Book Review: 33 1/3: Trout Mask Replica

[Purchase Book)]

The 33 1/3 series is a selection of short books, each one about an influential record album. The common comparison is that it’s a Criterion Collection for music; it’s not a bad comparison — the only difference between 33 1/3 and Criterion is that these are just the books — you’ve got to provide the CD yourself — though the level of quality is the same.

Kevin Courrier’s entry (number 44) is on Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band‘s most famous album Trout Mask Replica — a notoriously difficult album. I have to admit that it was my first Beefheart record and it took me a little while to get into him and get what he was doing — in fact, it took some of his more accessible works like Safe as Milk for me to really twig to him and see Trout Mask in a proper light. And, to this day, while I like Trout Mask, it’s not my favorite Beefheart record — that goes to Clear Spot (with Safe As Milk as a close runner-up).

I think this this where Courrier and I disagree — he sees Trout Mask as the pinnacle of Beefheart’s output — his first few albums leading up to it and the records afterward trying to recapture it. It’s clear that Courrier, however, is not one of those people who discounts the rest of the Captain’s records, though — an occasional quirk of the odd Beefheart fan — it’s just that Trout Mask is his favorite. I suppose that makes sense considering he wrote a book on the thing!

And though it’s a short book, 148 pages INCLUDING bibliography, it’s in-depth; there doesn’t really seem to be much else that could be said about this album. Courrier goes through the early part of Beefheart’s life, along with the culture of the Magic Band (mostly a dictatorship, and sadly not always a benevolent one), culminating by a track-by-track dissection of Trout Mask, looking at where the songs came from, both in the techniques Beefheart used to write the lyrics and how the Magic Band (lead by John “Drumbo” French) put together the music, and the cultural references refracted through the Van Vliet Prism.

If there is a problem with the book, it’s that the copyediting could be better — there were quite a few typos and a few minor factual errors I spotted (though none that would change the meaning or invalidate any findings). And I suppose I wish it were longer — though, that would end up making it a proper biography on Beefheart, which this book isn’t and isn’t intended to be. Though it IS a compliment to Courrier that I half wished he DID write a full bio on the Captain. Luckily, the bibliography is pretty complete, so I can go and find the bios he used and influenced him.

This is a great introduction to the 33 1/3 series, and I look forward to looking at others. I would definitely recommend this — particularly if you’re a fan of the record. Courrier’s style is pretty accessible as well, so perhaps if you’ve never even heard Trout Mask Replica, you might still take away a lot from it, though I admit that’s a little harder for me to judge. But even if that’s the case, it might be worth trying… though you might want to start the series with an album you’re really into. God knows, given the breadth of the series, you can probably find one.