Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 36: Captain Beefheart “Trout Mask Replica" (2018 reissue)

The 36th set of exclusive vinyl items offered to platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service was mailed out to the members in June of 2018. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (one full-length album and one 7” single) to its platinum members every three months.

The thirty-sixth Vault package contains a vinyl reissue of Captain Beefheart’s 1969 double-LP Trout Mask Replica, as well as a reissue of that album's only 7-inch single, “Pachuco Cadaver”. The double-LP is pressed in “180-gram fruitcake fish-scale colored vinyl”, and was remastered from safety masters stored for decades in producer Frank Zappa's family vault. The single is pressed in white vinyl. I chose to skip this quarter’s Vault package, as I do not feel a need to own a deluxe vinyl reissue of this album.

Captain Beefheart was the stage name for musician/artist Don Van Vliet, who died in 2010 at the age of 69. He was a highly unconventional musician, so much so that he made his long-time friend Zappa seem like a normal guy by comparison. Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart’s third album, was originally released on Zappa’s independent Bizarre/Straight label in 1969 (Straight STS 1053). Third Man Records has now partnered with the reactivated Bizarre label, and Trout Mask Replica is the first of many titles that Third Man intends to reissue from the Bizarre catalogue. This Vault package is undoubtedly a labor of love for Jack White. As many long-time Vault members know, the Vault’s inspiration mainly came from a Sub Pop singles club for which the White Stripes recorded a set of three Beefheart cover songs.

Trout Mask Replica often appears on lists of the best albums of all time, but anyone who is new to Beefheart’s work should be warned that Trout Mask Replica is a very difficult album to understand and appreciate. Even many of those who sing its praises have admitted that it took them more than six listens to finally “get” it. The album’s 28 tracks were recorded over the course of about five hours – after Beefheart and His Magic Band had rehearsed them for eight months! The resulting album completely deconstructs everything we know about music, and consists of mutant blues-rock combined with free-form jazz. At first listen, Trout Mask Replica sounds like an endless cacophony of random noise; but in truth, the songs were constructed under the unique vision and rigorous control of Beefheart, who spent several months teaching his band how to play his musical oddities. Although it is probably the Captain’s most definitive album, Trout Mask Replica is not the place to start when first discovering Beefheart. In fact, it’s difficult to suggest an ideal place to start, because a musician who is as unconventional as Beefheart can be hard to approach from any angle. My advice is to start with his 1967 debut Safe As Milk, on which he took an already-unconventional approach to blues rock, before investigating more avant garde works such as Trout Mask Replica.

For those of us who are schooled in the strange ways of the Captain, Trout Mask Replica is a mammoth magnum opus of unique and challenging music, although its free-flowing nature and unprofessional sound quality prevent it from being the masterpiece that many consider it to be. In my opinion, the 1970 follow-up Lick My Decals Off, Baby is the better and more finely tuned specimen of Beefheart’s artistry.

At its most accessible, Trout Mask Replica has some strangely danceable concoctions (“Ella Guru”, “Wild Life”) that sound like they were recorded in a very funky zoo. Some songs almost – but not quite – resemble the garage psychedelia of the album’s time period (“Moonlight On Vermont”, “Sugar 'N Spikes”, “Sweet Sweet Bulbs”). Some tracks, like “Pachuco Cadaver” and “Veteran’s Day Poppy”, climax with accessible grooves after beginning with the Captain’s usual Dadaism. Elsewhere, the album consists of everything from old-fashioned blues (“China Pig”) to a cappella poetry passages (“Orange Claw Hammer”, “Well”, “The Dust Blows Forward 'N The Dust Blows Back”) to rockers with inimitable horn sections (“When Big Joan Sets Up”, “Ant Man Bee”) to all-out surrealist insanity (“Pena” and “Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish” go particularly far off the deep end). On many tracks, including “Frownland” and “Bill’s Corpse”, it’s easy to mistake Beefheart’s complex arrangements for chaos. “Steal Softly Thru Snow” and “She’s Too Big For My Mirror” are examples of tracks where the complexity is more transparent. Most of the lyrics consist of the Captain’s surrealist poetry, although “Dachau Blues” and “Hobo Chang Ba” find room for political commentary (with Beefheart even affecting a fake Asian accent on the latter!). The two “Hair Pie” tracks are instrumentals; “Bake 1” is dominated by quirky horns, while “Bake 2” is a guitar-bass-and-drums jam. But the album’s best instrumental – and one of its all-around best tracks – is “Dali’s Car”, a minute-and-a-half of indescribably strange indie-rock guitar beauty.

What does it all add up to? A bona fide cult classic of an album that is unlike any other, and which paved the way for many other unconventional recordings that followed.

The “Pachuco Cadaver” single was originally only released in France (Straight 2C 006-91.200 M). The reproduced sleeve image is of Beefheart onstage with Magic Band guitarist Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) during the 1969 Actuel Festival in Belgium. Although Trout Mask is an “I don’t hear a single” kind of album if there ever was one, “Pachuco Cadaver” is one of its better choices for an A-side song. Surreal as it may be, the song’s groove is quite danceable, especially when its seemingly chaotic rhythms stabilize toward the end. However, the bizarre spoken-word poetry of the lyrics would have prevented it from being a radio hit anywhere except maybe Southern California at that exact time period. The B-side “Wild Life” almost works as well out of context, with its harsh flute sound complementing its lyrics about wanting to live among animals, but that song is better experienced as part of the Trout Mask album, just after the a cappella “Orange Claw Hammer”.

Bonus items in this Vault package include a cardboard-cutout trout mask, a fabric patch that reproduces the album cover art, a tote bag with a Jess Rotter illustration, and a reprinting of Jack White’s epitaph for Beefheart which appeared in the March 2011 issue of MOJO magazine.

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band "Trout Mask Replica" (Bizarre/Third Man TMR-546) 2018

Track Listing:

1. Frownland
2. The Dust Blows Forward 'N The Dust Blows Back
3. Dachau Blues
4. Ella Guru
5. Hair Pie: Bake 1
6. Moonlight On Vermont
7. Pachuco Cadaver
8. Bill's Corpse
9. Sweet Sweet Bulbs
10. Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish
11. China Pig
12. My Human Gets Me Blues
13. Dali's Car
14. Hair Pie: Bake 2
15. Pena
16. Well
17. When Big Joan Sets Up
18. Fallin' Ditch
19. Sugar 'N Spikes
20. Ant Man Bee
21. Orange Claw Hammer
22. Wild Life
23. She's Too Much For My Mirror
24. Hobo Chang Ba
25. The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)
26. Steal Softly Thru Snow
27. Old Fart At Play
28. Veteran's Day Poppy

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band "Pachuco Cadaver" b/w "Wild Life" (Bizarre/Third Man single TMR-559) 2018

Track Listing:

a. Pachuco Cadaver
b. Wild Life

Reviews of other Third Man Vault packages


michael said…
I'd love to purchase this copy if someone picked it up and is willing to part with it