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Title: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on January 18, 2015, 03:10:52 PM
This project is a chronological review of the music works of Frank Zappa. It is limited exclusively to albums (as listed here ( that were released during the artist's lifetime, with two special exceptions. The first exception is Läther, completed in 1977 but not officially released until 1996; the second is Civilization Phaze III, which was essentially complete at the time of Zappa's death in December of 1993, but was not released until December of 1994. The reviews herein will comprise the final stage of research/preparation for a non-biographical book I am working on, and will hopefully be included in the final product if someone is crazy enough to publish it.

The essays will probably be fairly dense in reference to a wide range of things, and aim at constructing, through in-depth looks at lyrical content, album structure, instrumentation, and other elements, a logical array of “lenses” through which to view the body of work of a man who, for me, is one of the most important composers of the 20th century. They are also habitually written in manuscript format with double spaces after full-stops (periods) and colons, sorry about that.

This essay series is also published here ( Updates weekly!
Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on January 18, 2015, 03:11:58 PM
01 - Freak Out!:  The Mothers of Infiltration

In early 1966, the story goes, a man from Verve Records by the name of Tom Wilson walked into a club in Los Angeles, California, to hear a band called The Mothers.  He was pestered into going there by the group's manager Herb Cohen.  Wilson showed up at the place, not particularly interested, and walked in to hear the band in the middle of a fairly typical boogie number, a requisite of the bar band repertoire of the time, designed to put feet on the dancefloor, cash in tills, and drinks in hands, if it worked the owner of the club might let them play again no matter how bad they were.  After that came Trouble Every Day, a song about the Watts Riots presented in a kind of walking-beat blues resplendent with harmonica and so forth.  Soon enough a deal was worked out to make a record on the understanding that it would be a Paul Butterfield kind of affair, but when they got to the studio, the first song they recorded was Who Are the Brain Police?, full of churning guttural guitar fuzz, arrhythmic percussion, people making weird noises, and lyrics reflecting a detached and paranoid view of society.  Wilson got on the phone to his boss, and said, “uh... you remember those guys I found in L.A., like another Blues Project?  Well...”

Soon enough people were slipping shiny black vinyl discs out of covers featuring odd looking gentlemen and speech bubbles commanding them to “Freak Out!”; were putting needles down on wide grooved smooth edges and hearing that reliable crackle, which unlike for us was not a staccato ushering in of warm nostalgia for a time they never knew, but business as usual.  Not business as usual, it turns out, is having someone, to a very catchy beat, shit all over your existence as an American citizen in the 1960s; telling you about people you never realised existed, who were doing things you never thought possible, who were rejecting the “great Midwestern hardware store philosophy,” the “supermarket dream,” and turning their backs to it as it had them.

It is here we encounter The Mothers (of Invention, as necessitated by certain informed Verve execs who believed “mothers” was — in the parlance of the time — short for “motherfuckers”) as infiltrators, first of the record business and then of the unsuspecting well-to-do 1960s teenager's bedroom, the occupant of which was now hearing for the first time about a kind of counter-culture that was fated to cause a rupture in modern American life, and perhaps identifying with the lyrical content that dealt with feelings of alienation and abandonment; of anger at authority figures; of resentment towards the picket-fence values of the 1950s that lingered in the air; of fear at the impending doom of the draft that was going to take them, break them, and ship them off to some country they never heard of, where people they didn't know were fighting a war they didn't understand.  But The Mothers, as former member Jimmy Carl Black would later recall, were not a protest band, they eschewed the values of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, anti-war band Country Joe and the Fish, and others, instead opting, as would be Zappa's signature form of satire for the rest of his career, for the documenting of facts as they saw them and incorporating them into songs which made no prescription for how to fix the ills of society — they weren't pretentious enough for that — instead saying “here's a situation, does it sound a lot like your own life?”

Zappa later said in interviews that he believed in revolution through infiltration, and it seems that The Mothers and Freak Out! were a real example of this idea in action, infiltrating ears, operating on the inside via suggestion and satire.  To no avail:  the album peaked at #130 on the Billboard charts; critics, such as Pete Johnson, wrote scathing reviews:  “not content to record just two sides of musical gibberish, the MOI devote four full sides to their type of 'artistry.'  If anyone owns this album, perhaps he can tell me what in hell is going on.”  Most people did not understand what they were hearing, neither lyrically nor musically, but somewhere out there, a core of sympathetic ears formed in the United States and across the ocean in Europe, where Zappa would become both a favourite of the progressive left and a symbol of freedom in the face of the Soviet Union, in which his records were illegal and had to be smuggled across national borders to be played at secret gatherings in basements under the cover of darkness.

Who Are the Brain Police? forms an interesting thematic triptych with the song that precedes it, I Ain't Got No Heart, and a much later song, Help, I'm a Rock.  Zappa was an admirer of the painter Hieronymus Bosch, who completed several triptychs including The Garden of Earthly Delights, and this link, while absolutely frivolous padding of a most egregious nature, might go some way to explaining the many examples throughout Zappa's career of things occurring in threes. The “rock opera” trilogy of 200 Motels, Joe's Garage (itself a triple LP), and Thing-Fish (also a triple LP); the triple LP Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar; the career spanning Lumpy Gravy trilogy: Lumpy Gravy, We're Only In It for the Money, and Civilization Phaze III (originally titled Lumpy Gravy Phase III); others besides.  This sidetrack aside, the end of I Ain't Got No Heart features a sudden excerpt from Who Are the Brain Police?, the same excerpt is heard later in Help, I'm a Rock.  The first occurrence of this excerpt serves two purposes:  establishes a thematic link with the other two songs; introduces the next song in a brash, confident manner, leaving the audience thinking “what the hell was that?”  And when the song ends they get to find out just what the hell that was.  It's a set-up and a punchline, and perhaps for the first time avant-garde music and dadaist structural humour found their way on to a pop record, introduced sneakily but suddenly, infiltrating the ears of pop music consumers.

Lyrically speaking, these three songs may appear to have nothing to do with each other at first glance, but I think they address most directly the core issues explored throughout the album, and do so in a kind of narrative, a prime example of an overarching concept being applied to a pop album.  They show a progression from isolation to paranoia, finally to a desire to escape.  First of all, the narrator has rejected love.  He has, perhaps following on from situations similar to those described in the many love songs scattered throughout the record, shut himself off from the possibility of relationships, describing himself sitting and laughing at “fools in love”, of not believing in love.  From there we take the logical step of entering a socially detached state, in which one is free to avoid direct contact and merely observe.  The narrator begins to see people as constructs of plastic and chromium, synthetic, shiny, but questions what happens when that veneer falls away, perhaps under the pressure of an emotionally heated moment, a stress it cannot tolerate.  He conjures a grotesque image of melting plastic, foreshadowing in some way the direction horror movies were to take over the next twenty years, and is recalled in scenes from such splatter classics as 1982's The Thing, 1986's The Fly, and 1988's The Blob, all ultraviolent remakes of the kind of B-movies Zappa himself adored.  The narrator goes on to ask the titular question:  who are the brain police?  Or:  who enforces the wearing of these synthetic shells?  In Help, I'm a Rock, the narrator finally comes to see himself as an emotionless, well... rock.  He yearns for more, an escape from the hole he has dug for himself, and decides to become a policeman.  It's a crucial satirical moment in the album's thematic progression:  a man with sociopathic traits makes his way into law enforcement.  In the final stage of this progression he decides he'd rather be the mayor, leading conceptually into Brown Shoes Don't Make It, the story of City Hall Fred, a pederast politician, which would be created in the following year for The Mothers' second album Absolutely Free.

On the original LP version of Freak Out!, Help, I'm a Rock is “a suite in three movements,” consisting of Okay to Tap Dance / In memoriam, Edgard Varèse / It Can't Happen Here.  In the later CD releases it was split into two tracks:  the suite's namesake and the final movement.  Musically It Can't Happen Here, with its absurdist mock doo-wop a capella (Zappa actually calls it a barbershop quartet in the gatefold's liner notes), seems like it comes out from under the surface of the album to wash away everything that has come before it.  “All those love songs?  Bullshit!” it says, with swagger and irreverent flair.  Swiping not so much at the lyrical content, but the musical, a direct assault on the pop stylings of the first two sides. It leads into the final side, a single track titled Return of the Son of Monster Magnet — here come the B-movies again.

