Sunday, March 22, 2009

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - Mirror Man

I participated in my annual fantasy baseball draft yesterday and did it online, partly because I didn't feel like dragging my butt to Queens, partly because I wanted to go to this later that night. I've been playing fantasy sports for about ten years now, and it was the first time I drafted alone, rather than at a draft party of some sort. This meant that (a) I could focus more on those crucial mid-round picks, and (b) I could choose my soundtrack rather than spend the day at the mercy of P—'s iPod (which, in the interest of fairness, I should note is generally chock full of excellent selections; this year he bragged of rare Weird Al bootlegs). Not wanting to waste valuable last-minute research time looking through the shelves, I just grabbed something off the haven't-listened-to-it-yet pile and threw it on.

I scored this copy of Mirror Man a couple months ago at The Sound Garden in Baltimore when I stopped there on my way to a Glasvegas show in DC. I've never been a huge Beefheart fan, but his records are usually twenty bucks or more, so I figured seeing one for ten, and with an early recording date at that, made it worth picking up. Why I put off listening to it for so long I have no idea.

I proceeded to spend the next five hours of the draft basically just listening to side one of Mirror Man over and over. That's not entirely true; I flipped it over and listened to side two a few times, but it was mostly just side one all day. Needless to say, it's awesome.

Don Van Vliet intended the second Captain Beefheart album as a double, but the label just put out one record of it, prompting the disillusioned Van Vliet to retire from music for a second (but by no means final) time. He was lured back by high school chum Frank Zappa, who had just been granted his own label by Reprise and promised Van Vliet complete control, which inspired Van Vliet to write and record Trout Mask Replica. A few years later, his original label released the remaining songs from the truncated second album as Mirror Man. So it follows Trout Mask in the catalogue, but the recordings predate it.

It's far less difficult than the notoriously challenging Trout Mask, but of course, accessibility is in the ear of the beholder. The record opens with the Magic Band (v2.0, I think) vamping on a one-chord blues riff for just under twenty minutes, while the Captain yammers away and occasionally unleashes the odd harmonica solo. Given the quality of the recordings, one can sort of sympathise with his label. That distortion on the harmonica track in the intro? Part of the record (don't worry, it clears up). That bit where the left channel drops out for a second at around four and a half minutes? Again, not a transfer error on my part.

I can't figure out when this edition of the record comes from. It's on Buddah Records, the original label, and bears the original catalogue number. But it's in perfect condition, and must be a reissue of some sort. The cover is printed on thin white cardboard, whereas I think just about every album from the era has the cover art pasted over thicker brown cardboard. On the other hand, the notes on the back still have the original typo listing the recording date as 1965 (it's from 1967); why wouldn't that have been corrected on later editions? Authenticity? Laziness?

No matter, really. It's a great record and I've got a pristine copy of it. The file will take forever to download because it's eighteen and a half minutes long, but believe me, it's worth the wait.

Buy it... on vinyl.

NOTE: Supposedly Rhino is putting out a deluxe double LP of the expanded version this year, but I don't know when.

From my deck to you: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - "Tarotplane"