Unlike many people, I am glad the Bat Chain Puller album got canned and wasn’t released until 2012. The shelving of his first decent work in years was the first of several setbacks that led to Captain Beefheart’s final trilogy of albums, a significant event in the odyssey of a guy who had made repeated moves at the mainstream and was each time rejected. He was affable and in high spirits upon the release of Shiny Beast, according to at least one interview, and expected that now that he had abandoned the tiresome simplicity of Clear Spot and those albums everyone rags on he would be received well. He got great reviews for his new album and all the fans were hyped: the Beef was back!
And of course the promotion got fucked up and no one in the philistine United States took much interest in Shiny Beast and the European issue was delayed by two years for no good reason and the hype had died in the meantime. He didn’t gain much of an audience and his next two albums show his disappointment: Doc At the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow are obstinate, noisy and above all cranky. The fucked-up-ed-ness of his record-business misadventures had crushed his aspirations, but they seemed to do wonders for his creativity. More on those later.
The first of his final run of records is all the better for having been re-recorded. Some of the tracks, particularly “The Floppy Boot Stomp” and “Bat Chain Puller,” were better on Bat Chain Puller, but no one had them around to compare with for thirty-four years and ultimately the definitive released versions are still very good. And the reverse is also true: tracks that improved for Shiny Beast are heads and fucking shoulders above the unreleased versions. “Candle Mambo” and “Harry Irene” sound very nice in their final forms, but most of all I praise “Owed t’Alex,” which in its Shiny Beast version stands as one of the greatest Beefheart songs. The Bat Chain Puller take is beholden to a weird lyrical scheme which doesn’t mesh as well with the lyrics, and the sound is disappointing; on the Shiny Beast “Owed t’Alex,” Jeff Tepper’s slide parts yearn when clean and burn when distorted, the majestic trombone-guitar riffs evoke a chugging trans-desert journey, and the Captain himself pitches in with his meanest fucking harmonica solo on record. The band also reworks the clomping Mirror Man-style “Big Black Baby Shoes” into the careening, beautiful “Ice Rose,” which is distracted for only a short period in the middle, and blusters through a galumphing but still powerful new track called “You Know You’re a Man” — not Beefheart’s first macho song (or macho sentiment, if his Spotlight Kid-era interviews are credible), but by far the most goofy fun.
Some of the tracks composed after the rejection of Bat Chain Puller are less stellar. For one I fail to see what everyone loves so much about “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” which is not only cheesy but also presents Beefheart as a sexual “monster” (an unappealing idea, I imagine, for most women), and “Love Lies” just isn’t memorable. It’s also too long. And the mix, while it is bright and novel and promotes all sorts of previously unutilized textures and instruments, is also not of especially high fidelity and begins to grate a little after a while. Even with these flaws, however, Beefheart and a new Magic Band managed between disappointments to deliver a hearty and colorful comeback. And I, at least, would call it one of their best.