Monster Magnet captures the atmosphere of a loud, abrasive, isolating house party.  A relentless series of 4/4 beats ranging from surf rock to a fast boogie underlines a series of harsh noises, clusters of incoherent shouting, laughs, cries, science fiction movie synthesisers, people talking in nonsense languages, and naturally a few obscured snatches of Louie Louie.  It is the album's central thesis stripped down to its bare bones, condensed, raw.  Here you are, this is what you look like, this is what you sound like, this is your life, are you happy here?  Or, as a voice out of nowhere suddenly blurts out:  did you pick up on that?

Trouble Every Day bookends the first forty minutes of the album, returning to the direct social commentary of Hungry Freaks, Daddy and, strategically placed as the first track of side 3, makes for an interesting framing device which calls attention to both the duration of a single LP and the fact that this is a double LP.  It was written during the Watts Riots, and comments specifically on how the media abuses such events for ratings, as well as racial tension and class struggle.  In his youth, Zappa formed a band called The Blackouts, the first racially integrated group in his area.  They experienced a lot of trouble with locals, threats of violence, and even a brawl with the white middle class sons of business owners who essentially ran the community.  As the song recalls:  “all that you can ever be is a lousy janitor unless your uncle owns a store.”  Zappa was eventually arrested for “vagrancy” while walking down a street on the day the Blackouts were scheduled to perform, and the band eventually broke up under the pressure.  Zappa's future line-ups were almost always racially integrated.  The Mothers' earliest incarnations featured no African Americans, many later versions would, but two of five members were Hispanic and Native American, Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black (née Inkanish) respectively.  In the middle of the song, Zappa proclaims:  “You know something, people? I'm not black, but there's a whole lot of times I wish I could say I'm not white,” but the song avoids taking the easy way out, also commenting that “he wants to go and do you in because the colour of your skin just don't appeal to him no matter if it's black or white because he's out for blood tonight.”  As usual, anyone Zappa thought was deserving of criticism would receive his attention, and he saw beyond the politics of the time to make the crucial point that fragile human beings reduced to animalistic behaviour by the pressure of harsh situations are the same no matter their ancestry or skin colour.

You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here seems at first to be a simply mockery of bar and club audiences.  “I only get paid to play,” sings Ray Collins, yet throughout the song he passes judgements on various members of the audience, imagining their lives outside of the bar, coming to the conclusion that they are dreary and empty, feeling no sympathy toward their requests for “Caravan with a drum sola,” or for their reckless driving habits and promiscuity.  But the song is satirical, in effect questioning what business a band has in attempting to judge or police others, an interesting thought in a time when protest bands and politically oriented independent music scenes were essentially doing just that.  It could even be seen to mock The Mothers' own efforts in observing and commenting on various social, political, and sexual phenomena of modern America:  “you're probably wondering why I'm here, and so am I” sings Collins, hinting ever so slightly “but I'm also wondering why you're listening to me.”

Freak Out! features an inventive mix of rock 'n' roll, blues rock, pop, doo-wop, avant-garde music, and sound collage.  In addition to the band proper Zappa employed “The Mothers' Auxiliary” (mocking the aforementioned Verve exec's original suggestion of name change), consisting of brass and string players, timpani and other percussion, the last of which is used extensively from the outset.  Even here Zappa's instrumentation is exploratory, a glimpse of things to come on later records such as his first solo album Lumpy Gravy, and The Mothers' large looming and eclectic masterpiece Uncle MeatHungry Freaks, Daddy, the caustic, fast-paced opener, adds to typical fuzz box inflected rock group instrumentation the vibraphone, an unusual but essentially non-confrontational pairing, but throughout the album these additions of classical, jazz, and electronic instruments and sounds are augmented in increasingly elaborate ways, not to mention the triumphantly deranged kazoo on You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here.  Zappa was a big fan of doo-wop and group harmony, both of which are lampooned throughout the album on tracks such as Wowie Zowie.  On this album, as in others, he played with the configuration and style of vocal elements, ranging from Ray Collins' melodically confident lead to off-key sprechstimme, comic overuse of doot-doots and yeeeee-uhhhs, the Valli-esque ending to Wowie Zowie, and of course the vicious and near-chaotic dodecacophony of It Can't Happen Here.

I'm Not Satisfied has perhaps the richest orchestration on the album, a full complement of piano, percussion, brass, and strings plays strident back-up to three-part vocal harmonies and a snare heavy beat, reminiscent of songs such as Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman in its strutting rhythm.  It is the earliest indication of the musical direction both The Mothers and Zappa's solo work would take over the next few years, its future-echoes of Lumpy Gravy's Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra, while being very much in a pop vein, are heard in some signature Zappa figures, especially in the finale.  Similar can be heard in You Didn't Try To Call Me, another rich orchestration (if the richest ain't I'm Not Satisfied, it's this), which occasionally and very briefly dips into the Stravinskian, so well integrated into the composition that you have to listen out for it specifically.

Freak Out! is a remarkable debut, seeming to come out of nowhere, mixing the familiar and the new in equal measure to bizarre effect and with undeniable skill, as showcased by the many brilliant arrangements for large numbers of instruments which, in the manner of Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, the masterful but hated 1969 debut of a one-time Mother whom Zappa nicknamed “Pinocchio” back in 1965, showcases an intimate understanding of pop music alongside staunchly free and idiosyncratic personal touches.  However, while shocking and disorienting to audiences at the time, Freak Out! was only a glimpse of The Mothers at full strength, what little documentation of early performances exists shows far more experimentation, deconstruction of pop formulae, and vitriol than is possible to capture in the studio — for this reason Zappa would later derive basic tracks for his albums from live performances, augmenting them with overdubs to create unique hybrids of live and studio material.  Ultimately it is good but not quite great, but greatness was something The Mothers and Zappa would strive for and reach the following year with Absolutely Free and Lumpy Gravy respectively.
Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on January 23, 2015, 07:23:33 PM
02 - Absolutely Free, part one

Already in 1967 Zappa's interest in self-promotion and in pursuing a career outside The Mothers was clear.  Although pre-Mothers activities such as his appearance on the Steve Allen Show and a concert of his early orchestra and chamber works at Mt. St. Mary's College in 1963 showed his willingness to put himself out into the public sphere as a solo presence, this was the first unequivocal statement of self to reach an international audience.  Not only was his face the focal image of Absolutely Free's cover art, but a solo project, Lumpy Gravy, which would prove to be the basis for his magnum opus Civilization Phaze III, would come out soon after this second Mothers album, leading up to his solo commercial breakthrough with Hot Rats in 1969, though delays caused by legal disputes between the piece's commissioner Capitol and Zappa's contract-holder Verve meant that Lumpy Gravy's original cut was recalled, and during the interim between releases the album changed significantly. The musical developments on Absolutely Free were also characteristically Zappa, moving away from the straight-pop majority of Freak Out! to dense atonal orchestrations, non-sequitur musical inserts, the concept of each side being a thematically unified suite unto itself, and the pervasive influence of modern classical music.

Absolutely Free opens no less fast-paced, but much more disjointedly than its predecessor, with a mocking portrait of the President of the United States, who comes out as if onto a podium with an implied drunken swagger, singing in doot-doot form the tune to Louie Louie, whereupon it is announced that “he's been sick.”  The President at the time was Lyndon B. Johnson, who was known neither as a drunkard nor one for frivolity, but, much like Brown Shoes Don't Make It's City Hall Fred, we can see this President as an invented character and caricature, a powerful man with nothing going on upstairs.  Possibly an early example of Zappa's news watching strategy of “subtracting the spin,” this President's spin is hiding total banality, represented here by a pop song which Zappa would use as a comic insert in many songs and compositions throughout his career.  The song goes on to return to themes and imagery from Who Are the Brain Police?, and, being titled as it is Plastic People, this should come as no surprise.  Readers will recall that I presented Brown Shoes Don't Make It as the logical conclusion of the triptych in Freak Out!, but here, having followed an alternative path, the narrator has regained a belief in love, albeit a cautious one, stating “I'm sure that love will never be a product of plasticity.”  This ties into The Mothers' constant mockery of normal teenage and early adult life, suggesting that like so many fads this deep existential conundrum was nothing more than a passing phase.  But there is a positive message after all, as the narrator has gained wisdom from his experiences.

Plastic People sets the musical tone for the rest of the album, featuring frequent breaks in the action, snatches of atonal music, and raucous group vocalisations.  Zappa was interested in having as much vocal variety as possible, no fewer than four of the now eight-piece band are credited with vocals, each one with a different register and timbre, making up a warped version of a 1950's harmony group or Mothers contemporaries The Beach Boys. Elliott Ingber, the second guitarist on Freak Out!, had left the band and been replaced by Jim Fielder who played both guitar and piano, and would himself soon leave the band to become a founding member of Blood, Sweat & Tears. The regular quintet was further augmented with a second drummer, a woodwind player, and a keyboardist — Billy Mundi, Bunk Gardner, and Don Preston respectively.  These performers added a new level of technical proficiency to the group, and Zappa, a learned music theorist, was keen to step up his role as band leader and have the original members improve to match.  Throughout the late '60s Jimmy Carl Black believed The Mothers to be “the best band in the world,” they certainly were at the forefront of ability, innovation, and experimentation of their time, traits which would only become more apparent in later releases such as Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich.

The Duke of Prunes is a bizarrely comic three-part short suite in which prunes and beans may or may not be allusions to sex organs and other body parts.  It is in large part a parody of popular love songs which hint at sex but are purposely obscure and noncommittal regarding what it is and what it consists of, in some ways predicting the hypersexuality of Led Zeppelin, who stretched the veil to the point of ludicrousness with such imagery as the squeezing of a lemon as a metaphor for a handjob, or the eating of custard pie as code for cunnilingus.  Breaking the form Zappa suddenly throws in a short movement consisting entirely of quotes from The Firebird, Petrushka, and Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), works by one of Zappa's most beloved composers.  These melodies of Stravinsky's early “Russian period” (c. 1907-1920, succeeded by his Neoclassical period, a term which he despised) weave in and out of each other to create a polytonal polymetric texture in which modern music is subsumed into a postmodern collage, also postmodern in its ironic inclusion into one of the album's most bizarrely satirical pieces. The suite ends with a fast recapitulation of the main theme, leading into a final overblown crescendo, of which Zappa says “this is the exciting part, this part is like The Supremes, see the way it builds up?”  In addition to everything else several wheezing laughs can be heard in this final part from the singers, indicating that the band had come back more confident in their abilities and were really having fun with the record, which is a big part of what makes it so infectious and enjoyable.  Despite Freak Out!'s obvious freedom compared to the norm of its time, it was somewhat stilted by first-time nerves, the trepidation that comes with a maiden voyage into the studio, but not so much here:  been there, done that, now let's make a record where we sing “oh cheesy fat!” at the end of a song.

If The Duke of Prunes was lyrically bizarre, we may need a new adjective for the text of Call Any Vegetable, which concerns using a telephone to converse with vegetables, to be proud of them, boogie with them and so forth.  Symbolism and allegory or dada nonsense? might seem like a worthwhile question, but I'm not so sure that it is.  That way lies madness, for we could say that a “vegetable” is a “penis,” but how fucking stupid is that? and is that the point? is there a point?  Well, yeah, the point is that's fucking fun, fucker.  I mean, let's be honest, songs like this were practically designed to have anyone trying to seriously analyse them come out looking like an idiot, and by golly I'm going for it.  If “vegetable” is “penis”, then what was the “cheese” that Ray had for your “prunes” in the previous song, hmmm?  Is it possible that “vegetable” and “cheese” are code for “circumcised” and “intact”?  No, and that is exactly why this sort of thing is stupid, not to mention the overuse of quotation marks necessitated by such analytical ventures is really too much for me to bear.  Like Duke, Vegetable's midsection contains quotes from 20th century concert music, this time it's Holst's Jupiter from The Planets, leading into extended guitar, keyboard, and saxophone solos all going at once.  This Ritual Dance is basically proto-Hot Rats, not as extended, but heading that way, though it is far more raucous and loose than most anything on that record.  The suite ends with an exaltation of the vegetable, and once again I'm not sure that there's any point in trying to understand or analyse this, it's just there. And finally a snippet from Stravinsky's Marche royale from L'histoire du soldat closes out side one, meaning nothing, glorious nothing.

The amount of Stravinsky on this record is surprising.  Zappa often inserted segments of other composers' works into his own, either as joke or homage, along with advertising jingles and popular songs, but here it's almost as if he decided to make the album a part time promotional vehicle for one of his favourite composers.  There is some kind of historical focus in the choice of excerpted works:  Le sacre du printemps, The Firebird, Petrushka, and L'histoire du soldat were all written between 1910 and 1918, Holst's Planets were written around the same time.  What this signifies for the album is at the very least obscure, but it is more than likely a coincidence arrived at through “ear worms” Zappa had in his head at the time of creating the album.  However, the excerpts were not inserted without care, in fact they either fit right into the tracks that house them or are used to striking effect, as in Amnesia Vivace and Status Back Baby, but it is fair to say that these are in some ways in-jokes for the initiated.  Most people even today don't know much of Stravinsky outside of the Disney enfamed Le sacre du printemps, and even then may not be aware of what it is outside of its appearance in Fantasia, much like Richard Strauss's Sonnenaufgang from Also sprach Zarathustra being more famous for the images Stanley Kubrick paired it with in 2001: A Space Odyssey than for the fact of its being a great work of German late romanticism.  It is actually this most famous and popular work of Stravinsky that is used the least here, appearing only in a distortedly upbeat and hard-to-spot version at the start of Amnesia Vivace.

Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on January 23, 2015, 07:24:27 PM
02 - Absolutely Free, part two

The President seems to return for the beginning of America Drinks with more of his characteristic doot-doots, this time to an arrhythmic swing beat which sets up the main rhythmic idea in the song, seemingly taking on the role of compère, announcing the start of the new side while being totally incapable of communicating anything intelligent.  Here the love song is played lyrically straight, but is musically beyond anything attempted on the record so far.  Ray Collins croons to a cliché sentimental melody, but is totally out of time with the simplistic hi-hat swing beat that carpets the track while some gruff voiced man says things with no apparent relation to the song.  If I haven't made it clear enough already, this is the album where Zappa's affinity for Dada — which he referred to as AAAFNRAA: anything anytime anyplace for no reason at all — makes itself readily apparent.  A sustained tone cluster sounds from a piano like a burst of free jazz from some New York quartet recording in the next room, the track seems to ignore this and carry on as normal before turning without warning into some alternate universe version of Julius Fučík's Entrance of the Gladiators laced with Carl Stalling-like little cartoon melodies, meanwhile Roy Estrada seems to become a parody of the typical bass player role of repetitive and banal lines, bopping along to I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) by The Four Tops.  Hilarious and catastrophic, The Mothers were here displaying just the qualities that made their live performances so wild and entertaining.

Thematically, the album is in many ways a send-up of The Mothers' debut, though it would be a mistake to say that it is analogous.  It is not constructed in the same manner as Freak Out!,which essentially operated as a concept album and had a kind of thesis and thematic unity, the focus here instead being on musical unity more than anything, and it is indeed worth noting that each side is an “Underground Oratorio” unto itself, about which I'll talk more in just a moment.  In what soon became the signature Zappa style there are no breaks between tracks, a single side is c. 20 minutes of music with seamless segues, not exactly confirming but reinforcing the apparent sincerity of his espoused belief that all his music was one long piece.  This style also extended into Zappa's concerts, which in the most extreme example, a concert known among fans as “The Big One” (Palladium, New York, 1978/10/31), consisted of almost four hours of contiguous music.  Back to the topic at hand, Absolutely Free practically lampoons its predecessor's use of plastic imagery, particularly in Uncle Bernie's Farm, and even its love songs, here transmogrified into surrealist parody with unusual structures, sudden outbursts of Stravinsky and Holst, and generally heightened silliness, have transcended into a state of sublime ridiculousness.

The album is split into two twenty-minute “Oratorios” in an imaginative use of the LP format.  The first is named for the album itself and contains three apparently unrelated songs, at least if we discount the whole vegetable penis thing, and there's no way I'm going to actually present that as serious music criticism, if indeed these reviews can be called such.  The second is called The M.O.I. American Pageant and is more or less, as the name suggests, a kind of whistle stop tour through contemporary American life as seen from a different perspective.  It has some themes in common with Freak Out!, and much like the final two sides it essentially pulls back a curtain to show what is underneath, but it is in the structure that we find what makes it so different.

The deranged circus finale of America Drinks crashes into Status Back Baby, a song about high school, or more precisely the popularity contests and politics inherent in high school life.  As is their custom, The Mothers do not attack the subject but rather make a display of their observations, and while the song is undoubtedly satirical there almost seems to be an undertone of pity in the words, sung by a narrator who doesn't have much in the way of school pride, but is caught in the cycle of joining clubs, volunteering for extra-curricular activities, playing for the school football team, all for the sake of being popular among his peers.  Zappa didn't think school was a particularly efficient means of education, advocating self-education and taking advantage of libraries and so forth, and here the lyrics make no reference to classes or grades or anything like that.  He sees the world of high school as a kind of societal simulacrum in which being liked is tantamount to success, more important than learning.  My own school experiences, and, I dare say, those of many people in the western world, concur with this analysis.

