Unlocking the Fragments

Captain Beefheart’s “Kandy Korn”

Sometimes life gets so fragmented that it’s easier to talk about favorite moments than favorite albums or even favorite songs. Moments within songs, certain fragments, often very brief, where everything seems to come together, everything coalescing at just the right time, and the music is propelled into something utterly divine, some completely other level of transcendence. For example, that lovely little turn around phrase that opens the Association’s “Never My Love.” I recently heard an otherwise forgettable group stick this on loop for an entire song and it worked, basically because that part is just so beautiful that it stands up to that kind of repetition. Part of the initial, if not lasting, appeal of hip-hop, house and their offspring is the ability to recognize and use these great moments as the building blocks or structural basis of whole songs.

A favorite fragment right now is a guitar motif from The Mirror Man Sessions version of Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band’s “Kandy Korn.” Beginning at approximately 3:28 and recurring at 6:51, where after stating the basic lyrics of the song “ (“Well they look so good, I want to eat them,” “ “Be reformed, be reborn, kandy korn”), the band goes into a kind of holding pattern. Tension builds between the guitars’ circular riffs, teasingly dropping in and out of synch with each other, the bass starts to gallop and John French’s drums back off a little, then start to pound, cymbals crash and some kind of vaguely gothic sounding chant enters briefly, with the band still holding the riff taunt behind it. Suddenly, like a dam breaking, the brittle shards of Jeff Cotton and Alex St. Clair Snouffer’s guitars join together and dive into a simple but beautiful repetitive pattern that ebbs slightly in and out of focus, with the bass providing movement underneath and the whole band moving together in a tremendous sway and a grand release. It feels like a school of dolphins swimming in sky blue water and white surf, darting in patterns, together and over and all around each other. The whole band at that point has become one, they have created a living thing, identities dissolved into the whole. It’s not that the whole song doesn’t make it — it does — but these are the parts where things really take off, the peaks to which the song builds. These sections also seem to point the way for much of the guitar work picked up on a decade or so later by Television, the no wave groups and even later by Sonic Youth.

On the same Mirror Man Sessions, another similar but even more transcendent moment happens on “Moody Liz,” right around 3:34. The guitars begin a joyously ebullient interlocking passage, with one picking a simple melody that has already been stated in the song, but this time the second guitar starts to chunk out thick distorted chords that follow the descending bass pattern behind it, the whole band locking into this part, bringing the final minute or so of the song to a tremendous climax. It’s pure magic that sounds like some great pattern stumbled upon after three-plus minutes of examining a lock, or dicking around with a combination, searching, until suddenly all together at once the band discovered the key, the magical formula, and bam, it all opens up! The whole piece takes off at this point into the ether: it would be the perfect accompaniment for the final scene of a film where everything seems like it’s gonna be alright forever, that ride into the sunset feeling of evermore. It gives chills and brings a smile to your face, maybe even a tear. Though much of The Mirror Man Sessions is worthwhile, these are the two absolutely beautiful, no holds barred moments which live up in every way to the appellation Magic Band.