Friday, October 1, 2010
As all faithful Metro Classics readers know, our new series, One-Two-Three, begins on Wednesday. The One in that line-up, the first three weeks, is dedicated to dazzling debut films. The theme got me thinking about first works of art that were so perfectly realized and executed that they not only defined the artists subsequent oeuvre, they remained its peak. Since F for Fake, Ratatouille and Death Proof (among others) are all equal to or better than their director's first offering, my measly old mind meandered to music.
Over the years and throughout the genres, there have been many debut records that have been hailed as inimitable masterpieces, and their successors have all been compared to them for time immemorial. Examples of these records include the Ramones' self-titled debut and the Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, both inarguable sonic slices of supreme soundscapes (alliterate much?) that raised the bar ever-so high for their creators and acolytes alike. Hard to argue with those choices, even though Rocket to Russia and the W are incredible in the their own right.
Other perennial selections for dominant debut are horribly misguided. For example, I know some people who swear Bleach is the best Nirvana album. Hogwash! How can that possibly be when In Utero is the indisputable Greatest Album of All-Time?!? Your honor, I rest my case. Speaking ever-so-tangentially of Nirvana, when Dylan Carlson, frontman of Earth and the guy who bought Kurt The Shotgun, heard the Melvins' debut Gluey Porch Treatments in 1986, he gave up playing music for several years because he figured the form had been perfected. There was nowhere else to go. And yet for the last twenty-five years, the Melvins have gone there, reinventing the wheel time and again.
Side note to the side note, remember a couple years ago when all the journalists and hipsters started slanging the hullabaloo about how amazing doom metal was? How bands like Sunn O)))) were now the proverbial bee's knees? Well, despite feeling affection for the genre, mountains of sludgy feedback are like lullabies to me, I couldn't help but think about Lysol, the Melvins album that created and crystalized the entire genre a decade earlier. Was no one paying attention to history? Of course, by that point the Melvins had moved on to bigger and better territories, leaving in their wake remnants waiting to be mined by the youngsters of today, regurgitated for tomorrow.
What was I talking about? Oh yeah, debut diamonds. For my money, the greatest debut album of all time (and remember I've heard every album ever made) is unequivocally, without one shred of doubt, Safe as Milk by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Has a greater collection of songs ever materialized out of the ether, without warning blind-siding a populace too complacent and confused to comprehend? What celestial forces had to align to conscript these weirdos into picking up their weapons and waging a war with secular hymns to touching the eeeee-lectricity and dropping out with a zig-zag wanderer? I mean my god, talk about the fucked-up blues.
Fittingly formed in the Mojave desert in 1964, the Magic Band was from the outset, a blues-askew band. Like his good friend, Frank Zappa, Don Van Vliet, our titular Captain, had a taste for the outre. Unlike Zappa, Van Vliet could actually write good songs. Snap! In fact after playing many shows in the teen dance scene, the Magic Band's earliest work caught the attention of A & M Records, who signed the band, releasing the single "Diddy Wah Diddy". A & M dropped the band shortly thereafter, having heard the songs that would comprise their debut. To quote label president Jerry Moss: "too negative".
Safe as Milk starts with the highlight of Ry Cooder's career, a slide-guitar riff of such slippery beauty that it sounds like Van Vliet is surfing over the track with his guttural growl. From there, the album contains a veritable ocean of abstract imagery, galloping grooves, left-field love songs, fuzzy basses, perverse paeans, and poetic robotics. We sail along this body of water in our little rowboat, bereft of paddles, completely content in the turbulent tide. There are moments where it sounds like everyone in the Magic Band are playing different songs at the same time and yet when you step back from the sinewy slides and fractured rhythm it all comes together. It's like making out with Mona Lisa.
Let us speak of the Captain. If Bob Dylan is the best male vocalist of the twentieth century, which I'm pretty sure he is, Van Vliet is certainly close enough to nip at Bobby's heels. The gamut of groans that he employs on this record are unlike anything I've heard before or since. He so gamely loses himself in each song, managing a schizophrenic trapeze act as he breaks our hearts under the hypnotic voo-doo-wop of "I'm Glad" only to follow it with the monster at the mast of "Electricity". In the latter Van Vliet, screams about lighthouse beacons over a theremin imitating a police siren, moaning, terrified. Mother of pearl.
Safe as Milk closes with a heart-breaking remembrance of loves and lives past, called "Autumn's Child". The track starts with two guitars briefly teasing one another, until they agree to play arpeggios of lamented longing. The Magic Band acts as Greek chorus here, setting the scene by chanting "go back ten years ago". Once that the tableau is set, the Captain waltzes to the microphone to paint a portrait of a girl who has a "loophole around her finger, halo rings her head". The theremin that wailed a few songs back in "Electricity" is here deployed as a hushed sob, a murmur of regret. After recollecting how she planned to be his wife, the Captain forces the band into a higher gear where he stands back slightly detached and looks at the world around him, a land of bountiful apples underneath a harvest moon. The respite is short-lived as the memories return and the song eases back into reverie. Cue the chorus and the time machine.
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band released several worthwhile records after their debut, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Doc at the Radar Station are both well worth acquiring. In fact, every Beefheart album I've heard is great except the one that is always mentioned, Trout Mask Replica. And this isn't a case of me being a contrary hipster doofus, Trout Mask just plain sucks. It's a complete raspberry, in the 1920s whoopee-cushion sense. But nothing the band every released can compare to the other-worldly sonic delight that is Safe as Milk.
Post-script: don't think that because I used the cover of Bjork's Debut at the head of this post, I think it's her best work. In fact, it's her worst. Homogenic!