by Gary Lucas
SHINY BEAST (BAT CHAIN PULLER) Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Warner Bros.
This album is certified Grade A 100% Beefheart. After three years without a domestic record contract, Don Van Vliet, one of the seminal figures of contemporary music, is back with a new band and a new album easily the equal of anything he's done before. Well, not quite a new band. Art Tripp guests on marimba whimsey, and Bruce Fowler, who accompanied Zappa and Beefheart on tour several years ago, contributes brass raspberries courtesy of his blind-staggered trombone. The remainder consists of the customary complement of zig-zagging slide guitars, leapfrog bass and slightly sneaky off-kilter percussion. Beefheart's band plays its collective ass off, and for the first time you can understand what he's singing which is something else again from understanding the lyrics. He enunciates crisply, but if you think I'm going to try and explain what "Bat Chain Puller" is about, uh, just sit back and enjoy it.
There is something for everybody here. from the architectonic disco chugalug of "When I See Mommy, I Feel Like a Mummy" (Philip Wylie momism meets Im-Ho-Tep) to the primal assertiveness of "You Know You're a Man" (more question-begging for the identity-bereft children of the Me Decade). Tropical Hotdog Night sports a delirious Ricky Ricardo-esque conga line and a don't-stop-the-carniValium ambiance, Fowler phallus-flaunting his "bone and the Beef in his best 4½-octave voice inviting the women "to meet the Monster tonight. Everything's wrong at the same time it's right!" Great glottal display there. "Suction Prints," the Magic Band's concert opening blast for years, is a demonstration of ferocious instrumental chops.
But it's on "Owed Alex," one of the oldest numbers in his repertoire, that Don Van Vliet sustains his greatest moment on Shiny Beast. Ostensibly a tale of a biker's lonely vigil ("Five miles back I took a spill, thought I almost paid my bill"), there is a prolonged laugh from Beefheart at the end-- a mocking, slightly bitter hoot of triumph over adversity that says he ain't never gonna pack it in. Meanwhile, the guitars and horn pump out a magisterial, goddamn noble riff which Beefheart sails over with some of the bluesiest, most free spirited harp he's ever blown. This from a man who's seen his entire corpus picked clean of the most accessible elements by mewling, puking moon-calves from Devo to Root Boy Slim. No matter. Captain Beefheart is making the most meaningful, adventurous, and delightful music of his career. And Shiny Beast is the Party Album of the Year.