I recently read a biography about Captain Beefheart (aptly titled Captain Beefheart: The Biography) … twice. I’ll admit the second time partly stemmed from airplane boredom — the best kind of boredom known to man — but if it wasn’t so dense, detailed and consistently interesting there’s no way I would have made it. I can almost guarantee I’ll read it a third time, and from there a fourth is but a formality until, like Papa John and Factotum, it becomes a part of my body/mind/soul.
One statement made by the author has stuck in the back of my head like a bat’s nest in an attic: When he said no other band can be compared to the Captain and his merry flock of Magic Band(men). While I agree the flame of Beefheart was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, a few bands have ably stepped up and made honest attempts to conjure audio spells every bit as binding as those tossed out with regularity by the Captain. They don’t sound like Beefheart, but, as opposed to just about every band I’ve heard before and since first hearing Safe as Milk and Trout Mask Replica, they don’t sound unlike Beefheart. You get it? Fantastic, let’s do this:
Rapider Than Horsepower
Featuring three members from all-time-Top-10-on-Gumshoe’s-list-of-best-bands-of-all-time Racebannon (whose cover of “Electricity” graces the grating, great In the Grips of the Light LP, and whom also have a recent tape out on label-to-watch Auris Apothecary) and one member of Rep Seki/Aa (the latter also an important notch in the ol’ deep-indie belt for those who care enough to seek it out), Rapider Than Horsepower is basically a Bloomington, Ind., lovefest, yet the music betrays an extremely serious ear for dissonance and rhythm. My album selection from the slim volumes available would be the Stage Fright Stage Fright This Is My Big Night 2X12-inch on Level Plane. This sucker has got it all and it knows what to do with it. How does beat-boxin’, tom-thumpin’, pirate-salutin’, string-bendin’, cold-rantin’ music with an absurdist twist or two sound to you? Damn fuckin’ right it sounds good, fucker.
In the first place, Rapider singer Mike Anderson is the current incarnate of Captain Beefheart, not because he apes him or even sounds like him but because he is the closest we’ve got and, in his own way, holds his own even in comparison to the Cap’n.
While their eagerness to drive their homemade points home occasionally gets the best of them, when Rapider Than Horsepower get it right, it’s so right you almost want to man-cry. “No Boat No Burn” is one of these instances, and its lyrics are anything but abstract, arcing on a narrative of a father’s disappointment in his son (“Why can’t he be more like his old man? / I’m a failure as a father / So sick of this kid”). The other high-water crime-scene chalk-mark is “Ditties,” a crowd-pleaser that consolidates the best traits of RtH into barely a minute of sheer high-volume-blow-out bliss. The guitar patterns are perfect, drums ‘n’ bass locked in and Anderson unleashes one of his greatest vocal performances, one-part rant, two-part spirit-stream and three-part debaser of human pride and dignity.
Panoply Academy Of Legionnaires
Yep, another Bloomington, Ind., band; you probably think I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, right? Well deal with it: Two of the most Beefheartian delights in the U.S. over the last decade or two have sprung from the unlikely music mecca of Bloom-doom, and from what I’ve been learning lately that ain’t changin’ any time soon. Panoply Academy Of Legionnaires mixed a tenacious tightness with a career-killing sense of adventure (think Joe Meek and/or anyone worth a damn) that caused their songs to clock in at up to 13 minutes. I love that about them; always did, but it’s the way they do it that sets them apart. They’ll change gears five times in a few minutes just as the Captain and his crew used to, and their spindly guitar attacks, while not necessarily redolent of Ry Cooder or the many others in any concrete way, celebrate the same sense of urgency that allows a band to segue endlessly without missing the point. It all starts with the guitar(s), much like early Modest Mouse, Built To Spill and Duster (if I may go a little Pac-NW on y’all), not to mention French Quarter.
The quivering vocals, like a sensitive art-phag trembling on the edge of a knife, seal the deal, and on the surface they couldn’t be less like the bodacious burping of Captain Beefheart. Look deeper, however, and it’s all part of the same push forward (as in the “Dust Blows”). Despite singing high and wave-y like a spazz-y post-Bobby Trimble nightmare, the hectic creative madness of it all is so Trout Mask it’s sick. History will agree with me on this one.
By now the U.S. Mapes are considered a super-typical choice for a discussion like this, and because of their extremely outside-the-box sound it’s still tough to find people that actually listen to these Kentucky-fried sound-cobblers enough to know a damn thing about it. I’ll even admit to not devoting enough time to them (it’s possible I’ve even listened to that D. Rider album as much as I have any proper U.S. Maple full-length). Their music is almost like a “next year?” proposition for me, like finally writing that book or getting a ski pass (when I even live in an area when that would be viable), and that’s exactly why they still have a place in the pantheon. The difference between the creation of Acre Thrills and Trout Mask Replica is an important distinction because Beefheart and the gangactually thought they had a chance at being superstars. As nutty as it seems in retrospect, it was a big letdown for Don Van Vliet to never achieve commercial success, and that’s just the sort of dream/hope/wish U.S. Maple have never-in-their-life had.
They’re heavy, their songs sprawl out in your mind; their guitars whine and bend over backward to please; the singer always seems to be whispering to you like a friend in a crowded, noisy bar trying to tell you something, anything: you can’t hear him, but you sort of glean enough to get by.
Their material is like a groaning, yawning chasm being swallowed by an empty galaxy where time stands still and there’s plenty of time to work out one’s place in it. U.S. Maple stretch out and search every corner of the cupboard of inspiration until there’s nothing but crumbs left, then they eat those, shit them out and so on and so forth and all of a sudden you have an album and then two and finally, after almost a decade, you have a legacy. I’ve never done heroin, but albums like Acre Thrills equate to what I imagine the high to be: free-floating, light-headed and totally and completely free of care. It’s like being so inebriated you fall asleep smoking a cigarette, yet you remember everything clearly. Even better, U.S. Maple won’t leave you homeless on the street selling handjobs for crack! (Unless you want them to …)
ALSO CLOSE TO THE CAPTAIN: Zumm Zumm, Arab On Radar, Amps For Christ, Sun City Girls, Man Man