Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band – “Ice Cream for Crow” (1982)

March 3, 2010 at 7:50 am (Captain Beefheart, David Fricke, Music, Reviews & Articles)

David Fricke’s October 1982 Musician magazine review of the Captain’s final album…

 

It happens every two or three years. Captain Beefheart, easily rock’s most abused underdog, after fifteen years of beating his head against fame’s door, issues another of his brilliant, confounding vinyl missives — vivid demanding documents of colliding technicolor imagery, exhausting primal rhythms divided into bizarre fractious and alien instrumental eloquence and the critics cry “Breakthrough! Hitsville! This is the one!” The rock comics’ oracle has predicted Beefheart’s commercial triumph so many times it’s no wonder the AOR mind-slaves dismiss it as the empty bluster of a few dozen typewriting malcontents.

But just maybe this time he’s really pulled it off with this album’s breathless opening shot, “Ice Cream for Crow.” “Turn up the speakers / Hop flop sqwack / It’s a keeper,” Beefheart bellows in an awesome tubercular rap over new drummer Cliff Martinez’s whiplash boogie rush, roaring like a demon-possessed caller at some offworld square dance. The song’s double-time crack with the polyrhythmic fragments flying off Jeff Moris Tepper and Gary Lucas’s steely choogling guitars is guaranteed to liven up the platter selection at even the hippest rock disco, at once giant steps ahead of today’s plague of synthetic funk records, yet still deeply rooted in its elemental John Lee Hooker rasp and Beefheart’s glass-shattering Boy-oh-boy blues harp bursts.

And it you think I’m just crying wolf here, note that Epic Records which distributes Virgin is releasing “Ice Cream for Crow” as a single (with a non-LP instrumental B-side). The dance-floor beckons.

As a whole, Ice Cream for Crow — Beefheart’s twelfth album on his eighth label (if you include Epic and count Warner Bros. twice) is a spirited successor in the recent Shiny Beast and Doc at the Radar Station line of Trout Mask Replica-rooted experiments with some bold distinguishing marks. With the exception of “Ink Mathematics” and “The Witch Doctor Life,” in which his voice tumbles over the words in cracked growls, crusty croons and wizened trollish cackles, Beefheart does not so much sing here with his usual octave-defying bravado as rant, rave and rap like a poet in motion over the boiling beat cauldron of the Magic Band. He bitterly swallows the Molotov lyric cocktail of apocalyptic fear and barbed religious imagery in “The Host, the Ghost, the Most Holy-O” (“Why, not even a rustler’d have anything to do / With this branded bum steer world”), read in a stony monotone heavy with dread and scolding over Martinez’s choppy drumming and the guitar’s pleading whine. In a lighter mood is “Cardboard Cutout Sundown,” a typically Beetheartian word landscape of a picture-postcard desert evening intensified by the overlapping contrast of pointed melodic stabbing and altered Western twang in the Tepper-Lucas guitars.

Which is the other thing Ice Cream for Crow is all about — guitars and Beefheart’s inventive harmonies and voicings for the instrument. Consider Gary Lucas’s solo spot “Evening Bell,” an astonishing exercise (in the style of his brief Doc outing “Flavor Bud Living”) in knuckle-cracking inversions and flamenco trills played live on a Fender Strat (the bass sound is actually the low F string tuned down to D). Then consider that Lucas transcribed the piece note-for-note from a piano study by Beefheart. That combination – piano-based note clusters and jagged electric attack — gives the Magic Band’s ensemble guitar frolics a physical rock ‘n’ roll thrust belying the daunting complexity of Beefheart’s song structures. Which is one way of saying that “The Past Sure Is Tense” and the fearsome instrumental traffic jam underneath the free verse of “Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat” both cook with smarts.

Ice Cream for Crow does not have the expanded orchestral colour of Doc (with its Stravinskian string synths), and at times Beefheart’s poet-speak takes on the tones of a lecture-in-rhyme. But with the rockum-sockum of the title track on one hand and the harrowing guitar stutter and Beefheart’s overdubbed crying-geese sax duet of “The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole” on the other, what you can’t dance to you won’t be able to ignore either. Maybe this won’t sell big. But like Beef heart says, if you’re gonna eat crow it might as well be ice cream. Dig right in.

David Fricke

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Paul Williams – “Outlaw Blues” (1969)

March 3, 2010 at 2:52 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This review of music critic Paul Williams’ 1969 “book on rock music” comes from Salahuddin I. Imam in The Harvard Crimson, March 18, 1969. The hardcover at that time went for $4.95, and the paperback sold for $1.75. The times certainly have changed… 

In the annals of rock and roll writing Paul Williams, who was spawned and bred in our very own Cambridge, Mass., holds a special place. The story is of how he dropped out of Swarthmore three years ago to single-handedly set up his own magazine of rock, Crawdaddy!, and went on to establish it briefly in all its tacky splendor as the finest underground publication of its kind.

