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Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band: Grow Fins: Rarities 1965-1982

Album: Grow Fins: Rarities 1965-1982
Label: Revenant

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Virtually unique in terms of vision, and certainly unique in terms of sound, Captain Beefheart sprung from the same neo-psychedelic California scene that produced Frank Zappa. Unlike his high-school buddy Zappa, though, Beefheart—a.k.a. Don Van Vliet—would for the most part have nothing to do with the mainstream, not even as a target for mockery. Beefheart's deconstruction of the blues ultimately managed to match the visceral vocal presence of Howlin' Wolf with the atonality, dissonance, and unpredictability of free jazz. Though the music he and his often-remarkable Magic Band recorded is not without its share of hooks, it would be easier to find said hooks if the band members didn't sometimes sound like they were all playing different songs at once. Although he retired from music in 1982 to concentrate on his painting, Beefheart is still one of the most influential and iconoclastic singers and songwriters to emerge from the '60s. His music made a remarkable impression on the works of such abstractionist post-punk mavericks as Pere Ubu, not to mention Tom Waits' transformation from piano man to boogeyman, and Beefheart remains the patron saint of pop stars like Jon Spencer who can't sing. Still, that doesn't explain the sudden surge of reissues, rarities, and other releases this summer. The most impressive and ambitious of the bunch is Grow Fins, a five-disc set of rarities that stretches from Beefheart's start to his triumphant early-'80s finish, with an emphasis on the early stuff. By no means comprehensive, the set spends a bit too much time on the overrated Trout Mask Replica material, offering 30 songs from those sessions, and skips over Beefheart's much-maligned mid-'70s stab at commercial acceptability. But the rest of the material included is sometimes amazing. Packaged in a wonderfully garish little box, with liner notes from critics John Corbett and David Fricke and a tour diary from longtime Magic Band drummer John French, Grow Fins is, if not the place for newcomers to begin, then certainly the place for dedicated fans to turn next. A better starting point is the recently reissued Safe As Milk, a disc of disjointed blues and garage-rock that features a young Ry Cooder on guitar. It's still not quite easy-listening, but it's not Top 40 fodder, either. The songs included on The Mirror Man Sessions were originally intended for a double album titled It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper. Some of The Mirror Man Sessions was released as the live, four-song, 50-minute Mirror Man; the rest appear on either this reissue or as bonus tracks on Safe As Milk. The material finds Beefheart diving deeper into the blues without losing an ounce of personality, though there are only a few hints as to what will come with Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, and ultimately Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). Rhino also plans to issue a "definitive" two-disc anthology of Beefheart's music, which should serve as a fine introduction as well as an interesting counterpoint to the alternate history of Grow Fins. Though Beefheart is surely not for everyone, this is life-changing music, so it's best to just dive in and learn to swim the hard way.