Captain Beefheart and the Magic BandA much-maligned change of direction from one of contemporary music's great pioneers resulted in two criminally underrated albums. They were perceived by the "hard-core" following as a crack at the mainstream-or to put it simply, selling out. Granted, the albums Unconditionally Guaranteed and Blue Jeans and Moonbeams do carry a very different sound from their predecessors, even more so due the notable absence of the real Magic Band. However, this does not mean that they are not without their merits, and this is something that I would like to highlight in a look at one of my all-time favourite Captain Beefheart albums, Unconditionally Guaranteed.
by James Paton
First of all, I must state, that yes this album is far more commercially acceptable than his previous work, but then again, what doesn't sound like pop music in comparison to Trout Mask Replica? Sweetly laced loved songs and jangly guitar sounds (I would hazard a guess that this album could have been a strong influence upon a certain Johnny Marr) are the order of the day, and while I am most certainly going against the grain here, it's beauty and charm can be quite overwhelming, if you are simply prepared to let it in.
Kicking off with a thumping drum beat, heavily distorted guitars and melodic saxophone accompaniment, "Upon the My-Oh-My" almost sounds as though the band were picking up where they left off with Clear Spot, especially when the famous bandleader enters with subtle, yet neither cryptic or profound lyrics-a theme that would be maintained throughout the full length of the album. Yet the lush arrangement that squeezes in solos from Zoot Horn Rollo on guitar, and Del Simmons on both flute, and a particularly nasal sounding tenor saxophone, into its succinct 2:40 running time is not only absolutely magnificent, but a brilliant way to open the album.
"Sugar Bowl" is a particularly straightforward piece of music, based around a nice slide guitar riff from Mr. Harkleroad himself with the rest of the band chugging along in support. The guitar work is pleasant enough but doesn't display the musical invention of the guitarist's previous work with the Magic Band; it feels as though he was being held back, resulting in the Captain's briefest of harmonica solos, being arguably the most interesting aspect of the arrangement. Disappointing by the band's lofty standards.
"New Electric Ride" slides smoothly into the proceedings, driven along with a simple, plodding bass line accompanied with acoustic guitar and some light slide work, the simple song structure is held together with sweet love song lyrics. It maintains the mellow vibe of the album and leads perfectly into the beautiful, jangly guitar opening to "Magic Be." This, of course, being another sub three minute love song with a somewhat subdued Zoot Horn Rollo (although again, the guitar work is still excellent), and little for either Art Tripp or Rockette Morton to play around with, but it certainly does the job that it was set out to do.
"Happy Love Song" continues the trend somewhat but throws a silky smooth bass line at the listener, not to mention a blistering little sax solo from Simmons at just over the one minute mark, to guide the first side of the vinyl towards its conclusion. This particular love song fades out as the first signs of any notable lead guitar work from Zoot Horn Rollo disappear off into the distance, teasing the discerning listener and perhaps even leaving them a tad frustrated at the lack of input from the legendary axe man. Regardless, the song remains one of the strongest on the album with solid, though not spectacular, performances throughout.
Side two opens with "Full Moon, Hot Sun" where we find the band are once again being kept tightly in check; the multiple layers of Zoot Horn Rollo's guitar really drive the song along here, until being stripped back down at just under one minute in. At this point, it sounds as the though the arrangement is setting up for the introduction of a solo, but instead dives back into the straightforward verse-chorus (although the two are often indistinguishable) progression that dominates every composition on the album. The Captain then releases a roaring harmonica solo onto the unsuspecting listener before the song comes to an abrupt conclusion at just 2:19.
"I Got Love On My Mind" feels as though it wants to be driven along by Art Tripp pounding on the skins of his kit, but the drums have been pushed back into the mix on this song. This is unfortunate as the great percussionist seems to get the opportunity to unleash numerous fills on this particular occasion but it never happens here. Rollo gets to play a very short, and heavily distorted lead at around 1:35, but once more, the great musician is not given the opportunity to fully express himself and the result, is arguably the weakest, and most facile composition on the album.
However, all is forgiven as the band very gently ease into the finest song on the album, and what is to me, potentially Beefheart's finest work, "This is the Day". Opening with Mark Marcellino's soothing keyboard, Zoot Horn Rollo joins the mix with the most beautiful jangling chords that, when joined by the rest of the band, bursts into one of the finest riffs ever committed to tape. By the time the Captain enters the fray to announce that "this is the day that love chose to play," any music connoisseur will most assuredly be in love with the song already, confirming the accuracy of the lyrics. At 1:33, Rollo is finally able to give his listeners the guitar solo that they have been waiting on, and what a solo it is. Clocking in at over a minute and half, Bill Harkleroad's solo delivers the most sensitive and profoundly beautiful guitar playing that I can recall, it is surely powerful enough to reduce a grown man to tears and live long in the memory. For me, it is without a doubt one of the all-time great guitar solos. Mark Marcellino enters the fray to take the mantle from the guitar and ease the listener back into another verse at 3:30, before the musicians build up towards the climax of this incredible arrangement. This is one piece of heart-warming music that will never leave any listener lucky enough to have experienced it for themselves, it is a genuine classic.
Taking the breathless listener very gently by the hand, "Lazy Music," with its gorgeous guitar opening punctuated with tender natural harmonics sets the scene perfectly for the most laid back song on the album, it is truly another overlooked gem of a song that probably could have been the closing track here. The Captains voice floats effortlessly above Zoot Horn Rollo's gently picked and strummed guitars that populate either channel, as the bass playing of Morton throbs warmly underneath it all, until the song fades out to a close at just 2:49.
The band bursts into life once more with the closing song, "Peaches," which announces its arrival with a cacophony (compared to earlier standards) of guitar, drums and bass. The heavily populated arrangement becomes even more crowded when Simmons' sax enters the fray at 0:48 which helps power the song through another verse until the mix breaks down to just cowbell and rhythm guitar, before some slide work directs the arrangement into short overlaid guitar and harmonica solos. The saxophone returns to the arrangement as it heads back into another verse before fading out to bring the album to close on a high.
v Clocking in at under forty minutes in length, Unconditionally Guaranteed is relatively short and sweet, its lack of invention, especially in regards to song structure can obviously be perceived as a strong negative that detracts from it, and yet, this may very well be part of its charm. Its accessibility over the majority of Captain Beefheart's work makes it an ideal entry point into his oeuvre, but that is not to say that it is as devoid of depth as most would have us believe. Personally, I have found in it, a beautiful album that I can listen to repeatedly, regardless of whatever mood I am in. It is something that every music lover should open their hearts to, it is an album that deserves, not only to be reappraised, but to be loved.
See the Graham Johnston's tribute to Unconditionally Guaranteed and rest of the Beefheart tribute
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