It is true that Crawdaddy! today is a decadent rag, full of archly pretentious art-writing about rock and that it has been decisively and deservedly supplanted by Rolling Stone as the only worthwhile rock magazine around. Nevertheless it is equally true that Paul Williams himself remains one of the most perceptive and sensitive rock writers on the scene, a fact which is vividly established by the publication of his first book, Outlaw Blues.

Williams’ writing is strewn with astonishingly true insights which range in scope from one-line revelations about our most major and complex artists (e.g., that Bob Dylan has always been at heart a rock and roll singer who started out in folk merely because there were no other options open to him in his early years) to finicky discoveries about the minutest details (e.g., that the Sergeant Pepper concept of a album as an integrated whole “can be traced back to the end of Between the Buttons”). And, remarkably, these multifarious insights are not stranded and left to fend for themselves in a mass of prose but, in Williams’ writings, are usually integrated into a solid conceptual framework, of the kind which is absolutely essential to good rock writing.

For the problem is that most people have very strong preferences in their rock music tastes.

The rock and roll writer always finds himself addressing not a neutral but a highly partisan, opinionated audience. In fact, the main reason the members of this audience even deign to read about rock and roll at all is to have their own strongly held opinions confirmed about all the records and groups in the rock universe. So the rock writer is always under a heavy obligation to explain exactly why he himself likes or dislikes a particular album or group. And the only way he can do so is to invent a theoretical framework within whose terms all of rock music can be better understood. Unless he puts his discussion of value in terms which are supposed to be universally true the skeptics in the audience will not even pause to consider his opinions.

When, however, this objective theoretical framework is sensibly conceived and sounds reasonable, the opinions of the rock writer can trigger two kinds of reactions in the reader. Those who agree beforehand with the judgment being defended find that their joy is immeasurably heightened; and those who disagreed at the outset are lured, interested and sometimes converted. Paul Williams is a master at formulating conceptual aids to justify his choices of favorites. Which makes him an immensely satisfying and stimulating writer even when he is at his most provocative.

A typical example of Williams’ style is his method of evaluating Jefferson Airplane. He begins by positing two concepts: complexity and kinetics. Complexity means that “there is a lot going on” in the Airplane’s songs, intricate musical interaction among the group’s members, the enormous energy that therefore is contained in each Airplane venture, the uncanny understanding that each person in the group has of what the others expect him to play. And Williams gives profuse and exact examples of what he means by interaction through close analysis of the songs on After Bathing at Baxter’s.

The danger of this kind of elaborate complexity is, of course, that a song might get bogged down under the sheer weight of all its minute structuring, which makes it dead and therefore a bad rock song. Just then Williams’ second theoretical concept, that of kinetics, comes along to clarify and expand the meaning of the discussion. Because kinetics stands for the ability to keep the listener “caught up in the motion of the songs,” an ability that very few rock groups, such as the Who, possess. Again Williams gives carefully chosen examples of how exactly and Airplane manipulates tension, rhythm, loudness, and speed of tempo to produce a furious drive in their songs.

Thus, having established that the Jefferson Airplane combines both complexity and kinetics, Williams can claim that they are indeed a very good group, and he has very sound and convincing grounds for saying so.

Williams’ ability to find objective grounds on which to make judgments about the value of rock music combined with the sensitivity he generally displays makes him particularly qualified to pronounce authoritatively on three of the greater controversies of the rock world. About the Satanic Majesties Controversy (was it the Stones most disastrous mistake or was it a beautiful product?) Williams writes compellingly to point out the album’s genius and its fine balance.

The two other controversies plaguing rock concern the merits of the Doors and the Beach Boys. Both groups have pockets of passionate defenders who try to counter the majority opinion which is overwhelmingly critical. Paul Williams is an important and influential voice who makes an articulate and gripping defense of both groups. In particular Williams thinks extraordinarily highly of the Beach Boys and of their guiding spirit Brian Wilson. He devotes nearly 50 pages of the book to exploring Brian Wilson’s psyche and enthusing over the Beach Boys’ music. The net effect is certainly to force one to reconsider all one’s opinions about the groups and, to some extent, to lead one to a new respect for their music.

Williams also hits some magnificent stretches of writing, for example when describing the gradual development of an Airplane jam from its sputtering beginning to exhilarating conclusion, or in his third essay on Dylan which is an expressionistic tour de force.

All of which adds up to a great book. In view of the flood of third rate books on rock now hitting the market it is especially important that Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues not be submerged.

Salahuddin I. Imam

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