As his avant pop journeys wound into the ‘70s, Don VanVliet – better known to non- commercially inclined rock audiences as Captain Beefheart – began to stylistically shift gear. Lauded by critics for the deliciously abstract Trout Mask Replica in 1969, he entered the decade by opening the door ever so slightly into his treacherous musical universe.
The wonderful new four-disc box set Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972 revisits that era with reissues of Beefheart’s first three albums of the ‘70s, recordings that pulled him from the rock underground to a place perilously close to the mainstream. Illuminating those years even further is a fourth disc of previously unreleased jams and alternate takes. Together, they paint a portrait of an artist alternately reaching for or purposely avoiding the sun. Listen to Sun Zoom Spark as a whole and it’s often tough to tell the difference.
Perhaps the most noteworthy attribute of the set – at least, to Beefheart die-hards – is the inclusion of 1970’s Lick My Decals Off Baby, simply because it has out of print for years. Used copies are still selling online for well over twice the price of this entire box.
Decals luxuriates in a fragmented soundscape similar to that of Trout Mask Replica with polyrhythmic riffs that approximate jazz (Bellerin’ Plain), frantically composed lines that recall the music of Beefheart mentor Frank Zappa (The Smithsonian Institute Blues) and lyrics that read like impenetrable beat poetry (I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go).
Two 1972 follow-ups The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot are where things really ease off. The compositional pace of both is slower, the lyrics are wittier and the overall feel is more accessible. The demented blues There Ain’t No Santa Claus on the Evenin’ Stage, which the previously-frenzied Beefheart sings in a low, belching moan, typlifies the changes.
The accessibility of Clear Spot, in particular, can be attributed to the enlistment of star Warner Brothers producer Ted Templeman, who also produced Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes and Randy Newman’s Sail Away that year. That may explain the echoes of both records within the Clear Spot tunes Low Yo Yo Stuff and Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles respectively.
The rarities disc (ingeniously titled Out-takes) isn’t so much illuminating as it is an intriguing companion piece to the original albums. Tunes like the jazz-pop serenade Harry Irene and an marimba-led instrumental version of Best Batch Yet wouldn’t surface in finalized form until 1978 and 1980 while an alternate take of the scrappy Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man closely approximates the Clear Spot version but with a slightly looser blues shuffle under its feet.
It all makes Sun Zoom Spark a comprehensive and ultra compelling summation of overlooked music by a true rock iconoclast.