Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Captain Beefheart- "Bat Chain Puller" review

 Captain Beefheart - Bat Chain Puller
Captain Beefheart
Bat Chain Puller
Rating: ****

Over 35 years after its recording, Captain Beefheart’s original Bat Chain Puller has finally seen the light of day. Released on Vaulter Native Records by Gail Zappa (widow of Frank Zappa, who had obtained the master tapes years ago), the album showcases an alternate version of the work that would later show up on Captain Beefheart’s last three albums. This album is a real treat for all Beefheart fans and it does indeed do justice to the legacy of the good Captain.

            The history of this album goes back to 1975. At that time, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) had released two albums much to his dissatisfaction as they were both too commercial. He was also in several legal ties that he couldn’t get out of. Vliet’s childhood friend Frank Zappa came to the rescue when he offered to take him on tour with the Mothers of Invention. This later became the live album Bongo Furry. Although it helped Vliet, the friends had grown tired of each other by the end of the tour.

Zappa, however, helped Vliet get back on track to record his next album. He had his guitarist Denny Walley join Vliet and got manager Herb Cohen to help with the project. Cohen reached out to Vliet’s old band mate John “Drumbo” French to be the musical coordinator, a role he had taken on the 1969 classic Trout Mask Replica. After assembling the new Magic Band together, recording for the new album began. When the album was finished, trouble arose. Cohen had taken legal action by taking possession of Zappa’s archival tapes, including Bat Chain Puller. Vliet would end up forming a new band and release his last three albums with them, the first being Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (the other two being Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow).

Years later, Zappa was able to obtain the master tapes for the album from Cohen but still wasn’t able to release it for various different reasons. One of the reasons why Zappa chose to not release the album immediately was due to the fact that Vliet had already released most of the songs from the album already.  So, Bat Chain Puller remained shelved for years and years. Over the years, the album has been widely bootlegged amongst Beefheart fans.

Bat Chain Puller begins fittingly enough with the self-titled track. Compared to the version released on Shiny Beast, this version seems to have a lot more going on. The song has been a favorite of many Beefheart fans for year and years. As many fans may know, the influence for the rhythm of the song was based off the sound wind shield wipers make. In this version, it sounds much more like wind shield wipers. Vliet, as always, delivers the goods while reciting the lyrics in that rough voice of his. This is followed by a “new” song called “Seam Crooked Sam”. The song is basically Vliet reciting a poem to what sounds like a keyboard.
The version of “Harry Irene” off this album is quite interesting. On the Shiny Beast version, the song seems to be played on a ukulele with Vliet singing. The guitar on this version has more echo and the drums and piano are much more up front when in the Shiny Beast version, they sound a bit buried. For some reason, I prefer Vliet’s vocals on the Shiny Beast version but he sounds great on this one.   

Spoken word tracks such as “81 Poop Hatch” and “Apes Ma” are the same exact track that you hear on the released albums they were on. Still, Don’s voice is a little bit clearer. Guitar solos such as “Flavor Bud Living” and “Ah Carrot Is as Close as Ah Rabbit Gets to Ah Diamond” sound less 1980’s like than the ones that end up on Doc at the Radar Station. This would be more so for “Flavor Bud Living”, as it has a really nice echoing sound. Don’s sax solo sticks out more on the album’s version “Brick Bats” while there aren’t too many differences in “Floppy Boot Stomp” except that Don’s vocals are more audible. 

“Owed T’Alex” doesn’t sound too different from the one on Shiny Beast while I do enjoy this album’s version of “Human Totem Pole” more than the one on Ice Cream for Crow. The one track I really like on here is a song called “Odd Jobs”, which another “new” song just like “Seam Crooked Sam”. Don recites poetry to the beautiful sounds of John French’s guitar playing. In the middle, Don sings to the music and he sounds wonderful. I don’t know why “Odd Jobs” wasn’t re-recorded for Don’s last three albums. It’s an amazing song, even 35 years after its recording.

The packaging for the album is also impressive. It’s in a digi-pack case, with the booklet in a pouch. In the booklet are liner notes written by John French, giving background information on the album. Also included is the essay French wrote a few days after Vliet’s passing. Guitarist Denny Walley also has an essay in here too, along with a short note from Gail Zappa.

If you are a fan of Captain Beefheart like I am, I highly recommend buying a copy of Bat Chain Puller. It’s really interesting to hear the alternate versions of these songs and I’m really happy that Gail released this long-lost album. With the album and the wonderful booklet that comes with it, Bat Chain Puller really is a treasure. 

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