Sun Zoom Spark gives us a chance to re-evaluate the post Trout Mask Replica-era of the Captain Beefheart story.
When we talk about Don Van Vliet, the man behind the Captain Beefheart persona, we tend to talk about what's not there. We talk about him the way we often talk about genius we don't (or don't want to) understand, as if it sprung up, mysterious and ex nihilo, fully formed. To talk about Trout Mask Replica, the Beefheart's thorny classic, we talk about what it's missing: a sense of order, a sense of calm, in some cases definable structure, in others definable songs. We talk about these as virtues, of course, but for some reason it's easier to talk about what's missing than what's present and accounted for in Van Vliet's work.
The same is true of the albums contained in Sun Zoom Spark: 1970-1972. The three albums here -- Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Clear Spot, and The Spotlight Kid -- were released by Warner Bros. in the years following Trout Mask Replica. They are considered Van Vliet's attempt at some form of commercial success, and so to talk about these records you also have to talk about a sort of failure, about the notion that these albums never sold the kind of units the musician or the label had hoped for. Sun Zoom Spark, though, packaged with another disc of outtakes and rarities, gives us a chance to re-evaluate this part of the Captain Beefheart story, and in reminding us not what is missed here but rather what exists in these albums, what wonderful eccentricities and peccadilloes are there to dig into, this box set pays fine tribute to a strange performer who wasn't interested, primarily, in strangeness. He just wanted to make good records.
Lick My Decals Off, Baby was released in 1970 and marks an immediate shift from the approach to Trout Mask Replica a shift that will only be expanded upon in the other two records in this set. For Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart and his band practiced for 14 hours a day, sometimes they slept in the studio. The music was similarly sprawling, at the end of its tether, oddly spiritual. In approach and execution, it's an album about bleeding the lines between life and music, between spirituality and insanity, between craft and chaos, and in each case revealed that these weren't opposites but intertwined concepts. Lick My Decals Off, Baby and the albums that followed are all about finding curiosities within structure. They don't break down walls, they just bounce off of them at odd angles. These albums reminds us that Van Vliet's genius came in studying and understanding traditions of music, perhaps not from the usual musician's angle, but certainly in the way music makes you feel.
This approach makes Lick My Decals Off, Baby feel sometimes like blues-rock twisted inside-out. But re-examining the record, this feels more like a thematic choice than the mind of an eccentric. On "Bellerin' Plain", one of the album's funkiest turns, we find out that "hot pans burn the fireman's hands." The guy who puts the fire out, who cools the heat, is the one burned. It's a strangely representative line for an album interested in many of the things rock 'n roll and blues were interested in: temptation, worry, regret, attraction, sex. But the album's chunked-up rock tunes seem to represent the coiled-up emotional life turning and toiling under the skin of some swaggering body. For all the bravado of its titular request, the title track, with its off-kilter gallop of sliding guitars and frenetic rhythms, finds Beefheart washing his clothes while the woman at the center of the song tries to seduce him. "Doctor Dark" shows us the "black leather lady" but also the white moon. "Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop" sees Beefheart admit to feeling lonesome, only to have that feeling breakdown into wordless scat, articulate expression falls into more formless emotion. This is, by and large, how the album works, and it works brilliantly. We do talk about Beefheart's work, and often, as something cerebral, but this album is all gut. And the guitar work takes funky blues runs and cuts them off at odd angles. The drums can propel these songs forward or send them tumbling down rabbit holes. The bass thumps along, the frenetic heartbeat that keeps the feeling pumping through the album.
You could, I suppose, think of Lick My Decals Off, Baby as the strangest of these records. The Spotlight Kid, released in January 1972, shows Van Vliet on the cover in a tuxedo like some Vegas crooner. Opening track "I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby" belies that picture of normality, as the song slices and slides its way along, never quite finding firm footing, while Beefheart half-whispers his lines in a sinister growl. But by the time we get to "Blabber 'n Smoke" two songs later, even as it stops and starts, it's a song coated in the dust of country-rock and blues. "Alice in Blunderland" could be a psych-rock single. The title track feels soulful and swampy in a way that wouldn't have felt out of place near the likes of Crazy Horse or Van Morrison.
Similarly, Clear Spot -- released later in 1972 -- feels pretty straightforward in its explorations of funk, blues, and rock. "Lo Yo Yo Stuff" is thick with crunchy guitars, a perfect bass line, and Beefheart howling out his vocals with an intense, wild-eyed bravado. "Too Much Time" is downright poppy, ringing with piano and clean guitars, warm horn sections, while Beefheart dreams about "somebody to cook for me." That doesn't mean this isn't signature Beefheart, especially on the title track when standard blues-rock, full of rattling hooks and buzzing harmonica, just bottoms out into stark silence, or how the drums cut up the smooth rhythm into some crooked shuffle. Both The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, however, are far from mainstream sounds. Van Vliet doesn't find notes or ride melodies with his voice, he taps into feelings, he tears at the muddy ground under these stained and speckled tracks. The idea that these records were supposed to be more successful was more about the idea that we'd catch up to what Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band was doing, rather than him sanding down the edges for us.
The outtakes disc here, which feels far and away like the most in-the-middle work in this box set, tells us exactly that. The disc, especially on moments like an alternate take of "Alice in Blunderland", is fascinating, even enthralling, but these more direct takes feel like starting points. The songs on these early '70s albums didn't streamline the tangents of Trout Mask Replica. Instead, they tangled up earlier versions of themselves. Captain Beefheart proved how weird he could be on his most famous record, but on the albums that comprise Sun Zoom Spark he arguably pulled off a greater feat: he made uncompromising records that could (and should) have reached a larger audience. But to dwell on that fact is to, once again, talk about what's not here. And that's a waste of time, when there's such an embarrassment of singular and, yes, genius riches to be found in these albums, albums worth going through again and again for the steady stream of reveals, not the compounding of mystery.