, this is the one area in which those Zappa is satirizing have a leg up on him: his engineering and editing is genuinely disorienting, even today, but the actual songs can’t hope to hold up to what the Beatles, or even the United States of America, were doing at the same time. They’re all enjoyable enough, in their own way, but this is one of Zappa’s albums in which the experimentalism side outshines the pop.

Musically, We’re Only In It For The Money holds up quite well; lyrically, less so, but more because of the topics chosen than the attitudes expressed. Still, if you can look past some of its more dated aspects, you’ll find one of the most forward-thinking albums of a time period not short on innovators. Zappa would go on, after leaving the Mothers of Invention, to produce music that was more extreme, and songs that stood better on their own legs, but Money is perhaps the best reconciliation of those two sides—the composer and the pop artist—that he ever produced.


 

Essential Listening: Absolutely Free, Flower Punk, Mother People