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A Magic Band,
This review is from: Unconditionally Guaranteed (Audio CD)
The band's magic. Good singer too.
And songs touched with that off-centredness you'd expect of Beefheart.
This was exactly what I was looking out for when I last made a foray into my mate's old vinyl collection, housed in a sagging tower block of ezy-build cardboard LP containers. Here it was that I had rediscovered 'Buffalo Springfield Again'. This time I unearthed another minor pop-edelia gem. Actually I never was a fan of Beefheart - all that psychedelic overlording and seemingly contrived weirdness. Admittedly I had owned a 'Spotlight Kid' - here described as lugubrious - and been one of the British long-hairs that had got it to no.40 in the UK charts in 1972, but, tellingly, can't remember a thing about it apart from the cover - the Captain himself of course, looking suave.
'Unconditionally Guaranteed' has a similar preoccupation with the guvnor's
image; on the front cover leering at the camera with hands full of crumpled lucre, and on the back looking like he likes being looked at. The seven pages between tell of the Van Vliet autocracy and the extremely polarised response that this album met with. On the front cover the Magic Band get no more than four words in small font, further reduced to invisibility on CD size, but it is them that make this 1974 album what it is.
The Captain stamps his moniker on the very funky swamp rock opening riff straight away. Just when it sounds like it could get tedious Zoot Horn Rollo, the Magic Band guitar player, rescues it and then flute and sax come sliding in too. This is how I remembered Beefheart, strained and menacing. A lighter bluesy romp with a lovely guitar intro follows and suddenly I'm thinking what a great voice the Captain had (He'd have sounded like Waylon Jennings if he'd been a country singer). This burgeons into a blues that would be unremarkable were it not for Rockette Morton rescuing it via the bass line. What follows could best be described as a languorous shag with a swamp-rock band on the hi-fi, Zoot Horn Rollo's glass finger guitar adding the highlights. It feels nice. The mood doesn't lapse post-coital; it switches sweetly straight into a 'magic' love song with really risible (but rather nice) lyrics - the sort of thing that gave flowers a bad name. Another (happy) love song with a commanding vocal performance from the Captain is taken past the three and a half minute mark by the tenor player with its anthemic ending. Brings to mind the 'E Street Band'.
By this time one is beginning to realize that there isn't going to be anything
deeply meaningful anywhere, at least not in actual words but subliminally it's all interestingly skewed and musically rich. It moves along so sweetly, never a dull moment. Love songs, shag songs or 'both' songs, which may have been what led the NME to comment on 'a disconcerting lack of substance'.
'I Got Love on My Mind' is the best of them just because of Zoot Horn Rollo again. 'This is the Day' with its sweet barely stated intro. is one of those medium tempo psychedelic ballads that recall Country Joe's 'Electric Music.' And the turn of the keyboard player Mark Marcellino to take it further into space and get it nearer the five minute mark. Fine music.
'Lazy Music' ('It's slow like love') has the best of all of it brought together. And while the Captain goes background it's Rockette Morton's bass playing that carries the song. And just to underline that this is Captain Beefheart, side two goes out strong and abrasive with the Captain, demanding his peaches out of the tree 'throw one down for me'; funk, again spliced with great rock guitar, a fabulous bass-line, harmonica and horn sounds to fill the mix, the way side one came in. Just listen to that Magic Band from the one minute 30 mark and you'll see what I'm on about!
From there on it was all in the ear of the beholder or the lap of the industry.
Beefheart 'exhorted anyone who had bought the album to ask for their money back.' (liner note).
Melody Maker reckoned that CB & MB had at last 'really made it'.
Lester Bangs opinion was that 'it conked out his music just short of total death' - whatever that means, but he was apparently Van Vliet's friend.
Ben Watson's book on Frank Zappa 'The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play' call 'Unconditionally Guaranteed' 'a brilliant distillation of hypnotic pop'. I'd go with that.