It’s a safe bet that for many Captain Beefheart fans, the very idea of covering the late Don Van Vliet’s compositions (or aping his, shall we say, “raw” vocal stylings) is bloody sacrilege. Trout Mask Replica, certainly his best-known album – or at least the one most referenced, if not actually listened to all the way through – is a bewildering, nearly unmitigated stream-of-consciousness jazz/rock/skronk blast. It’s made all the more compelling by the fact that it was, in fact, carefully composed and then dictated by Van Vliet, who was barely competent on any instrument save harmonica and, perhaps, saxophone. Fascinating? Definitely. Coverable? Not so much.
Now, almost exactly seven years after Van Vliet’s passing from complications of multiple sclerosis, The World of Captain Beefheart takes a game stab at reimagining his oeuvre; it could perhaps be labeled a “semi-covers” project, in that one of the two principals, Gary Lucas, was Van Vliet’s last musical collaborator, as well as being his co-manager.
But it’s the choice of vocalist Nona Hendryx that takes what could have been a relatively safe retread—if any of Beefheart’s compositions could truly be called “safe”—and spins it into a revealing, largely successful reframing of Van Vliet’s imposing musical legacy. If the average pop fan knows her, it’s as one third of ’70s R&B act LaBelle. But the majority of her career has been spent on artier pursuits than one might expect from one of the singers of “Lady Marmalade.” After the group split in 1976, Hendryx would go on to perform with Talking Heads, Material, and other art-rock notables.
It’s surprising, then, that Hendryx doesn’t select the Captain’s artier material. Before Captain Beefheart became a freak-jazz avatar, Van Vliet was a reasonably conventional blue-eyed R&B singer, earning regional notoriety for his 1966 cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” and subsequent debut album, Safe as Milk. The World of Captain Beefheart devotes much of its running time to songs in this more straightforward mode, taking two tracks from Safe as Milk: “I’m Glad” – a song that wouldn’t be out of place on a mid-60s Motown release – and “Sure ‘Nuff ’N Yes I Do,” an unabashed take on electrified Delta blues, complete with boasts of sports cars and other symbols of sexual potency. Add to this four tracks from Clear Spot, Beefheart’s most immediately accessible album, and it’s clear that The World Of… veers largely to the approachable side of the Beefheart canon.
Hendryx’s supple and practiced vocals cast this material in a fresh light and reveal the strong shadings of black R&B and soul Van Vliet leaned on as a launchpad for his more outré work.
She is on familiar ground with these unabashedly soulful songs and brings some 55+ years of performing soul, R&B and pop to bear with surety. In her hands, “Too Much Time” becomes an urgent, driving plea for love; “Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles” takes its rightful place as a hypnotic, sinuous ‘70s soul ballad.
The instrumental performances are razor-sharp too. Lucas certainly has lost none of his fluency and penchant for slip-sliding, guitaristic hairpin turns, and his backing band – Richard Dworkin, Jesse Krakow, and Jordan Shapiro – are more than able to deliver on even the most challenging material.
Still, devotees of Beefheart’s more characteristic work – the angular, aggressive, challenging and wildly off-kilter songs and spoken-word pieces he’s best known and loved (or hated) for –
will find some intriguing gems here as well. Two Trout Mask Replica tracks are included: “When Big Joan Sets Up” is still a tire-shredding skid of a song, and this new rendition of “Sugar ’N Spikes” even outdoes the original in terms of sheer octane. It’s a thrilling testament to the enduring power of Van Vliet’s idiosyncratic vision.
If there’s a quibble with the production, it’s that the recordings may be too clean, too transparent. The classic Beefheart albums are short on “production,” being largely jazz-style documentations of performances, and the sonic jumble of the Magic Band lends the best of them a manic urgency. By comparison, if The World Of… boasts a detailed sheen, it lacks the immediacy and impact of the originals.
But as covers can so often do, hearing these songs performed with a voice so unlike Van Vliet’s is an intimate and revealing experience. Where Van Vliet’s inimitable growl and famously far-flung range could dominate some Magic Band recordings, here both the intricacy and the manic, primitive energy of the compositions is laid bare. Even more striking, Hendryx’s clean but soulful enunciation exposes Van Vliet’s lyrical sentiments, the yearning romanticism, uncomfortable insights, and wry humor his gruff delivery sometimes obscured.
And if identity is a worthwhile lens for examining rock records, casting an African-American woman as the stand-in for a white male Baby Boomer is a provocative move. While Van Vliet was self-consciously channeling black blues singers (most obviously Howlin’ Wolf), Hendryx’s soulful delivery is a smoother, more practiced fit for the genre. Van Vliet sounded impatient, querulous, reflective and unhinged (sometimes within the same song), and in choosing to sing more or less faithful interpretations, Hendryx walks a thin line between homage and imitation. Mostly, she succeeds.
Perhaps The World Of Captain Beefheart is a misleading title, in that it’s hardly an introduction to Don Van Vliet’s work, nor does it accurately encompass the wildness and range of his art. But it is a fascinating revisiting by two artists who know of what they speak, revealing insights and surprises to those who already know and love his music. Yes, the performances are smoother and more practiced, the recordings less urgent than the original renditions, but the strength of Van Vliet’s singular, utterly uncompromising vision shines through loud and clear.
‘The World of Captain Beefheart’ Track List
1. Sun Zoom Spark
2. My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains
3. I’m Glad
4. The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or the Big Dig)
5. Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles
6. Suction Prints
7. Sugar ‘N Spikes
8. Too Much Time
9. When It Blows Its Stacks
10. Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do
11. When Big Joan Sets Up
12. Tropical Hot Dog Night
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