Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Review: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band's 'Safe as Milk' Mono Edition

Less than two years before releasing Trout Mask Replica, the album that would forever endear them to overly intellectual Rock critics, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band put out a record that was considerably less challenging and a lot more listenable. As someone who favors good old Rock & Roll over cacophony, I personally rate Safe as Milk as Captain Beefheart’s real masterpiece. Despite its comparative poppiness and wholesome title, Safe as Milk ain’t exactly Up, Up and Away. Don Van Vliet’s pre-Tom Waits frog howl is still way out there, and the Magic Band’s fuzzed-up and freaked-out interpretation of the blues is still some pretty heady shit. What really puts this album over the top is the totally consistent, totally eclectic songwriting, which finds the group getting muddy not just in the blues but in jangly garage rock (“Zig-Zag Wanderer”), thereminized psychedelia (“Electricity”), hippity-hoppity country pop (“Yellow Brick Road”), pseudo-Native American percussive insanity (the amazing “Abba Zaba”), slow-burn murk (“Autumn’s Child”), and slow-grind soul (“I’m Glad,” a song I’m convinced former neighbors of mine fucked to every Sunday morning).

For a long time, Safe as Milk has only been available in stereo, most notably in Buddha/BMG’s 1999 edition that affixed seven bonus tracks to the original album. Sundazed’s new mono edition loses those bonuses, which already found Beefheart traveling less accessible roads, but gains a cleaner, drier sound (though there’s still a lot of grit in the creases—“Call My Name” remains particularly filthy). Unlike a lot of audiophiles, I don’t have an aversion to stereo, and in a lot of instances, I prefer it. The stereo mix of Safe as Milk really isn’t bad. In his liner notes to the new mono edition, David Fricke suggests that Van Vliet’s voice was placed randomly in the stereo mix. While I do agree that the decision to often bury his voice in a single channel was a poor one, the movement of his voice to the center at certain moments is not random but a way to put extra punch behind choruses or bridges. The instrumental backing is pretty full in stereo too. So whether you prefer the mono or stereo mix of Safe as Milk will most likely depend on whether you prefer mono or stereo in general. Sundazed does its usual exceptional mastering—full of warmth and depth— on its new edition, so if you’re on the fence about which mix you want, that just might push you off it.

Get Sundazed’s new mono edition of Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band’s Safe as Milk at Amazon.com here:

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