Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s “Trout Mask Replica”

Album cover for Trout Mask Replica

This week, I’ve been listening to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s double-LP “Trout Mask Replica” from 1969. This album challenges the listener’s sensibilities and understanding of musical conventions. From the start of the first track, “Frownland,” the first-time listener will question the judgement of those who consider this to be one of the greatest albums of all time. My first encounter with this album came from a girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. It was awful and offensive. Either I was an idiot or she was putting one over one me. I gave it a couple more tries and gave up. So here I am, two decades later, devoting time to it because it is a great album. Do I love it now? No, but I do appreciate it and even enjoy parts of it in doses.

The verb “experiment” means to try something for the purpose of discovery. This generally implies doing something in some way different from what one normally does. The outcome is unknown. A question beginning with “What would happen if…” prompts an experiment. Then depending on the outcome, you might alter the act for future experiments. As the outcome becomes less unknown, the act becomes less of an experiment and more of a practice. This album is the result of experiments with breaking the conventions of rock music. Living together in California, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) ruthlessly led his band of musicians like a cult leader. His methods challenged the established rules of rock as well the ethics of management. That’s another topic though.

Dachau Blues

The third track “Dachau Blues” grabbed my interest first. Yes, the song does follow some blues structure, but it’d be a stretch to call it a blues song. Beefheart’s vocals stand out in front, with the band mixed relatively low. The guitars and dry drums create a near chaotic background for the anti-war lyrics. They choose the location of Nazi concentration camp from World War II to tell how frightened children look up to the adults to not repeat the horrors of war.

The song demonstrates little relationship between accompaniment and vocals. Even though the guitars start with a jagged rhythm for the first chorus, they seem to dissolve into apparently improvised melodic riffs. The percussion and guitars fall in and out of rhythm with each other. Then a saxophone screams in competition with the spoken lyrics. There’s a mixture of intention and accident throughout the album. These glimpses into the process remind us of the importance of the process. I’m also reminded of the Beatnik notion that the unedited thought is more pure and loses something through revision. Yet, we know that Captain Beefheart and his magic band practiced and practiced these songs. The loose chaos didn’t come easy.

Pachuco Cadaver

Before the music starts, the Captain shares some nonsensical wisdom: “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?” There’s some underlying logical to the nonsense written by Captain Beefheart, perhaps. He has a great taste for the vocabulary of unusual, using these words to paint a surreal story world. Elements of this world are returned to throughout the album, feeling more like consistency than repetition. The lyrics of “Pachuco Cadaver” present the vignette of an attractive Latina-American woman, like a bizarre version of The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.

“Pachuco Cadaver” stands out on the album as being one of the few songs with a stand-out guitar riff that repeats in different parts of the song. The accompaniment even builds up to it as it evolves out of a primordial groove. At times, it is hinted at, muted, then devolves into arhythmic strumming. Then it appears, nearly rocking, as the Captains says, “her lovin’ makes me so happy…”

When she walks, flowers surround her
Let their nectar come in to the air around her
She loves her love sticks out like stars
Her lovin’ stick out like stars

Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”

Album cover for Screamadelica

This week, I’ve been listening to Primal Scream’s third album “Screamadelica” from 1991. At the end of the 80s, critics speculated that grebo-baggy music were going to be the sound of the 90s. These genres found new energy in combining psychedelic alternative rock with dance rhythms of acid house. British bands like EMF, Jesus Jones, and the Escape Club brought these sounds to American MTV. This was right before Nirvana’sSmell Like Teen Spirit” grabbed everybody’s attention and changed things. While I liked some of it, grunge didn’t really catch me as hard as it did others. Had I heard “Screamadelica” when it came out, I probably would’ve loved it. I had the same difficulty with it now that I have with the band Muse, several of the songs sound like direct combinations of two or three other songs. More derivative than inspired.

Movin’ On Up

So, that brings us to the opening track “Movin’ On Up.” It’s a good song on its own; However, to me it sounds like The Rolling Stone’sSympathy for the Devil” played like The Who’s “Magic Bus” after listening to George Michael’s “Faith.” The first verse opens with “I was blind, now I can see, you made a believer out of me.” This verse makes an allusion to “Amazing Grace,” where the chorus’s “I’m movin’ on up now, getting out of the darkness; My light shines on.” recalls both The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” and the gospel anthem “This Little Light of Mine.” Screamadelica decidely wrote a rock n roll gospel anthem. I’m not sure what they’re believing in: perhaps it’s rock n roll and perhaps it was ecstasy.

