Perfect Sound Forever

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Ice Cream For Crow
by Dave Lang
(February 1999)

As luck would have it, at the last minute I'm asked to review my second-fave Captain Beefheart record. I'm glad I'm given the opportunity to wax lyrical on Ice Cream for Crow. Firstly, it's because it's one of those more obscure Beefheart records that doesn't often pop up in conversations regarding The Man. That is, the three token albums that are forever held up as his best work seem to be Trout Mask Replica (the obvious one), Lick My Decals Off, Baby (many aficionados hail this one as a more concise, economic and weirder take on the classic TMR "sound") and Doc at the Radar Station (usually considered the best of his post-punk "comeback" records). Secondly, it's because it's an album that practically no-one seems to ever write about, period. And thirdly, it's because it also happens to be his last recorded work, and a high point to leave, too. Whilst that may seem a trivial point to you, and maybe it is, I think you also have to ask yourself: why did Beefheart stop recording after this record? There's the obvious reason that he became increasingly sick of the inane bullshit that is the music biz, but as well as that, was Beefheart fully satisfied with Ice Cream...? I don't really know, but I gather that if he wasn't, he surely would have made another stab at making a "last record".

Well, I don't know how "satisfied" Beefheart is/was with his swan song effort, but for my two cents I'd have to say that you couldn't ask for a better farewell. This is Beefheart's best "rock" album, easily. Beefheart never made a non-rock record in his life, sure, but I'm using the term to denote a more straight forward quality in his work. This isn't implying sell-out and orthodoxy (such is to blaspheme, of course); I simply mean that this album ROCKS. Doc at the Radar Station rocks, too, yet its sense of musical discipline is so strong and tight, so down to the note, that it lacks the looseness to let go of itself. In the context of what it is as an album, that's fine. Doc was Captain's response to the punk movement: he was going to play it hard and fast, and he recruited some younger New Wave-oriented musicians to accomplish the task. He'd proven himself, he'd made what was widely considered his best record since Trout Mask Replica. Yet Doc almost sounds over-worked on, like he had to prove himself. I mean none of this as a slight on the record - it's an excellent piece of work, believe me - but it must be discussed to get an idea of how Ice Cream works as its follow-up.

The best thing about Ice Cream is that it meshes up the best elements of Beefheart: rampaging garage rock, Delta blues, dislocated jazz/avant-garde rhythms, and most of all, very catchy songs. The bulk of the record borders on twisted pop, much like Safe As Milk: a mixture of wild R & B/trash-rock and maudlin, schlocky harmonies. The entire package, in fact, is so consistently good, that I feel I must break it down to a track-by-track basis.

Track one: "Ice Cream for Crow" This opener sets the pace: it kicks. It's a basic blues riff, speeded to the hilt with the Captain growling out the verses, then the chorus comes in. Suddenly, it's nice pop, slide guitar twangs out some beautiful high notes and Beefheart snarls the line: "Ice Cream for Crow." It goes for over four minutes, verse-chorus. It could go for 40 and I wouldn't complain.

Track two: "The Host the Ghost the Most Holy-O" This is like Decals-era Beefheart slowed to a near crawl. Abrupt, clunking rhythms that nearly crumble at the seams, yet are kept in line by the disciplinary figure of the Captain. The ending chant's cool, too: "This is a toast to the most holiest ghost."

Track three: "Semi Multicoloured Caucasian" The album's best track, and an instrumental at that. This one goes to show that a truly expressive band can give a song more emotion and feeling than even a highly gifted vocalist/lyricist can. I don't know whether vocals would have really added to this song: it's perfect as it is. A lilting country noodle that brings to mind some of those early Meat Puppets records of the same era (think II or Up On the Sun), this is the sound of sitting on a back porch in the desert watching the sun melt. I can imagine the man himself has spent many a night doing exactly the same.

