Ice Cream for Crow, Captain Beefheart’s twelfth album, will surely attain the sacred status enjoyed by the rest of this beloved eccentric’s musical canon, and it will do so without so much as a critical blink. So it should be: in the arid expanses of rock & roll, Beefheart’s fecund gift for words and music stands out like a flower rising from parched earth.
Personally, I have nothing but gratitude for almost every note he’s ever played, but a few observations about his new record may be in order. First, in addition to the whooping crane and the manatee, Captain Beefheart’s voice should be added to the list of endangered species. These days, he’s not so much singing as delivering raspy recitations, and his touted seven-and-a-half octave range — a sad casualty of cigarettes and age? — is nowhere in evidence. Second, he doesn’t seem entirely at ease before the microphone, and on several compositionsâ€”notably, “Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat”â€” he sounds disconcertingly self-conscious (the mix doesn’t help). Then there’s the disturbing cover snapshot of the Captain,hat held to heart, looking a hundred years old, his face conveying the wounded fright of a hunted animal.
His countenance may reflect a terrible knowledge and fear of man’s capacity for destructiveness, but encouragingly, the dark realities of the nuclear age have inspired him to spew forth some of his cleverest lyrical images (i.e., “the moon popped up like a gallery duck”) and some of the most aggressive, angular music he’s made since Trout Mask Replica. Like that landmark record, Ice Cream for Crow is a world unto itself: a crazy, clanging place where “steel appendage” and “glass finger” guitars evoke a clamorous dialogue among buzzing insects, jabbering birds, slithery reptiles and fleet-footed mammals. All this forest chatter is, set against a jumbly rhythmic backdrop that sounds as orderly as coconuts hitting the ground. Occasionally, the Captain himself sticks his head out to bleat a few bars on a harp or a horn. If all this sounds like chaos, it’s the ecstatic chaos of nature, the hum of the organic world in which man is an intruder.
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If truth be told, the record’s not so weird, once you acclimate yourself. “Ice Cream for Crow,” for instance, is a joyful bit of baying at the moon that marries a Howlin’ Wolf bellow to a John Lee Hooker boogie. “The Witch Doctor Life” struts loopily to what can only be described as a good, old-fashioned musical hook. And “Evening Bell” is a lovely solo guitar exercise for which Gary Lucas should receive some sort of award for finger contortioning.
But by and large, the Captain is pissed off with the man-made world (“This pirate-flag headlong disaster-course vessel”) and the fools at the helm (“No,you got the wrong idea/No, you got the wrong intent”). Left untampered with, he knows that the immutable laws of nature will always establish a balance; he knows too that there’ll be nothing left to revive when the earth is an empty cinder swimming through space. On such songs as “The Host, the Ghost, the Most Holy-O” and “The Past Sure Is Tense,” Beefheart sounds an ecological alarm, and the Magic Band bumps, grinds, glints, glistens and groans to the Captain’s minutist musical tics with pinpoint-accurate playing. Once again, Captain Beefheart has stomped some mighty dinosaur tracks across the back of a modern world gone berserk. Are you still gonna pretend that you don’t hear him?