Grow Fins suffers from the same problem as last year's X anthology,
Beyond and Back. Both are larded with inconsequential demos, outtakes and
live cuts that do little to serve their legacies. No doubt this is a
self-conscious strategy. If X went beyond and back in their quest for a
popularity they foolishly thought they deserved, then Captain Beefheart had to
grow fins to prevent himself from drowning in the corporate chicanery that has
plagued his recorded output since the very beginning. These collections, then,
come across as sour-grapes reactions to the status quo that wouldn't have them.
In short, they're astonishingly unlistenable for two artists whose recorded
legacies are as endlessly listenable as any in pop music history.
Listenability is not a quality often associated with Beefheart. Ever since the
talismanic double album Trout Mask Replica in 1969, he has taken the rock
combo about as far out as it can go, exploding his song structures with free-jazz
chaos. Not helping the medicine go down was the Captain's own smokestack
lightnin' blues roar (pay no heed to gush about his "five-octave range" -- he has
about as much color as Joe Strummer). Yet the few adventurous listeners willing
to scout through the music's overwhelming density discovered a totally unique and, at times, absolutely frightening retreat not just from convention but from the very order of things.
But even at his most uncompromised, Beefheart still provoked some sort of
reaction (if only "ugh, turn that racket off!"). The saddest thing about the
Beefheart Advanced Placement study guides on Grow Fins is that they'll
barely make an impression on unsuspecting neophytes. That's fine by Revenant --
Grow Fins, trading attitude for etude, wasn't compiled with neophytes in
mind. But it doesn't even seem to be for big fans like myself (scholars and obsessives aiming to refine their sensibility to the point of nauseam are more the target). From bland garage R&B demos to the first scrapings toward atonality
(CD No. 2's live 1968 Cannes version of "Electricity" (RealAudio excerpt) is fine, but it's only marginally better than the live 1968 UK version two cuts later),
the first four CDs will teach you what you already know over and over again.
CD No. 3 is particularly obnoxious in this regard. It's a complete run-through of
a little more than half the songs on Trout Mask Replica with almost
exactly the same arrangements -- but without Beefheart's vocals. Don't be fooled
by the 29 "Untitled" numbers -- they're mostly in-between song shuffling,
doodling and silence. The four-second "Untitled 28," for instance, is just a
single guitar note. The purpose of this instrumental nightmare is to demonstrate
how rehearsed and exacting the tumult actually was. Now that you know that, you
don't have to listen.
The last CD starts out strong toward the beginning with three excellent live
songs from 1971. Here, the Howlin' Wolf/ Ornette Coleman fusion is perfectly
realized -- the silence immediately after Beefheart's sax-led finale to "Bellerin
Plain" (RealAudio excerpt)
is literally breath-taking. But the disc soon devolves into drum solos,
piano solos, guitar solos, voice solos, mellotron solos, etc.
Worst of all, Grow Fins, which lists for around $90, could easily be
winnowed down to four discs if not three. CDs 1 and 2 total 79:44 and while CD 4
has the enhanced live footage on it, the 12:33 of chit-chat with the Captain's
neighbor on the audio part is a total rip-off. So artist-run excavating indie
labels are only in it for the art, huh?