I can count the number of people I’ve met who have liked Trout Mask Replica upon first listen on one hand. Okay, on one finger. It’s one of those rare albums where every listener who hears it for the first time walks away saying it’s unlike anything they’ve heard before; the difference is whether they think it’s a masterpiece or a pile of garbage. Even for those listeners who like the album, it usually takes several listens to finally get on the Beefheart Express.
Kevin Courrier tackles Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s finest album in his 2007 entry into Continuum’s ever-expanding 33 1/3 series (next up: a six-volume series analyzing the works of Skid Row). The end result is an informative, if uneven, account of the origins, making, and legacy of one of music’s most challenging albums.
To say Courrier knows the material is an understatement; he covers in great detail everything from the band’s biography to how the album fit into the larger arena of avant-garde works by musicians like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. For a short book (less than 150 pages), the amount of quoted sources is impressive; a bibliography that includes more than just shady Beefheart internet fan sites is also included. For anyone looking for a one-stop shop that summarizes the history of the album and its conspirators, Courrier’s book is a great source.
One of the main storylines in the making of Trout Mask Replica is Beefheart’s documented Gestapo-like intimidation and domination of the band members, including cultish tactics like food and sleep deprivation and attempts at mind control. Courrier manages to discuss this without turning the book into a musical E! True Hollywood Story. While Courrier is clearly a fan of the album, he does offer an impartial, and often critical, portrayal of the reclusive Captain. He also rights some of the wrongs perpetuated against the band members by showing how the musicians played an integral role in the album’s music, dispelling the myth long propagated by both critics and Beefheart himself that the album was a work of Beefheart’s singular genius.
Nevertheless, Courrierr's 33 1/3 is flawed. Despite tons of details about the album, his ultimate conclusion never really advances past the argument that Trout Mask Replica is an atonal masterpiece unlike any other album and listeners either love it so much that they wet themselves or flee to the catacombs in abject horror, scarred for life by what they’ve just heard. It’s of course difficult to argue this point, but it doesn’t really add much to understanding or appreciating the album.
Details about the commercial and critical responses to the album are brief and perfunctory. Likewise, scant pages are devoted to how the album has influenced other musicians (by law and under penalty of banishment to Iowa, anyone discussing Trout Mask Replica is required to mention Tom Waits, and Courrier fulfills this obligation). With such few pages covering these topics, it seems they were included almost as an afterthought or as a way to pad the book’s length. Some of the details provided about Frank Zappa, Beefheart’s previous works, and other non-mainstream artists sometimes feel extraneous and unnecessary; a greater focus on the album’s lasting legacy and impact would have been more welcome.
Courrier notes that around 80,000 copies of Trout Mask Replica have been sold. Although this number seems low, he might be right: conduct an informal unscientific poll of “What do you think of Beefheart?” would likely return seven perplexed glances, one suggestion to do something physically impossible to yourself, and two beyond-inappropriate propositions.
Accepting Courrier’s number as accurate, it does show the difficulty in writing a book about Beefheart’s best album: those who don’t like or haven’t heard the album probably won’t care enough to buy 33 1/3, and those who like the album will expect the book to increase their understanding of the album. While Courrier’s study does a great job of examining the origins of Trout Mask Replica and its place in music history, hardcore Beefheart fans (is there any other kind?) probably already know the story.