The verses follow a I-I-I-I-V-IV-I-I chord progression, over which lay a gospel-blues melody. A female choir joins for the chorus, with a V-V-IV-IV-ii-IV-I-I progression. This jump up to the fifth for the chorus provides the feel of a key change without actually entering one. In addition to the Who-Stones inspired acoustic guitar riff, piano and choir support the gospel feel of the recording. Then an electric guitar provides an excellent solo that sounds more than a little like the solo in Sympathy for the Devil without the danger and edge.

Primal Scream’s love of The Rolling Stones stands out through much of the album. I definitely cannot blame them; my past few years of listening to the Rolling Stones have had a tremendous influence on my work as well. But sometimes I kept being reminded of specific songs by other artists strongly. The song “Damaged” kept making me want to listen to the much better “Moonlight Mile.” I think most of us as musicians try to avoid that. We might say, “I want to make a song like this one,” but our intentions are to emulate what we like about that song without copying the song itself.

Don’t Fight It, Feel It

After the opening track that blends gospel with 60s rock n roll, band jumps into acid-house track “Slip Inside This House.” This cover of a 13th Floor Elevators song from 1967 provides their sideways step into a seemingly disparate genre. Then they make full plunge into house with the third track “Don’t Fight It, Feel It.” Apparently, their intention was the produce a modern verse of Northern Soul music. Music about dancing, for dancing, with groove and soul.

It’s definitely modern (as of 1991) and makes you dance. It has the house synthetic piano chords that comes and go. It has layered soulful lyrics about getting high and dancing. It has a great bassline and house drums. It has an annoying chirping synth. It goes on and on for seven minutes that I would only find bearable if I was dancing to it in a club, and even then I wouldn’t be sad when it was over.

Loaded

The band update their earlier song “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Had” on the epic middle track “Loaded.” The earlier song, from their 1989 self-titled second album. I prefer the earlier version, of course, with its more guitar-rock sound and “Sympathy For The Devil” inspired bridge.

“Loaded” opens with a sample from the movie “The Wild Angels” with Peter Fonda declaring they “want to be free.. get loaded and have a good time.” This freedom sample is appropriate, considering the song’s strong resemblance to George Michael’s “Freedom 90” from the previous year. Like much of the synth drum patterns of the early 90s, this one dances with the extra hops during the third beat. The synth piano also plays the jazz-inspired chord rhythm patterns heard in a lot of house music of the period. Guitars come and go riffing in a distinctly rock style.

Primal Scream most succeeded in combining house with rock on this track. It proceeds through a journey, with different phases. This keeps the song interesting. While they use house’s tendency towards drawn-out repetition, they’ve found a compromise between what’s appropriate for listening vs. dancing. A dance-club audience thrives on that lengthy repetition, whereas a listener needs variety.

Aretha Franklin’s “Lady Soul”

Cover for Aretha Franklin's album Lady Soul

This week, I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin’s album “Lady Soul” from 1968. This marked her twelfth album released in seven years since her first in 1961. Just over a week ago, I spent a week with her tenth album, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” from 1967. Both are fantastic. The songs of Aretha Franklin often played in our house when I was growing up. My mom had a copy of the “30 Greatest Hits” compilation on CD. She and my sister listened to it a lot. “Natural Woman” and “Respect” especially got a lot of play. Though her music filled my childhood, it took several years before I actually developed my own appreciation. Franklin’s singing amazes every time I hear her. She knows how to fill the songs with such emotion and power. A lot of singers attempt the same and often just sound like they are yelling. Aretha Franklin sings!

Chain of Fools

The album opens with “Chain of Fools,” written by Don Covay. The speaker of the song is in a relationship with a philanderer. She discovers that he has other lovers and that she is just one of many “fools.” And yet, she is determined to stick it out as long as she can handle. They use the metaphor of a chain consisting of links to represent the collection of lovers. This metaphor is used throughout the song, maintaining consistency.

There are three verses, the first two are eight lines, the third consists of four. Each set of four lines follows a ABCB rhyme scheme. With the exception of “fool/cruel” and “break/take” the rhymes are not strict. We have “man/chain”, “link/strength”, and “home/strong.”

For five long years
I thought you were my man
But I found out, love
I’m just a link in your chain
You got me where you want me
I ain’t nothing but your fool
You treated me mean
You treated me cruel

There is no real chord progression to the song, though there is plenty of groove and movement. The song provides soulful rock riffs over the same chord all the way through. The guitar mostly plays arpeggios, with a little melodic riffing, of the same minor chord. Joe South’s lead guitar plays some gritty low notes through a clean amplifier, again it’s simple but effective. The bass guitar rolls along, mostly repeating the same two bar pattern, one bar answering the other.

