Perfect Sound Forever

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Ice Cream For Crow
By Scott McFarland
(February 1999)

Upon casual listening to this album, the Captain's final one before retiring from music and moving towards painting, certain facts will be noticeable- the Captain's voice seems duller and less impressive (the confident vocal mastery displayed on, for example, the previous record's "Sue Egypt" is not in evidence); the record has more spoken word and poetry on it than any Beefheart record since Trout Mask Replica; the lyrics seem relatively grouchy or depressed in places (stuck in somebody's "Frownland" as it were); the sound of the recording is duller and muddier than Beefheart's other albums. All right. This one might be a bit of a challenge. But keep listening to the music, and you'll discern the usual quota of compositional genius and stunning band play to be present on it.

Jazz had always been an influence on the Captain. Charles Mingus probably affected his conception of bass and pulse among other things (and Mingus' 1961 classic "Oh Yeah" is an idiosyncratic take on the blues not dissimilar to Don's own take circa the Strictly Personal album). Thelonious Monk's fragmented, kicking rhythms were undoubtedly an influence on Don's own unique rhythms (which in my opinion are his most precious musical asset). Ornette Coleman and Roland Kirk, among others, influenced Don's view of music. When I hear this record, I'm reminded of these influences - particularly Monk and Mingus - not because the Magic Band ends up playing "jazz" in any conventional sense (this is still rock as much as anything else), but because I hear Don moving closer towards those influences in his compositions and in these performances.

Some of the tunes on this record had been sitting in Don's "unfinished" pile for years and were finally committed to vinyl by this band : the sparkling, folksy two-guitar interplay of "Semi-Multicoloured Caucasian" (which reportedly made it onto this record in part because it was a favorite of Jan Van Vliet), the throbbing, trebly, and shamanistic "The Witch Doctor Life" (quite a remarkable composition), the relatively conventional and catchy "The Past Sure is Tense," and the moody "The 1010th Day of the Human Totem Pole." Some new compositions are used, in the usual brilliant conjunction with lyrics, to effect mood or atmosphere: the four-on-the-floor almost disco-influenced "Ice Cream For Crow" (which is awash in beautiful guitar parts and playing), the dark rhythmically-disjointed-yet-amazingly-coherent "The Host the Ghost the Most Holy-O", and the particularly amazing "Ink Mathematics" (which fuses jazz and rock forms with the greatest of ease). Less amazing but nothing to sneeze at are the dadaistic frenzy of "Hey Garland I Dig Your Tweed Coat," the disgruntled poetry of "Poop Hatch," the solo guitar piece "Evening Bell," and the dense textures of "Cardboard Cutout Sundown" and "Skeleton Makes Good".

Apart from the muddy fidelity (which was Don's conception of how the record should be - "2-dimensional sound"), the record's brilliant. The tracks on it vary in their degree of abstraction from standard musical form, and in the degree to which musical concerns are balanced out against lyrical concerns. Taken either together or separately they are, in the end, treasures that are unmistakably the work of a unique and highly creative artist.

See Dave Lang's review of Ice Cream For Crow

See the rest of the Beefheart tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER