Jeff Cotton – The Fantasy Of Reality: Album Review

Beefheart sideman Jeff Cotton returns – after a 50-year hiatus!

Release Date:  12th August 2022

Label: Madfish

Formats: CD / Digital

Sometimes, a real surprise pops up from nowhere.  Jeff Cotton, aka Antennae Jimmy Semens of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, retired from music in 1975, yet here he is, back again, with The Fantasy of Reality, a new 22-track album that – yes – looks back to Cotton’s Beefheartian past, but which also provides lots of reference points to let us all now where exactly his head is right now and, also, what he’s been up to for the past 47 years.

In 1967, Jeff Cotton replaced Ry Cooder, when the soon-to-be-great man left The Magic Band, unable to deal with Beefheart’s strange – possibly acid-prompted – behaviour.  Cotton played on three Magic Band albums – Strictly Personal (1968), Trout Mask Replica (1969) and Mirror Man (recorded in 1967 but not released until 1971).  He departed in 1970 after a fight with drummer Jeff Buschell that left Cotton nursing broken ribs.  The fight broke out during a ‘band meeting’ and it was suggested that the fight, and the injuries sustained, were merely the final straw as far a Cotton’s tenure was concerned and that the real damage had actually been done by Beefheart’s psychological games during the infamous 8-month period of confinement that the band endured as they rehearsed and honed the Trout Mask Replica material.

After his departure from The Magic Band, Jeff formed MU with Merrell Frankhauser, formerly of The Exiles, with whom he recorded three albums but, by 1975, he’d had enough of the music industry and Jeff decided to enroll on a course of studies to become a Christian Minister.  And his submersion in Christian teachings is a pervasive feature of The Fantasy of Reality, as we will see.

The Fantasy of Reality is a fascinating album.  Musically, it covers a whole range of bases, including jazz, avant-garde, delta blues, pop, Hawaiian influences (Cotton has long been based on Hawaii’s Big Island), pop and West Coast psychedelia.  The Beefheart reference points are never far away and there are numerous sections of the album when the listener can become convinced that he’s listening to cleaned-up out-takes from Trout Mask Replica.  But, for me, there are two overwhelming features of the album – one of them hugely positive, the other, perhaps quite divisive.  The positive feature is Jeff’s slide guitar work, which has lost none of its shine since those halcyon days of Hair Pie, Moonlight On Vermont and The Blimp.  It’s simply wonderful.  More controversially, Jeff’s tendency to use the album as a platform for his religious preachings will, without doubt, cause a number of listeners to treat the album with caution, and that would be a shame, because the musical content of The Fantasy Of Reality really does speak for itself.

A potential buyer may suspect that the 22 tracks that constitute The Fantasy Of Reality result in an album that is over-long, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.  All the tracks are concise – only two exceed four minutes in length – and the music throughout is eminently listenable.  Jeff’s vocal style is ‘different.’  He seems most comfortable when he sings the blues, whilst at other times, the operatic style of Jack Bruce in his Songs For A Tailor period comes to mind.  He makes no attempt to disguise his advancing years and, perhaps, the best description I can offer for his voice is that he often sounds like an elder sage.

Opening track Does It Work For You sets the pattern, and the mood.  It’s a surprisingly funky opener, laced with deep bass and some wonderfully wild guitar licks that bring Beefheart immediately to mind.  The lyrics are spoken, rather than sung and the drums are crisp – overall, it’s highly refreshing, with just a hint of Beefheart disorientation. 

The band is tight on the country/pop It Never Ceases to Blow My Mind, before Jeff treats us to a showpiece of electric guitar fingerpicking on the instrumental Ivy, a tune that reminds me of Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well, Part 2.  Green Bamboo is an early album highlight, a nice slice of rough-edged doo-wop, with a rhythm that is almost reggae.  A wonderful slide guitar solo brings Ry Cooder back to mind and the whole thing is great fun.

We get a taste of Jeff’s Christian commitment on the eastern-flavoured He Made The Eagle, the authentic delta blues Elvirus and on the excellent This Gentle Earth, a swirling gumbo of acoustic guitar, rumbling bass, scattered percussion and some nice, restrained electric guitar soloing, before the theme moves onto love for the slow ballad, All Things New.  The idyllic Hawaiian lifestyle is celebrated in Cruisin’ Hamakua, a funk-laden chunk of primitive rock & roll.  Bass and drums provide a solid foundation and guitar and harmonica blend together delightfully in the song’s short instrumental section.

There are further religious undertones in the joyful, rocky Together We Sail and, particularly, in The Space Between Us All, the album’s longest and ‘preachiest’ track, but, in truth, these serve merely as the prelude to the wonderful On The Thread, an amazing guitar instrumental that is my favourite track on the album.  Jeff plays some amazing guitar over a bass and snare/hi-hat backing.  It’s jazzy, avant-garde, and seems to drop right from the pages of Trout Mask Replica.  It’s a track that will be delightful and indispensable to the many Beefheart-watchers who will be eagerly anticipating any new offerings from the Beefheart inner-circle.

Next, we’re back to Hawaii for Aloha, song that genuinely fulfills the expectations laid by its title, packed, as it is, with slithery lap steel and heavenly, summery vocal harmonies.  On The Liberation Song, Jeff wraps his religious messaging in a parcel of late 60s psychedelia, whist on The Breeze Of Oblivion, those same messages are sweetened by some excellent horn licks.  A ‘vintage crackle’ effect is added to Heavy, an electric blues on which Jeff sounds remarkably like how I imagine Beefheart would sound, were he still around today.  The song is actually delivered as a pastiche, complete with vocal whoops from Jeff, but it’s enjoyable, nonetheless.  The acoustic guitar, discreet electric guitar and unobtrusive drums and bass that provide the backing to The Season of the Awakening are pleasant enough, but I found the song’s lyrics to be somewhat over-earnest.  In contrast, the topical lyrics of Mother Earth Needs Healing will certainly hold a more general appeal, and Jeffs slide guitar work – both acoustic and electric – is at its very best.

Together is a pleasant, easy-going acoustic song with more nice slide guitar and a welcome message of racial harmony, before Hear The Word gives Jeff the opportunity to shine his very brightest with some of his best guitar work on the album and a vocal delivery that evokes some of the best of Cream.  The album winds to its conclusion with It Would Take an Angel, a ponderous reflection on the ability of the human race to control its own destiny and find its own salvation, before Clean in Nature’s Stream, a final acoustic ballad, brings the album to a soft, gentle conclusion.  But wait – are those clarinets I can hear?  A final reference back to Trout Mask Replica, perhaps?

The Fantasy of Reality is an interesting album.  The religious messaging is, perhaps, too persistent for my liking, but the quality of the music is unquestionable and, in fact, I found it fairly easy to separate the lyrics from the excellent instrumentation and, having done that, I found myself thoroughly enjoying The Fantasy Of Reality.

Watch the video to Elvirus – a track from the album – here:

Jeff Cotton Online: Website

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