In what must be Zappa's only Christmas themed song, Uncle Bernie's Farm plays out like an advertisement for a giant children's playset in which America is realised in miniature, made out of plastic, naturally, from the cars to the citizens to Congress itself.  It's strange how prescient the song appears, the ridiculous imagery is so close to how modern money hungry preachers and parents characterise video games and blame them on child delinquency, that the mock outrage practically mirrors their response to the Grand Theft Auto series.  On another level, the idea of the megalomaniac child playing God with a plasticised synecdoche of America feeds into the finale of Brown Shoes Don't Make It, in which a politician proclaims his godhood from an office in a city hall.  The possibility of City Hall Fred having been exposed to such a toy is minimal, given that there is no overarching narrative to speak of, but the idea in itself is compelling because it speaks of an inborn desire for power and control, a common path for corrupt politicians, which the systems of education and career mentioned in Brown Shoes will foster and nurture.

Son of Suzy Creamcheese is among friends of mine a bad song, totally failing to live up to the promise of Creamcheese related tracks that had come before it.  A criticism to which I respond “that's exactly the point.”  As I have said, Absolutely Free is like Freak Out! but with the humour and mockery turned up to eleven, transcending the confines of the works that preceded it to reach a zenith of ridiculousness, and this doesn't just extend to its themes but also to direct references.  Previously Suzy Creamcheese was the harbinger of Return of the Son of Monster Magnet, a portrait of a mind-numbing house party in all its grotesque glory, and that is why this flimsy pop song with lines like “really dig her, she's so freaky” works as well as it does.  Superficially it is a total subversion of expectation, but because of its lyrical vapidity and simplistic musical nature it is also totally in line with the themes of Freak Out!'s finale, just transposed to different elements.  Its intentional throwaway complexion is further expounded upon by its short duration, it comes and goes in an instant, and, placed as it is between Uncle Bernie's Farm and Brown Shoes Don't Make It, two much more substantial tracks, is representative of the minutiae of everyday life that The M.O.I. American Pageant so openly explores.

If It Can't Happen Here pulled back the curtain on Freak Out!, Brown Shoes performs the same role for Absolutely Free, but in a highly complex format which some have likened to a condensed musical.  It begins by talking about school, ostracism, careers, intellectual lives consisting of TV, diets of ready meals.  Subject matter is explored on a bed of safe, 4/4, pentatonic music, and this is why the piece is absolutely brilliant from the outset.  By beginning in such a docile manner, at least by Mothers standards, when it starts slipping into the fantasy world of City Hall Fred, it is such a stunning and unexpected turn that the listener is left wondering just what is going on.  On first listening the many shifts in tone and musical style, the dense atonal passages, the pacing, the lyrical content, all combine to create a heady and overwhelming atmosphere, a shifting and perverse landscape made nightmarish by the interplay of disturbing themes and their humorous variety show style treatment, and while it lasts over seven minutes the experience comes and goes like a bullet through the ears.  You simply have to hear it again.  This second listen reveals the structure and the brilliance of what many have called Zappa's first masterpiece, and this is by no means a hyperbolic assessment.  Brown Shoes not only introduces us to the intact framework of Zappa's postmodernist style, but is illustrative of his mastery of composition in a whole spectrum of contemporary musical genres, mixed to great effect with his own brand of humour.  This time, or maybe the third time, we understand that City Hall Fred was right there in the opening section, it does not end in an inexplicable shift of narrative and tone but rather is the social foundation upon which the character is built, the thing that has driven him to his place in the world, that has twisted him into his present form.  If we assume a somewhat elegiac viewpoint, it is his youth lost to school, work, and television that fuels his fantasies of sex with under-age girls. Like the stereotypical image of a middle-aged man buying a Porsche and trying to pick up young women with paternal abandonment issues, City Hall Fred longs to regain that which he has lost.  Caught in a quagmire of past could haves and should haves, unable to move on with his life, he recedes into perverse dreamstates as a means of coping.  In the middle of the story there comes a point after which we cannot be sure if this debauched cabaret reverie has spilled over into reality or not.  We hear about Fred's wife asking him to accompany her to an orchid show, but he apparently declines in order to spend time in bed with a thirteen year old girl.  Following the infamous If she were my daughter I'd... sequence, Fred appears to tell the girl to leave, as his wife is calling.  Whether or not this is really happening is a big part of the listener's conundrum when attempting to analyse the song.  Like a great surrealist film it seems to split off into fantastic narrative fragments, potential states of being, never really explaining if they are or merely might be, if they have happened or if we're still just looking “in the back of the city hall mind.”  It's a great moment in the narrative that ultimately leaves us grasping for answers.  The finale can be seen to indicate many possible outcomes, but the main two are that the fantasy has become reality, or that reality has filtered into the fantasy.

Resisting the urge to top the climax, the final number is a return to the beginning, forming a cyclic structure which makes The M.O.I. American Pageant the greater of the album's two sides, an engaging musical and lyrical panorama that can easily withstand the scrutiny afforded by many revisits.  America Drinks & Goes Home is the other side of You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here, a bar band that instead of judging the audience is more than happy to play for them.  It has lyrics almost identical to those of America Drinks, but with an extended end section that captures the intended barroom atmosphere so precisely. This bottling of atmosphere is down to Zappa's edited-together collage of tills ringing, people shouting and screaming — voices courtesy of filmmaker Terry Gilliam and his friends.  It was one of his earliest commercial tape music works, though he had made tape collages before.  Readers will recall my mention of the Mt. St. Mary's College Concert, which featured early Zappa works including a piece called Opus 5, consisting itself of tape and live music.  This barroom background tape was made concurrently with the original Capitol-commissioned Lumpy Gravy, the release of which was prevented by Verve for whom Zappa would add musique concrète segments the following year.  The editing was so seamless that listeners believed it to be a field recording, and Zappa was displeased owing to the time and effort he had put into the job.  This may well have been a valuable lesson and turning point for him, for the music would continue to grow more complex, more contiguous, more abstract, more masterfully constructed, all without a trace of interest from the composer in the audience's understanding of its structures, techniques, and inner workings, its allusions and sophisticated musical humour.  Zappa was entering into the early stages of his maturity as a composer.
Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on January 31, 2015, 05:52:06 PM
03 - We're Only In It for the Money
In attempting to discuss We're Only In It for the Money the first problem encountered is the target of the satire.  Previously The Mothers had focused on the establishment social and political, but with this record the scope was expanded to include the counterculture of the time:  where it had been recipient of a clarion call to action in Freak Out! and was out of but maybe actually became the frame in Absolutely Free, here it is one of the subjects of ridicule.  The Mothers had come full circle to find the situation just a little bit different than it was the first time around, and here, in a great panorama of hippies, freaks, police, drugs, psychedelia, stories peculiar to the group and their friends, they once again explore their contemporary surroundings from their own unique perspective.  The second problem is the album's structure, its complex instrumentation, dense production, and the many musique concrète sections which appear in sharp counterpoint to much of the album's performance music.  Though “performance music” is perhaps a misnomer, as the construction is as much if not more of studio than of musician, and this fact of its assembly is among the major links which form the ternary star that is the Lumpy Gravy trilogy.  For these reasons I am almost entirely looking at the album as a whole — and, somewhat pretentiously, my own experience in writing the review — rather than song-by-song as I have in previous reviews.

Misnomer too is “counterculture,” for The Mothers remain on good terms with the freaks, that eternal class of creative outsiders who exist somewhere around the margins of society, downtrodden but free.  The hippies and flower power are meanwhile viewed as phony, counter to nothing and signifying but another fad.  This take on the hippies not as revolution but as cultural fluff was in fact so apposite that songs such as Who Needs the Peace Corps? were soon taken out of The Mothers' concert repertoire, only reappearing twenty years later on the ill fated 1988 tour. Soon the freaks came under attack from the left and right, they were both hated and feared yet oddly toyed with by the authorities, as police loaded them into buses and dropped them off downtown for what reasons people could guess but none really knew.  Spurious and unjust or merely a colossal waste of time, either way it was insulting, a sociopolitical kick in the teeth.  Though Zappa also makes explicit reference to Franz Kafka's In the Penal Colony, a short story about a traveller who visits a penal colony where the breaking of any law is punished by the use of a machine which inscribes the law(s) broken into the flesh of the criminal over the course of a twelve-hour period, in relation to both freaks and hippies.  The story is recommended reading in preparation to listen to the album, the listener is instructed to imagine such a machine being used in American concentration camps as a “final solution to the nonconformist (hippy?) problem.”  In the album proper this is specifically related to Concentration Moon, where hippies sing a campfire song together reminiscing about their lost freedom and wondering how the situation in which they find themselves came about.  It's a brilliant contrast, the levity of the campfire song sung within a concentration camp.

Each side is encapsulated in musique concrète, a technique of tape manipulation developed in France by Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940s which, while electronic in nature, was differentiated from the developments of Schaeffer's student Karlheinz Stockhausen, who created elektronische Musik in the early 1950s, by way of source materials.  While Schaeffer made use of electronics in the editing and manipulation of actual recorded sound, Stockhausen developed a pure form in which source, technique, and result were all natively electronic.  The musique concrète pieces are of varying length and diverse atmospherics, from the mocking imitation of a psychedelic trip Are You Hung Up? to the dense, noisy, and ominous The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.  Like The M.O.I. American Pageant, each side is thus cyclical in a sense, returning this time however not to content but technique.

Among the problems I'm experiencing in writing this review is that of trying at all to understand what I'm writing about.  Unlike its predecessors, We're Only In It for the Money is a dense postmodern collage with many layers to all its aspects, much like Zappa's solo follow-up Lumpy Gravy.  Right now I’m sat here listening to a scratchy old vinyl copy in my bedroom in the vain hope that this will prove to be an educational experience, as opposed to listening to a CD or some rip on my computer, and certainly the 1984 remix with overdubbed bass and drums.  This is a very pretentious thing to do, as if the medium is at all relevant to the content of the album in this case, even though this is sometimes a fact with Zappa’s records and one can inadvertently pick up a peculiar version with a different mix, different track order, or even material cuts, all of which occurred at some point with the Ryko releases.  Currently, Mom and Dad plays out of my shitty speakers which sit atop two chairs in lieu of proper speaker stands.  I am concerned that I am about to delve into some sort of new journalism bullshit by including autobiographical information, describing my surroundings like anyone gives a shit, and possibly just inserting real or invented irrelevant and hardly amusing things in order to spice up the affair.  For example, today my dog had another dog’s saliva on his head.  Ha ha.  The truth is that for all my prevarication I don’t really know what I’m doing this time around.  Freak Out! and Absolutely Free were positively straightforward by comparison, which is odd given that in many ways this is easier to listen to than either of those because of its fluid structure, we identify with it because it appears like an organic thing, shifting and adapting on the micro level to create an intricate yet totally coherent macroscopic array of sonic experience. What I’m trying (failing) to talk about is the fact of its omnidirectional focus, like a musical mandala of sorts, three-hundred-and-sixty degrees of spokes pointing every which way, not just thematically but musically, creating the aforementioned panorama.  This is something The Mothers had not done before, and arguably never achieved again, although it maintained their previous clarity of vision and unity of themes.  It was a massive evolutionary step.

All of which brings us to actually starting the fucking thing, though this announcement doesn't really make any sense in context as previously I said I would not talk about the album song-by-song.  Seriously, how does one go on like this for a thousand words?  It's shameful.  But then it's perhaps true that I should not be so formulaic in my reviews.  Mark Cousins says that the critic should aim to create art, and to that I say what is art if it adheres simply to formula, especially when its subject does not?  If the review turns out to be more about me than the actual subject, indeed if I am the actual subject, what else is new?  When we respond to something, when we try to make sense of something, to look beneath the surface and discover what meaning there may or may not be, we really communicate ourselves: our experience is so much our own that we cannot represent that of anyone else, let alone speak from an objective viewpoint.  However, while formula need not be the ground beneath its feet, a review must still discuss the thing it purports to delineate; must attempt to, on its own terms, collect and combine experiential data into a logical sequence of thoughts by which the author's opinion, based as much in fact as possible, is presented to the reader.  If I cannot do that, and presently I have not done it, the review and I will have failed in our goal.

When the album starts, voices, squawks, twinklings, guttural moans and inane chatter come as if up from the void into the ear, introducing the listener to the idea of creation via mixing desk.  In 1968 its like had not been heard before in popular music, and the teenagers in their bedrooms who identified with all those simple and sincere songs a couple of years ago now bore witness to the birth of a new musical organism, constructed in tape, acrobatic and full of surreal superimpositions, bounding from point to point in irregular but captivating lines.  Zappa was not the first to do this kind of composition, but he was perhaps the first to bring it close to the mainstream, interweaving references of cultural significance into an erstwhile unabashedly abstract and angular contemporary field of music, though as we progress into side two this forthright abstract quality is pushed further and further to the fore, preparing us for Lumpy Gravy.  The vitality of magnetic tape is further stated by the utterances of a comically sinister malevolence which plans to erase all of Zappa's tapes and reduce them to “blank, empty space,” quite literally to destroy the album from the inside.  This is possibly a prototypical form of what would become the Central Scrutinizer character, who in Joe's Garage enforces a total ban on music, as in a later snatch of dialogue we learn of its plan to erase every tape in the world.  It is also possibly a personification of deconstruction at this stage in its evolution, but that's too confusing an idea for a simpleton such as myself, so I will let it go.

We're Only In It for the Money is Zappa's first truly great album, he had been good before, but now had total control over the production, where previously it had either been handled by Tom Wilson or as a collaborative effort between the two.  It really shows here, as Zappa's experience with tape and instrumental experimentation come to the fore, the safe production on Freak Out! is nowhere to be seen, and The Mothers themselves almost seem to be background elements.  We have already seen that he wished to place himself first since the earliest days, though he acknowledged in interviews that overall it was most definitely a group effort.  It is here that we find what many consider to be Zappa's greatest period.  It's not hard to see why, the very late '60s were a hotbed of creativity and ingenuity, and also of a perceived seriousness of purpose while remaining playful and inventive, two things which are often considered hard to reconcile in his later work.  Zappa himself would later ask the question:  does humour belong in music?  And he would answer:  yes.  Many people feel the idea of music being other than a receptacle for triggered emotional responses is too hard to bear, but somehow in these early years Zappa found a sweet spot which he would seldom replicate elsewhere.  Of course, his own goal, as with any composer worth their salt, was to always progress, to find new ideas and deliver them in new ways, for music is a living thing and living things are always changing.  Zappa's prolific production rate necessitated a few bum notes here and there, but the truth is, as much as people may not like to admit it, this album is no different to many of those sonic pariahs that were to come farther down the road.
Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on February 14, 2015, 03:15:46 PM
Lumpy Gravy, part one

There are two versions of Lumpy Gravy. The first, released very briefly in 1967, was commissioned by Capitol Records.  Zappa composed the music and conducted the recording sessions, believing that there would be no infringement upon his contract with Verve, as conducting was not included within its articles.  However, Verve did object to this project and had the original twenty-three minute record pulled from shelves.  Later Zappa re-edited it for Verve, stripping it down and adding much new material, this new version coming to thirty-two minutes in duration. This second edition is the one most listeners are familiar with, and was the official story for a long time until Zappa's widow Gail published a three-disc set containing a bunch of previously unavailable material from both Lumpy Gravy and We're Only In It for the Money. The 2009 release came out as The Lumpy Money Project/Object, which sounded like some horrendous progressive rock band concept album whose only potential saving grace was that it hopefully didn't have the screeching falsetto of Geddy Lee throwing razorwire earwards throughout its two-hundred minute runtime.  The reality is that it's probably one of the best posthumous Zappa releases after Civilization Phaze III and Läther, sitting proudly alongside MOFO, Wazoo, and the Road Tapes series.  It's here that many for the first time encountered the original Capitol version, for all intents and purposes a baggy mess which is best described as an interesting historical document and not much else.  Like in Wazoo's primitive Greggery Peccary movements, it's fascinating to hear the early version in raw form, but in this case I feel a certain gratitude towards Verve for stepping in and telling them to cut that shit out.