Track four: "Hey Garland, I Dig You Tweed Coat" Some real weirdness here, and I like it. More jazz-oriented, this Replica-ish piece resembles some of the more obtuse songs from that very period: vocals non-/sensically rambling over the top of the Magic Band jamming together to a ludicrously convoluted jam that's probably virtually unrepeatable from a playing perspective.

Track five: "Evening Bell" Short guitar instrumental, like Derek Bailey meets Son House. Dig it.

Track six: "Cardboard Cutout Sundown" More Replica/Decals-style mess, which is always a good thing. "You know that hardly a day goes by in the cardboard cutout sundown." This track reminds me of what Mark E. Smith once said when asked why he liked Beefheart so much: because it's freeform with discipline.

Track seven: "The Past Sure Is Tense" Again, a real fave of mine, and much like the title song, one that plays it a bit straight and rocks along. Featuring a heavily reverbed guitar and a pretty basic blues riff, this one once again shows Beefheart's unique pop sensibilities in the way he assimilates what one may consider some fairly "ugly" rock'n'roll with catchy harmonies when the chorus swings in. This shoulda been a hit single.

Track eight: "Ink Mathematics" A brief track at less than two minutes, this is another one that wouldn't sound too out of place ca. '69/'70. A nice racket.

Track nine: "The Witch Doctor Life" Another pop gem, which brings in a pleasant country/desert feel and finishes the sheen with a bit of marimba on top. I once read some rock crit saying something along the lines of Beefheart being not an avant-garde artist, but a FOLK artist. A track like this demonstrates why. It's essentially folk music - peoples' music - with a twist. Zappa spent his entire life trying so hard to be avant-garde, whereas Beefheart was the real thing, whether he liked it or not.

Track ten: "'81 Poop Hatch" A spoken word piece, though very easy on the years. The Captain sounds like he's reading a children's story: no gruff, all smooth.

Track eleven: "The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole" This starts off as a stiff, robotic opus that brings to mind Devo or something, and then falls apart halfway through before it completely crumbles into a mess within two of its five-minute duration. Like the best tracks from Replica, this has got Beefheart bellowing away on saxophone like a demented Albert Ayler, bleeting out "tuneless" lines that sound totally IN tune, given the backing music. Free and loose, this shows him and his Magic Band in peak form when creating a soundscape of bong-addled musical collisions. I'm sure there's a music sheet for it somewhere, but it doesn't sound like it. The album's peak of ridiculousness, this is the sort of track I play to non-Beefheartites to give them the creeps.

Track twelve: "Skeleton Makes Good" The last track, a brief effort that yet again rates as one of his most experimental numbers, this has got the Magic Band clamoring everywhere to make it sound "together." I'm not sure what the instrument is - I think it's a detuned acoustic guitar - but it gets strummed and hacked throughout, along with some metal percussion tinkling away, and the result is almost, dare I say, "industrial," yet dizzying and liberating. Captain's vocals are at his constipated best.

That's a track-by-track summation that probably doesn't really do it too much justice. Once again, I think it must be said that context is important here. This album was released at a time when "rock" music of any stripe wasn't very fashionable, yet it rocks harder than the bulk of its contemporaries. Whilst many admirers of Beefheart from the punk era had either gone New Wave, synth-pop or completely underground (due to an uncaring "rock" press, but let's not into that), Beefheart sounds oblivious to it all.

The rough, earthy sound of Ice Cream for Crow, along with its stunning sleeve art comprising of a mournful photo of The Man placed on top of an original, desert-tinged painting by himself, always brings to mind visions of Beefheart heroically sailing off to his caravan in the Arizona desert for a lifetime of retirement after one of his strongest artistic statements. Most of all this record is FUN. There's humour, there's an excellent array of his most varied styles - pop, rock, blues, avant-jazz - but there's also a real warmth to the proceedings. Beefheart sounds like a father figure reading firey sermons, more confident than ever, though there's also a vulnerability in his voice, like he's beaten and doesn't want to offer anymore to the world. I'm not surprised this was his last recorded work, the music biz is way too ignorant, conservative and shallow to put up with such greatness.

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