A Natural Woman

The soulful “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” closed side A of the record. Carole King wrote this song with her then husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. I heard this song so much as a child that it feels like the first verse and chorus are just woven into me. It reminds me of the front door and windows being open throughout the house in the early spring. The lead and backing vocals joining and dancing around each other.

Spooner Oldham’s perfectly understated piano starts the song with a simple set of chords, like the piano in a small church. The verses follow a chord progression of I-V-VII♭-IV. Then Aretha begins “Looking out on the morning rain,” joined by the bass guitar. Gradually, the strings and drums also begin to play. A gentle, cautious, pre-chorus follows ii7-iii7, a progression that feels like it’s waiting for strength. Then the strings and backing vocals rise up in the chorus with religious joy, “You make me feel.. you make me feel.. You make me feel like a natural woman!”

Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you
Life was so unkind
But you’re the key to
My peace of mind
‘Cause you make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel like
A natural woman

Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic”

cover for Dr. Dr's album The Chronic

This week, I have been listening to Dr. Dre’s debut album “The Chronic” from 1992. Dr. Dre released this album during my sophomore year of high school. I didn’t pay much attention to hip hop, but I did hear “Nuthin’ But a G Thang.” The album’s icon cover stood more familiar to me than that hit song. Dr. Dre was born as Andre Young in Compton, CA, birthplace of the Bloods, rival gang of the Crips. The Los Angeles riots in response to the Rodney King beating extended to Compton a couple of months before the recording of “The Chronic.” He worked as a club DJ using the nickname of basketball hero Julius Erving, “Dr. J”. In the 1986, he joined N.W.A. as rapper Dr. Dre. The group fell apart in 1991 over business disputes and some famous drama with Eazy-E.

Lil Ghetto Boy

The middle of the album features smooth G-funk track “Lil Ghetto Boy.” Dr. Dre and crew built the song primary on samples from “Little Ghetto Boy” by Donny Hathaway. They layered these with samples from Gil-Scott Heron and George McCrae. A drum machine adds percussive punch. Snoop Dogg and Dre trade verses, with Snoop providing the first and third, and Dre on the second. Snoop’s cousin “Dat Nigga” Daz Dillinger provides the backing vocals.

The song presents stories of young street gangsters, told through a series of couplets. The verses are not all the same length, but with fw exception each pair of lines rhyme. Most of the rhymes are straight, but there are some slant rhymes like “life” and “fight” or “quicker” with “nigga.”

The chorus comes straight from the original song by Donny Hathaway. This happens on a few tracks on the album. I immediately recognized this on “Let Me Ride” and “The Roach” as these songs are directly based on Parliament tracks, “Mothership Connection” and “P. Funk.” I believe they unashamedly based their rap songs on these originals for an audience who knew the source material.

High Powered

Track “High Powered” opens with a spoken request for “Give me some of that ol’ gangta shit, you know what I’m sayin’, something I can just kick back, smoke a fat ass joint to.” Then the music comes in, slow and grooving, with a characteristic high-frequency synth line. I think they synth may be an original line played by Colin Wolfe. They track also has beats sampled from “Buffalo Gals” by former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. The detailed request continues for the first full minute. Then Dre begins rapping slow, tough, and methodic. My favorite line is “Haven’t you ever heard of a killa? I drop bombs like Hiroshima.” At the word “killa”, the music is interrupted by a strong booming explosion sound effect. It’s very effect.

Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang

The hit from the album, “Nuthin’ But a G Thing,” borrows its main groove and iconic synth line from “I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You” by Leon Haywood. The song serves as a form of mission statement for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as rap artists. The mix references to their working relationship, about their marijuana use, street and gangster business, but most importantly their musical project. There is a sense of urgency, even with the laid-back beat, that they need to do what they are doing. Not only do they need to make the music, but we need to hear it.

Snoop stands out as an superior rap vocalist on this album. He mixes rap with occasional slips into restrained melodic singing. His style is decidedly smooth and cool. This doesn’t mean he’s slow. Snoops jumps into bits of triplet-hopping beats at times that feel like tape machine flying forward. Dr. Dre is also a very skilled rapper, deserving of the praise, but he lacks the Snoop’s strength of style.

As with most tracks on this album, the lyrics are series of couplets combining straight rhymes with slant rhymes. Each of these lines contain internal rhymes and a skilled use of consonance and assonance.

