|The Challenge of Trout Mask Replica
recorded 1969 at Whitney Studios & the Trout House, Woodland Hills
Trout Mask Replica (TMR) is THE album that defines the archetypal Beefheart sound presenting it for the first time and in its most raw state. The previous albums had been part of the search to find a different musical palette and with TMR Beefheart had found it. In a way this album represents a rite of passage for any real fan of Beefheart's music. People embrace it wholeheartedly or hate what they hear as a formless cacophony.
TMR is an uncompromising album. Indeed, the listener hearing the first track, Frownland, is immediately having to challenge what they're hearing and any preconceptions of what rock music is have to be questioned. The standard ensemble of drums, bass and guitars in used in a new way, each instrument is as equally prominent as the others. The song seems to jerk around in several different directions at the same time while Beefheart appears to be singing to an entirely different soundtrack. It requires 'active' listening to fully appreciate what is happening. Beefheart does not offer an easy way into the music - you've got to take up the challenge from the get go.
On first hearing many people are frightened off because they do not hear what is going on within the music - they do not 'get it'. Many think that the band is playing discordant improvisations which have nothing to do with each other. This is, of course, very far from the truth because every note has been meticulously worked out and taken months of rehearsal to perfect. Each instrument plays its 'parts', often in different time signatures or rhythmic patterns to the others, and the sum of these parts is a unique sounding whole. But this can only be heard and appreciated once your ears have tuned in properly.
A simple analogy would be those hidden 3-D pictures that were popular a few years back. A first look would give you a page seemingly covered in coloured dots or an elaborate repeating pattern. To see the hidden picture you needed to focus your eyes beyond the page and you would be rewarded by seeing a 3-D image emerge from the chaos. The more of these images you looked at the easier they became to see - your eyes had been trained to see them.
In the same way that you 'refocus' your eyes to view the 3-D images so you have to 'refocus/retune' your ears to understand what is going on with the music on TMR. Once it 'clicks' and you 'get it' you will hear the depth of the music. (However, some people continue to have difficulties seeing the 3-D image in much the same way that the TMR music remains impenetrable to many listeners).
TMR puts into practice one of Beefheart's main musical ideas. One that Ry Cooder had recognised working on Safe As Milk and acknowledged as the most positive of Beefheart's contributions. The use of different rhythms within one song to maintain interest. On SAM this was employed in a relatively rudimentary fashion, e.g. Dropout Boogie, Autumn's Child, but came to full fruition on TMR in a more intense way. Beefheart often railed against rock music of the time and its use of the 'mama heartbeat'. He wanted to create music that cut through this rhythm and broke up the listener's 'catatonic state'. Angular and spiky are words often used to describe his music. This was not music to nod off to, it was confrontational and demanded your attention.
The music on TMR is intense. Not only does each instrument give you something to savour the lyrics too are rich, full of word play, fractured grammar, and humour. The songs deal with more than the regulation content of pop and rock songs. They teem with colourful characters, intimate observations, philosophical insights, global concerns, as well as love, sex and death.
Each song is a small world in itself. They are intense and vivid. They have the vibrant washes of colour of abstract expressionism somehow combined with the controlled intensity and precision of pointillism. The tension between the two approaches creates something altogether new and exciting. Beefheart had succeeded in taking his love of, and ability in, sculpture and painting and transferred it to music - he was able to sculpt sound.
At the risk of sounding pretentious, TMR is as much a work of art as it is musical statement. But because it has been created within the arena of 'rock' music it is unlikely to be taken seriously by the established art world. Even Beefheart himself, as he progressed along his chosen path as painter, seemed to attempt to distance himself from his musical past (although he did draw heavily on his song lyrics for titles of paintings).
Despite being over 35 years old TMR still has the capacity to annoy, bemuse and confound. To create impassioned arguments - is it a work of genius or a case of the emperor's new clothes?
For me it has a power that none of his other albums have and still stands as a unique piece of work. Others cite LMDOB as a better album. Maybe. But TMR was the original and represents the Beefheart sound in its purest form. It remains the ultimate challenge to anyone interested in the music of Don van Vliet.
got ears ... (you know the rest...)
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