The form of the Lumpy Gravy we got in 1968 was a radical break from the original material, which is still there, but stripped down to the point of it being a totally different work and, in my estimation, a much better one.  In many ways it resembles a TV show, its content made up of dialogue scenes, musical interludes, and even some parts that could be considered analogous to a commercial break.  Zappa referred to his second solo album Hot Rats as “a movie for your ears,”  so it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch — to me, at least — to suggest that Lumpy Gravy is television for your ears.  However, the ready associations the mind can make with images mean that the complex artifice of television is easy to follow, not so much when the images are taken away and we are left without the layer of information which signposts the connection between two or more pieces of material for our benefit.  This is why radio dramas usually have everyone refer to each other by name at the start of every scene, otherwise it is difficult to remember who is who.  That isn't too much of a problem here, as few characters reappear, are never named to begin with, and each have distinctive voices to the point that it is possible to know who is speaking without actually knowing who they are.  Though the Piano People first appear here and would go on to make several appearances throughout Zappa's body of work, their use here is quite insubstantial compared to the much more dense application in Civilization Phaze III. Interestingly, while We're Only In It for the Money, Lumpy Gravy, and Civilization Phaze III are rightly considered to be a trilogy, Zappa thought of the first two as part of a series called No Commercial Potential — name derived from a rejection letter in response to his musical compositions sent by a record company some time before his joining The Soul Giants, who would become The Mothers — which also contained Cruising with Ruben and The Jets and Uncle Meat, saying that it would be possible to re-edit in any number of ways the material on each of the four as one big album and still have it make sense.  This relates at least in part to the construction of Läther, a quadruple LP which was denied publication as a whole and released with considerable alterations as four separate albums.  In any case, we can see here that Zappa intends not only a grand interconnected oeuvre, but also subsets of material linked more directly to and often overlapping each other, like galaxies in a universe, you might say, at least if you enjoy making ridiculous and totally inaccurate comparisons.  I certainly do.  It is this aspect of his work that makes it so compelling and unified, yet also incredibly vast and varied.  While this could easily be seen as oxymoron, it is best summed up in this quote of Walt Whitman:  Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Multitudinous and contradictory in itself is Lumpy Gravy. It seems to live up to its namesake, as any pretence of a smooth flow and continuity is thrown out the window almost from the very beginning.  Yet, recalling my comparisons with television programming, we can see that it sets itself up as a "show" quite literally in the opening section, or at least a Piano Person tells announces that it is, then plays its opening theme, the Duodenum, elsewhere known as Theme from Lumpy Gravy, which, despite being closer to surf rock than anything, sounds like the them tune to either some cheesy western or cop show.  Worth noting (or not?) that Hawaii Five-O first broadcast in 1968, and its theme shares some similarities with the Duodenum. I would never suggest that either influenced the other, but I do think it's an amusing coincidence, and also a very cheap way for me to continue to shoehorn my televisual methaphor into everything I say here.  The Duodenum is a kind of surf tune,  but soon enough it changes gears and introduces the first snippet of the 1967 material in the form of Oh No, which would later appear in many different forms, notably on Weasels Ripped My Flesh, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 1, and reworked and combined with The Orange County Lumber Truck as Son of Orange County on Roxy & Elsewhere. The sudden change from upbeat cheesy surf music to a lush big band arrangement is a soft introduction to the nature of the piece, but it soon hits hard and fast with musique concréte! Yes, that French thing is back again with a vengeance.  Here samples of The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny are interwoven with new parts and dialogue, and out come the Piano People.  From within the piano they discuss a potential vision of the outside world, one specifically of darkness, a character who tells them he has seen the outside tells them it is indeed dark, but his first utterance is also a total scene change, the women who were talking before replaced with two men, having a conversation about psychosympathetic (a neologism the author refuses to define — so avant!) water.

The Piano People sections were created by having people talk into a piano with the sustain pedal constantly depressed, the strings of which then resonate in sympathy to the voices.  While Zappa is among the classical music crowd often and wrongly thought of as a user of second-hand techniques invented by people from Europe of far greater inventiveness and skill than he could ever possess (they're an emphatic bunch, those serious music aficionados), this use of piano resonance pre-dates one of its foremost exemplars, Luciano Berio's Sequenza X of 1984, in which a trumpet is blown into a piano with specific keys depressed without sounding.  It's a great technique for creating atmosphere, and here in the piano it is like a ghostly reflection of the actual dialogue, though one has to listen closely for it given its subtle sonance and its weak dynamic compared to the voices of the Piano People.  It is entirely possible, as I did, to completely miss it for the first several listens, or to mistake it for coloured reverb applied after the fact.  The fact of the Piano People or at least their heads actually being inside the piano lends a weight to their conversations, which may not make much sense at first, if ever, and are just this side of incredible art house silliness.  It's a Kubrickian touch:  you might not be sure what it is, but you know it's there, and it works.

Following the paranoiac's telling someone where they can get the “dark water” a jingle starts up, as if advertising the water as product.  It is totally contrasted in mood to the introductory dialogue.  Zappa's use of parataxis here and throughout the album is reminiscent of something like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, in whichimages and ideas are presented in free association and rapid succession, connections more often than not recognisable only with repeat viewings, and Lumpy Gravy is certainly the kind of record that demands revisiting again and again to be properly absorbed.  The previous year Zappa had created an advertisement for Luden's Cough Drops, which, like the water, you can get at your local drug store.  In an unexpected approach, at least for the uninitiated, Zappa uses musique concrète to characterise an irritating cough, but this inventiveness earned him a Clio Award for best use of sound.  A similar sequence appears in the album, though they do not appear to be from the same source.  Like another great American composer, Charles Ives, whose father famously showed him two marching bands moving towards each other from opposite ends of a long road, each playing a different tune in a different key and tempo, the resulting sonic effect of which was replicated in Ives' brilliant Symphony No. 4, here we can see Zappa's prior experiences expressed in musical terms.

Bored Out 90 Over, Almost Chinese, and Switching Girls, a short sequence, another kind of triptych.  It's all about the threes, baby, and here's a triptych inside the second part of a trilogy, but that is also part of a tetralogy.  Groovy!  And while we're at it, why not try some numerology?  I forget if that's a period appropriate reference or if we weren't still stuck in the age of Ouija and astrology back then.  Yeah, you know, that age that started in the 1890s and, in the case of the latter, possibly as early as 2000 BCE.  Where was I?  Oh right:  numerology.  You see, three times nine equals twenty-seven, and ninety over twenty-seven is three-point-three-three-three-three-three-three-recurring, and three-point-three-three-three-three-three-three-recurring times nine equals thirty which is almost the length of the album in minutes which means that the next track is Oh No Again.  It's a conspiracy!  This time around, Oh No gets a more lush and layered orchestration with lots of overdubs, and even perhaps the coolest version of the section that forms the basis for Son of Orange County.  It's perhaps worth mentioning that Oh No is one of my favourite Zappa pieces, my favourite version being the one on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 1.  The versions presented here are by no means lacklustre:  a laid-back almost smooth jazz maiden outing and later a rich and bold electric-orchestral rendition which paints its lively figures in triumphal colours, both are very fine indeed.  In fact, it is not at all inaccurate to suggest that they are among the most confident arrangements of his early career, comparable at least in proficiency to the whirlwind of sound that is Brown Shoes Don't Make It.

The next segment is a little story told by Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, whose voice was also excerpted on Switching Girls, about his succession of crappy jobs, two of which his brother somehow steals from him, and the series of cars he uses his earnings to buy after getting a job at an aircraft company.  Zappa was very much interested in the musicality of speech, and of the idea that it would be possible and commercially viable to create an album comprised largely of speech.  Here speech is mingled in between more conventionally musical moments but still functions as a set of non-submersible units, meaning that it maintains itself as the focal point above the “water level” of the album whenever it appears, though the line becomes blurred as the section progresses.  Unlike much of the spoken word throughout the album, this is not part of the Piano People dialogue, seeming to exist in a different world.  Zappa liked to write songs concerning the “folklore” of the people in his group and ancillaries (Sherwood was a roadie at the time, but eventually joined the band on baritone sax), so it's entirely possible that this is a genuine recollection of a personal event. Based on the mention of Sherwood's being “the last welder on [the XB-70]”, the story can be dated roughly to 1964, which was the launch year of  the XB-70 Valkyrie, a prototype of the B-70 bomber, which also means that Sherwood was working for North American Aviation.  The story is largely irrelevant to the album thematically, which is exactly what makes it thematically relevant:  the album is Zappa's first real break with the idea of a unifying central thesis, or rather his first foray into the idea of the thesis being that there is no thesis, it's just stuff happening.  This is where the influence of John Cage, the developer of systems of composition based around indeterminacy, comes into play, and it isn't difficult to compare Lumpy Gravy to Cage works such as Indeterminacy and Roaratorio: An Irish Circus On Finnegans Wake.  While Cage sought to remove himself, his ego as a creator, from the music through this indeterminacy — and largely failed to do so, since the resulting creations were so original that they were instantly recognisable as his own and no one else's — Zappa had no pretence and left his stamp all over the album:  two diametrically opposed paths that led to the same result.

