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Captain Beefheart
Safe As Milk

Review By Ray Chowkwanyun
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Captain Beefheart Safe as Milk

LP Number: Buddah BDS 5063

 

  The good Captain is renowned for some of the more bizarre album titles in all of rock: Trout Mask Replica, Bat Chain Puller, Ice Cream for Crow and the ever-popular Lick My Decals Off, Baby. The lyrics are as striking as the titles would suggest with perhaps the most famous being, "And the pantaloon duck, white gooseneck, quacked, 'Webcore, webcore'". Webcore is likely a tape recorder brand, which caught the Captain's eye, but what the heck is a pantaloon duck? Beefheart scholars tell me the word "pantaloon" is just that, a pair of wide pants, suggestive of a fowl with fluffy leg feathers.

I am getting ahead of myself, beginning at the end as it were. Let's rewind to the start. Safe as Milk is a collection of songs rejected by Beefheart's regular label as too depressing to release (their assessment, not mine) so the only way he could get them out was to effectively bootleg himself and release these unwanted orphans on the Buddah label.

Hardcore Beefheart fans consider Safe as Milk to be insufficiently weird, but I think this album, with its crazed jingly jangly sound, has energy of the highest order. It's certainly weird enough that most women have an aversion to this album that borders on the physical. The signature song is Electricity or as the Cap'n gleefully sings it: Eeee-lec-tri-ci-teeee, lingering lovingly over every syllable. In the Captain's rendering, it's somehow insinuated that the juice is being used for something vaguely nefarious. If ever a lyric could be arrested for lewd and lascivious behavior, this would be that lyric.

There I go, beginning at the end again. I should start with the first song of Side 1, "Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do". The band sounds typically Beefheartian -- light and fleet of foot with bendy guitar and swift drumming. In this song, the Captain seeks to seduce all the young girls with his brand new Caddy and yes, his Ferrari too. He doesn't sing, "Bet you'd learn some too", he leers it. Next up is Zig Zag Wanderer, a high-energy number featuring the Captain's voice at its raspiest and Ry Cooder's guitar at its jangliest. Its zesty brio is followed by the gentler Call On Me. Not quite a ballad, this song is pregnant with poignancy as Beefheart pleads with his girl to give him a buzz.

Next comes the hardcore "Dropout Boogie" that comes stomping out of your speakers. The beat and electric guitar are powerfully insistent. Beefheart's singing sounds like a dirge. Then suddenly into all this grunge, he drops a marimba solo. In this song, Beefheart brings to the protagonist's attention the baleful consequences of knocking up his girl. The mood turns soft again with "I'm Glad", a genuine ballad this time. Hardcore fans dislike this song, finding it too soft. But one of the joys of this album is the programming sequence of the songs, which makes each song stronger than when heard in isolation. It's an age-old ploy to alternate hard and soft songs. The contrast with the softer songs makes the harder songs seem that much edgier. And surely the Captain's tongue is firmly in cheek. This is a parody of ballads if there ever was one. The too soulful chorus is a dead giveaway if ever there was one. The side closes with the aforementioned "Electricity" featuring the eerie sound of the not often heard theremin. Actually the entire album is electric as Side 2 begins with a long loonin' note recorded at Beefheart's operating level.

The Captain sings "Yellow Brick Road" in a suitably childish voice as befits the lyrics. This innocence is completely undermined by jangly guitar and drums. Abba Zaba is an upbeat number featuring offbeat drumming and equally offbeat lyrics. There is a tasty bass solo embedded in the middle. "Like Dropout Boogie, Plastic Factory" comes charging out of your speakers in size 20 boots. "Where There's Woman" is Beefheart's paean to womankind. In "Grown So Ugly" the singer has grown so he doesn't even know himself. Tragically, neither does his girlfriend. The stutterstep stop and start style mirrors the dismay of the protagonist. Autumn's Child makes for a suitably memorable ending to a great album. There are many tempo shifts and that weird wailing in the background is the theremin again. I don't claim to fully understand the lyrics, but they do convey a sense of genuine fondness for his girl.

This album is full of fun and good-natured humor. A blast to listen to! Recorded in glorious four-track sound that is suitably raw and light, perfectly matching the mood of the music. I have the re-issue with the Langdon Winner quote (" one of the forgotten classics of rock 'n' roll") on the cover. The cognoscenti tell me it is inferior to the original issue.

 

 

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