Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band - The Mirror Man Sessions
This reviewer once professed the belief that long songs were great providing they said a sufficient amount to justify their length. With Mirror Man, the original album of which contained but four songs over an album length of just over fifty minutes, one's point of view was firmly challenged and found wanting - Mirror Man takes the concept of loosely repetitive blues to new and gloriously effective limits.
Beefheart's original plan was to enter the studio with his Magic Band and record a double album to follow up his earlier Safe As Milk. When Beefheart was in London at the request of John Peel to promote Safe As Milk, this double album was named as It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, one half of which would be recorded live in the studio with the other cut via traditional overdubbing. What actually happened was that Buddha lost faith in what had been recorded and the sessions were brought to a halt. Whilst the album was canned, Buddha sensed a possible value for these tapes and refused to release them to Beefheart. In the meantime, Beefheart continued working elsewhere, eventually release Strictly Personal and Trout Mask Replica but in 1971, the It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper tapes were dusted down, reduced from a double album to a single and released as Mirror Man, losing all but one of the studio songs and holding on to the three live tracks, forming a track listing of Tarotplane, Kandy Korn, 25th Century Quaker and Mirror Man.
In 1999, however, Mike Ragogna and John Platt worked with a completely different team at the reformed Buddha Records to reconstruct this album, now named The Mirror Man Sessions in honour of not only the four tracks that constituted the original Mirror Man release but also a number of bonus tracks that would have formed part of the studio disc of It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper.
The Mirror Man Sessions opens, as does Mirror Man, with the 19-minute Tarotplane, in which the Magic Band creep with an insistent guitar riff as Beefheart snatches at lyrics of old blues songs, blues harp and shinei as his microphone cuts in and out. If it sounds haphazard, there is doubtless some truth in that but Tarotplane sounds deliberate and focused. Strangely, for a song as long as it is, Tarotplane is easily one of the most accessible songs ever recorded by Beefheart.
Next up is 25th Century Quaker, a tale of a late-sixties flower child meeting said Quaker and settling down together, loosely spinning off into surrealistic poetry including variations on the lyrics that become increasingly rattled as the song progresses, indicating an autobiographical tone given the age difference between Beefheart and the audience of hippies he was playing to in San Francisco,
The last of the three live tracks is Mirror Man, a breathtakingly adventurous yet entirely accessible blues song built up on a single blustering slide-guitar riff that Beefheart opens with a mumble and closes with a holler. Unlike the tricky and frenetic jazz influences of, for example, Trout Mask Replica, this is arrow-straight and as groovy as the Captain ever got, locking into its singular groove for a little under sixteen minutes but never once becoming dull.
The fourth track here and what was the second track on Mirror Man, is Kandy Korn, which starts as near to a pop song as Beefheart would ever get before the unpredictable time signatures start to close in on the scratchy guitars and cascading lyrics.
Where Mirror Man would have closed at this point, Buddha's superb remastering of their Beefheart albums - begun with Safe As Milk and continued here - adds five tracks including Trust Us (Take 6), Safe As Milk (Take 12) and Moody Liz (Take 8), which point the way to the itchy rock of Trout Mask Replica as well as Beatle Bones 'N' Smokin Stones and Gimme Dat Harp Boy, which connect back to Safe As Milk. These extra tracks are a fascinating addition to the album for showing the split between the straight rhythm'n'blues of Beefheart's earlier music and that of Trout Mask Replica, itself a unique period in Beefheart's life.
Even in taking only the four Mirror Man tracks, this is a wonderful album but the addition of five tracks to bring it close to what It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper might have been, means that The Mirror Man Sessions is a great addition to the output of a unique artist and comes highly recommended.