Side one ends with an extended section of orchestral music from the original version, re-cut and sequenced in a different manner.  The progressions, figures, rhythms, and colours are reminiscent of film scores, and appropriately so as some material was taken from Zappa's score for The World's Greatest Sinner which, on The Steve Allen Show, he described as the worst movie ever made, though this was perhaps part of an advertising campaign, as Zappa was no doubt familiar with far worse films from his love of B-movies.  He was a big fan especially of monster movies, the score styles of which combine with the developments of the Neue Wiener Schule (i.e.: Schoenberg) to form a conglomeration of idioms that do not particularly lean toward one side or the other, again making it unmistakably Zappa.  The reason his orchestral music so often sounds not like orchestral music, or rather the idea of orchestral music as defined by the western concert tradition, is that he has no time for convention:  whether writing in C major or in free chromaticism, Zappa simply does what he wants to do, which is why even his simplest works are so idiosyncratic, unpredictable, uncommon, unfamiliar.
Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on February 14, 2015, 03:17:12 PM
Lumpy Gravy, part two

Part Two comes as the ungainly sibling of Part One, occupying the space in which it once stood to deliver a Lucky's monologue of digressions, never once returning to a central conceit, ending with the self-aware statement from Zappa's frequent visual design collaborator Cal Schenkel that “round things are boring.” It existed then as continuation, exists now as a set-up for a punchline that would take twenty-six years to reach us, like it was sent in 1968 to some far reach of the known universe and bounced back to us changed, elaborated upon, expanded eightfold into a grand preapocalyptic omen.  It begins, this set-up, with talk of Pigs and Ponies, of The Big Note, of putting motors in oneself.  In fact, the first section of it ends with the very lines that would begin its changed form.  There's plenty of time to discuss Pigs and Ponies in the eventual Civilization Phaze III review, so I won't waste time and space here, so let's instead talk about The Big Note. Spider Barbour sez “Everything in the universe is made of one element, which is […] a single note.  Atoms are really vibrations […] which are extensions of The Big Note.”  So what we essentially have is a loose pseudoscientific theory of everything based somewhat on the overtone series, where everything is either an overtone or a sympathetic resonator which, naturally, would have to be tuned as an overtone.  The idea of a note so profound and fundamental that everything else is brought to life by it is an awe-inspiring concept, and somewhat lines up with the idea that music is the contextualisation of vibrations in time and space, its grand example being the universe itself.  String Theory was in its very early years in the late '60s, a framework in which point particles are replaced with string particles (and many other things I do not understand), and an analogy used to explain this (much like Schrödinger's Cat is used to explain the Uncertainty Principle) is that of notes on a string in place of particles.  However, it's worth mentioning that at this stage it was being developed as a theory of nuclear force rather than a unified theory, it's also worth mentioning that I have no idea what any of this means and should probably stop talking about it.  All this Big Note hooplah is an elaboration on a couple of lines of improvised dialogue, but it is the way in which The Big Note would be used later on in Civilization Phaze III that makes it so vital in retrospect.  Like Beckett says of Finnegans Wake in Our Exagmination Round His Factification, The Big Note is not the meaning of the thing, but the thing itself.

En route to... well, where exactly?  We do not know, but let's say Take Your Clothes Off is where we're headed.  Don't look at me like that.  On our way there it becomes clear that the approach taken in looking at Part One just don't cut it here, the free association is on a much less superficial level, most of it is not readily understood even with many listens, many dissections, minute fragments of time played over and over.  The transition from “the thing is to put a motor in yourself” to Louis the Turkey growling (which initially sounds like someone doing an imitation of a car engine) is about as obvious it gets, so where to go from here?  I could take the cop-out bullshit route and excuse myself:  “hey man, the only way to understand is to experience it for yourself!”  But that's not true, I know because I have experienced it for myself many more times than most people would consider healthy and I still don't understand it, so fuck that noise, as the kids say.  Do the kids say that?  I heard Marc Maron say it once and he's at least fifty years old.  Anyway, lest I digress via concentric circles to a point so far removed from the subject that the whole article fizzles out:  we have our destination and a starting point, but how do we get there?

First, Louis the Turkey relates to Roy Estrada an account of a run-in with the Ponies, who are apparently not too fond of Piano People, and may in fact, it is later suggested, eat them alive.  So the Ponies and Pigs may be two breeds of monster, paying homage to Zappa's beloved monster movies, but also, we may infer from Civilization Phaze III, that they may also be two political parties mirroring the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans in the US.  Given Zappa's constant interest in politics it is not so far fetched to think so.  The Ponies are also associated with the phrase “white ugliness”, which may indicate them as stand-ins for the political establishment in itself, recalling the line “I'm not black but there's a whole lot of times I wish I could say I'm not white,” from Trouble Every Day.  Louis's telling of the story is very incomplete, almost as if he doesn't remember the specifics but only the general flow of events:  he was attacked, he fought back.  A digression relating to the game Pick Up Sticks suddenly halts the narrative, and when the subject of Ponies is reintroduced the conversation does not return to the confrontation, but rather becomes a general musing about their nature.  President and Pope are mentioned, and then a cigar, all three responses to the question of what's “out there”, possibly outside the piano?  All three responses are either authority figures or related accessories, the cigar is an essential feature of the stereotypical corporate businessman, the kind of person who would have significant links to the other two.  Whether intentional or not in primo, Zappa may well have picked up on this when editing the piece together.

Transitioning then in abstract modes, several instrumental pieces, some of which may be improvised, are edited together in sequence that goes something like:  ABCBAB.  A is a musique concrete made entirely percussion instruments, except for a double bass — and yes, piano is a percussion instrument because of the mechanics of its common tone production.  B is orchestra music taken straight from the 1967 version.  C is some kind of jazz trio of piano, arco bass, and drums, whether or not it is actually part of B is difficult to tell, since the edits, if they are there, are quite smooth.  Given its character and instrumentation I tend to believe that it is something separate, and so note it as B.  But this has actually given me pause, and sent me back to the 1967 version to find out.  As it turns out, the order is closer to this:  ABCDEAF. Difficult to tell given that both the '67 and '68 versions are constructed more through editing than anything else, so parts that may seem to be the same thing might be edits, and parts that seem like edits might really be contiguous sections as recorded.  Oh boy! Editing things from multiple sources together seamlessly is something Zappa would master very quickly, such that later on in his career it would reach an extreme level of difficulty to tell by ear alone what was done on stage versus what was done in the studio, not to mention the things that were done with tape and later digital editing.  This segment's climax turns into perhaps the most bizarre tonal contrast on the album, as the voice of Ronnie Williams, a former member of The Blackouts (see the Freak Out! review for more on them) who has one of the weirdest voices I've ever heard.  It's like the voice is so deep and gravelly that it goes below the human hearing range and what you actually hear are the overtones some octaves higher than the root.

“Come on, boys,” he says.  “Just one more time.”  And, as if rallied by this strange imploring voice, the Piano People reemerge from whatever string-canopied darkness they were hiding under to resume their discussion out where we can hear them.  Or have we gone into one of Larry Fanoga's corners to find them?  Who knows.  Now they're talking about Pigs, and specifically their music, which has something to do with light and smoke, and may also be used as a weapon against the Ponies.  This interspecies combat is all very confusing stuff, and that's to be expected from improvised dialogue cobbled together to just vaguely have a continuity.  It's kind of like the Richard Linklater film Slacker, nothing in any one scene really has much of anything to do with anything in any other scene, but taken as a whole they paint a picture of the world of the setting and the people in it.  It seems like the Ponies are in deference to the smoke, which the Pigs' music has the power to cause to move, and when that happens the Ponies get split-ends in their manes.  Yeah.  Readers will recall what I said about The Duke of Prunes on Absolutely Free, that there are some songs that are practically designed to make people look stupid by attempting to understand them.  Lumpy Gravy is one big example, and so there are things in it that we simply have to take for granted.  Even so, this may be an allusion to the political campaigns are fought, usually less time is spent on making oneself look good than is spent on making one's opponents look bad.

From there, interludes, which may or may not, on the basis of the album's intended form of a ballet, be meant to accompany scenes of moving smoke, lead us into into a very laid-back version of King Kong in full regalia.  The melody is there but most everything else changed between this version and live performances of the piece from the even same year, and not just owing to the massively reduced instrumentation The Mothers had at their disposal.  Before that, however, and very worth noting, is the appearance of a short stretch of music linking a string and marimba construction to aforementioned big jam number which, quite unexpectedly, sounds a heck of a lot like something from the late Synclavierperiod.  Is this prototype Civilization Phaze III?  The similarities are too numerous to dismiss the idea, yet the vast time period in between the two albums, not to mention the great many directions Zappa had followed in the interim, would suggest it is a little far-fetched.  However, he had made some mentions of a major project that he had been working on for some twenty years, and it is reasonable to conclude that this project is indeed Civilization Phaze III, and with the whole conceptual continuity idea that is always in the air when considering Zappa it is also reasonable to say that this final work had indeed been around in those early years.