Well, I’m peepin’ and I’m creepin’ and I’m creepin’
But I damn near got caught ‘cause my beeper kept beepin’
Now it’s time for me to make my impression felt
So sit back, relax, and strap on your seat belt
You never been on a ride like this befo’
With a producer who can rap and control the maestro
At the same time with the dope rhyme that I kick
You know and I know, I flow some old funky shit
To add to my collection, the selection symbolizes dope
Take a toke, but don’t choke
If you do, you’ll have no clue
On what me and my homie Snoop Dogg came to do

Prince and the Revolution’s “Purple Rain”

Prince Purple Rain album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Prince and the Revolution’s album “Purple Rain” from 1984. As a listener, I know few albums more than this one. I was seven years old when it came out; My teenage aunt was a big fan and I really got into Prince through her. About this time, I told her that I wanted to grow up to be a rock star like Prince or Michael Jackson. that I wanted My mom bought the record and I recall I was NOT allowed to listen to “Darling Nikki.” That’s the song that pushed Tipper Gore to start the PMRC, which lead to the Parental Advisory stickers on albums.

About five months ago, I spent time with “Sign O’ The Times” and I was not particularly impressed. Many authoritative voices praise “Sign O’ The Times” higher than “Purple Rain” and I absolutely disagree. “Purple Rain” is a wholly conceived and beautifully performed and recorded funk pop-rock album. Even though this album has been endless played and has influenced so much that came after, it still maintains a fresh sense of risky inventiveness and stellar musicianship across the board. 

I like to choose three songs from each album to look at specifically; this was not an easy task for “Purple Rain,” but ‘et’s get to it.

The seventh track “I would Die 4 U” opens with a high note, presumably on bass guitar. This leads to a pulsating synth line that plays the rhythmic role often assumed by the hi-hat, giving the song a 16th note disco feel. I believe this is also doubled by a hi-hat sound (likely from Prince’s favorite drum machine, the LM-1). This keeps a gentle sense of urgency throughout the song, only broken for a few seconds before the coda. The lines of “I would Die 4 U” become a chant towards the end, especially during live performances.

As good as the music is, the lyrics are daring and unusual. On one hand, the song comes across as a love song, with a chorus repeating, “I would die for you, Darling, if you want me to.” However, this idea of being so devoted to a lover that you would sacrifice your own life is paralleled with images of Jesus Christ. He opens the song with the memorable, “I’m not a woman; I’m not a man; I am something that you’ll never understand.” An fitting line from a man whose androgynous personality was amplified for the stage, making many 80s parents uncomfortable. 

Then later, he explains that’s not “your lover” or “your friend,” but rather “your messiah and you’re the reason why.” It’s difficult to say if Prince is proclaiming himself to be a messiah, saying that his sense of devotion in love is like that of a messiah, or speaking from the perspective of a love-god concept. This ambiguity leaves the song open to multiple interesting interpretations, but the subject matter begs interpretation. I don’t think he means this in a martyr sort of why, but rather the speaker is the listener’s messiah, because the listener is worthy of a messiah. Or as he says later on, “All I really need is to know that you believe.”

The hit song “When Doves Cry” remained in the number 1 spot for 5 weeks becoming the top-selling single of the year. This song, too, is full of unusual lyrics for a pop song; again with a thread of ambiguity. The verses dream of idyllic love between the speaker and the listener; in contrast, the chorus speak of how they fight. But look at how they conflicts are addressed: the speaker assumes responsibility and looks for answers in their upbringing:

How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that’s so cold.
Maybe I’m just too demanding.
Maybe I’m just like my father: too bold.
Maybe you’re just like my mother:
She’s never satisfied.
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry.

The album closes with its title track “Purple Rain.”  The song combines stylistic elements of rock, gospel, soul, and blues. It carries the audience along at a slow tempo: just under one beat per second. To simplify it, the chord progression is a I-vi-V-IV (coincidentally the first four chords of a circle-of-fifths progression). From what I’ve found online, it’s a little more like a I9-vi7-V-IV (or more precisely Iadd9-vi7add11-V-IV)

As we also know, the song bears a resemblance to Journey’s “Faithfully” which had an earlier release date. I do not know if it is certain if Prince drew inspiration from “Faithfully” or it was a coincidence; apparently Prince was a fan of Journey guitarist Neil Schon and called Journey to get their OK due to the similarity.  The songs share the I-vi-V-IV chord and similar endings.

In my twenties, I also did a lot of home recordings using a Tascam portastudio. I frequently found my way of thinking about starting and ending albums resembled the construction of this album. The song “Purple Rain” launches into a heartbreakingly affirming solo full of atmosphere and then drifts off into lingering strings. And this closes the album. I’ve always felt that was so perfectly beautiful and effective.