By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Safe as Milk and Mirror Man are better listens well-recorded (the former was produced by, of all people, Richard Perry, who went on to work with Ringo Starr and the Pointer Sisters) and filled with consistently decent songs and a generous supply of bonus tracks. But both date from 1967, when Van Vliet was only beginning to develop the wild blend of blues, free jazz and freakiness that would set him apart from pretty much everyone else on the planet. The primary selections on Milk are predominantly concise and to the point (many are reminiscent of the quirkier items on Lenny Kaye's '60s garage tribute, Nuggets), and the occasional eccentricity, like the mincing middle section of the aptly monikered "Dropout Boogie," are more interesting as harbingers of the future than they are in and of themselves. Mirror Man, meanwhile, is a rambling excursion that was originally conceived as a live-in-the-studio companion to Milk. The results aren't bad, but neither are they revelatory. Anyone who thinks he or she has a handle on Beefheart after listening to these albums is badly misinformed.
The Dust Blows Forward casts a wider net, kicking off with "Diddy Wah Diddy," the 1966 cover that actually got Van Vliet on pop-radio stations in Southern California, and concluding with "Lights Reflected Off the Oceands of the Moon," an instrumental B-side from the Ice Cream for Crow era. It also benefits from sleek liner notes by Barry Alfonso that brim with easy-to-access Beefheart trivia. (Examples: Van Vliet's first producer was David Gates, who went on to warble in the half-baked group Bread, and slide master Ry Cooder was once a part of his Magic Band.) But great stuff from Trout Mask ("Ella Guru," "Old Fart at Play"), Decals (the title song, "I Wanna Find a Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go") and Doc ("Ashtray Heart," "Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee") often appears alongside watered-down material Beefheart hoped would make him marketable, and the juxtapositions can be uncomfortable. Some of his concessions don't feel like total sellouts: "Nowadays a Woman's Gotta Hit a Man" (originally heard on 1972's Clear Spot, which was produced by Ted Templeman, of Van Halen and Doobie Brothers fame) is a terrific number, and "Bat Chain Puller," off 1978's Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), doesn't pull as many punches as it seems at first blush. But "Upon the My-O-My," a 1974 single, is enough to make a Beefheart-lover's teeth ache, and "Hard Workin' Man," from the soundtrack of the 1978 movie Blue Collar, is only marginally better. Including such songs may be defensible from a historical standpoint, but that doesn't make them any more entertaining or enlightening to hear.
Van Vliet is obviously an artist who is best taken on his own terms, meaning that interested parties should try getting to know him by picking up albums put together by him rather than by someone else. Anything else is good mainly to give critics something to gush about so feel free to ignore their superlatives. As if you hadn't already.