The proto-Civ narrative becomes more fragmented in the second half, if that is even possible, of Part Two.  Plans to attack a Pig while somehow disguised as a Pony seem to be in the air, but even that is doubtful, being followed by the exclamation “oh no, man, kangaroos!”  And once again I don't know what to make of it. This seems to be the point and purpose of Lumpy Gravy, to make you wonder as you wander down the rabbit hole, going down as far as you can go before reaching the critical point when you are spat back out by the flurry of information textual and musical that lines the soil walls of its at once cavernous and claustrophobic being.  A sense of this wandering crawl is engendered by a three/four ostinato figure reminiscent of a more sprightly Webern, hobbling along in dense harmony at a foreboding mechanical pace into a four/four(?) wind tutti, hard to make out due to its ritardando or rallentando character, making an operatic lead-in to some revelatory moment. Zappa subverts expectation by using it as a set-up to an absurd punchline, a sentence fragment never contextualised by anything concrete, but it also performs the standardised structural role of introducing the finale.  The Teen-Age Grand Finale, in fact, or at least that is its name in the original “oratorio” form; here it is instead called Envelops the Bath Tub.  It seems to come alive in fits and starts:  a desolate brass duo with restrained gong hits and scrapes lead into disjointed bass pizzicati, building then with rigid drums, possibly serialised vertical figures in piano, brass, bass, flute, clarinet, snowballing into a devastating full orchestra which drops out almost as soon as it has begun, to leave only a rough gypsy violin playing harshly intoned harmonies against rolling timpani, tremolo castanets and fast sforzati crescendi in the brass, hurling themselves at the audience, always coming back at the last second as if strung like yo-yos, eventually revealing all three to be plates of sound layered one atop the other, sliding apart from each other in shifting tempi till a kind of centrifugal inertia breaks their ties indefinitely and the whole thing collapses in on itself.  This culminative blow-out is a classically Zappian (yikes, man, are you really going to do that?) pulling back of the curtain, revealing the central thesis, which, as we have discussed, is that there is no thesis.  Now it should be stressed that this does not mean there is nothing binding it together, but rather the idea that there is nothing is what is there, an open invitation to deconstruction with a notice to beware: here be ridiculously verbose analyses with higher word counts than are healthy.

And so we come at last to exhale in relief with Take Your Clothes Off, an instrumental rendition of Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance, recorded back in 1963 in Studio Z, one of the few remaining tapes of that era after a police entrapment scheme caused the place to be closed, many of its tapes destroyed.  Historically important not only for those reasons but for its inclusion of the complete tune, which is missing in most all other versions, this early incarnation is gleefully surf-esque and banal with a decidedly sunny disposition, but even from this bright vantage point it's hard to divorce oneself from the thinking that Zappa is making another joke, that sinkholes lie in wait just beneath the surface of this all-too-easy paradise ending.  It is a closing theme, playing as we sit out on a long empty stretch of white sanded beach, magnifying the afternoon glare of a brennschluss sun refracted in the foams of the roaring surf, as credits superimposed on our otherwise spotless vision scroll up into infinity, returning us once again to the idea of the television programme that we began with.  “Well,” we imagine Cal admitting, “it turns out round things might not be so boring after all.”
Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on February 25, 2015, 02:00:07 AM
Cruising with Ruben and The Jets

The third part of No Commercial Potential, and the first to find itself outside the Lumpy Gravy canon, is a decided departure from previous efforts, not that people at the time knew.  Or did they?  The mystery surrounding the identities of Ruben and friends is on the one hand cited as the reason for the album's unprecedented level of airplay compared to previous Mothers records, yet the cover featured a caption which, though phrased as a question, stated that it was indeed The Mothers of Invention, and Zappa himself would later dismiss the idea that it fooled anyone as pure nonsense.  Ruben and The Jets were actually a fictional (later real, adding to the confusion) doo-wop group, conceived as part of a narrative involving the sinister character of Uncle Meat, who turned them into the bipedal dog creatures they appear as on frequent collaborator Cal Schenkel's cover art.

Here The Mothers seem to be taking a break from themselves, making fun of their image, playing a practical joke at the expense of the listener, but there is also some sincerity beneath the vapid lyrics and overly simplistic tunes.  Many Mothers genuinely enjoyed the doo-wop and rock 'n' roll stylings that form the basis for the album, including, perhaps begrudgingly, Zappa himself, and there is at first glance a kind of bittersweet paradox running through all the songs, where fondness and sarcastic irreverence sit side by side.  This is of course not exactly true when tempered with further listens, as it becomes clear that the music itself is loved and often lavished with a kind of restrained caress, but the lyrical content is almost always deliberately idiotic in a satirical way.  The tracks were recorded at the same time as those of Uncle Meat, and there are obvious similarities between, for example, that album's The Air and this one's Love of My Life, although they are lyrically set apart from each other, Zappa opting in the former to discuss more adult themes, even to reference indirectly the police bust on Studio Z; in the latter (co-written by Ray Collins) to focus on ridiculous clichés, e.g.:  “stars in the sky, they never lie, tell me you need me, don't say goodbye.”

The proceedings kick into high gear right from the get-go with Cheap Thrills, one of the more upbeat tracks on the record.  The lyrics begin with “darling, darling, please hear my plea”, directly referenced in Uncle Meat, but soon enough get straight to talking about having sex in the back of a car.  Usually the oft-mentioned curtain pulling in Mothers albums is kept in reserve for the end, but, perhaps knowing that they would be heading in new directions from this point on, decided to subvert expectations and lay it all out right away.  It also lets you know right from the start that it's totally self-aware, and in true Zappa style just keeps laying on thick the intentional stupidity. Now's as good a time as any to discuss that particular issue, ain't it?  For those of you who don't know, there are a lot of people out there who absolutely loathe Zappa, seeing him as some kind of self-contradictory Pagliaccio of the absurd, who on the one hand says exactly what he's about, and on the other never says anything sincerely.  He has, for those people, managed to embody Gore Vidal's paradox (“the writer must tell the truth as he sees it, and the politician must never give the game away”) transposed to the fields of music and lyrics.  By the way, paradox really is an overused word, if I say paradox one more time I'll be just like all those smarmy internet critics who unnecessarily overuse words loaned from dead languages in order to look smart.  Hmmm.  This serious or perhaps not-so-serious problem is exacerbated by the schism between his often jovial presence on record and on stage, and the serious, straight talking demeanour he displayed in many interviews.  To look at one and then the other, were it not for the iconic facial hair and that big ol' schnoz, one might mistake them for two different people, yet Zappa did naturally have the capacity to be serious and jokey, both perhaps to a fault, and the people who can't tolerate that may be the same people who expect music to be serious all the time.  Yet it is, they say, the fact that he is jokey while suggesting that the jokes are actually subverted by being designed to be laughed at by stupid people which makes him so detestable, because he is being deliberately antagonistic and putting himself upon a pedestal.  Or is he?  Well, at least in this instance, it seems that he is.  Of course, this is the natural position of the satirist, for it is impossible to satirise without also assuming a higher vantage point than others.  It's a precarious tight rope act that is frankly wondrous whenever someone manages to pull it off.

Several tracks from Freak Out! are given a makeover on the album, generally with stripped down instrumentation, simplified compositions, and even some lines cut here and there.  The most obvious case of the last of these is I'm Not Satisfied, which drops a lot of Zappa's sung lines from the original.  However, it would be a mistake to suggest that these new versions are not tastefully done, as they place emphasis, in the mode of doo-wop, on graceful and saccharine vocal harmonies.  It's hard not to be won over by Collins's reimagining of the vocal lines here, with the rest of the Mothers taking the raucousness down a notch on their backing and playing it straight.  The dropping back of the instrumentation in favour of sung melodies is actually quite refreshing coming after three densely and often complexly scored Mothers records, and it seems as if the band is taking a breather between We're Only In It for the Money and Uncle Meat, both of which are huge undertakings in terms of studio work in the case of the former and advanced musicianship in that of the latter.  You Didn't Try To Call Me is also very well done, and is a fine companion piece to its original incarnation.  It is actually among the more structurally complex tracks on the album, its tempi and rhythms shifting in subtle ways to create a fluid motion while keeping the track interesting under the hood as the group harmonies take centre stage.  The other two returning songs, How Could I Be Such a Fool and Anyway the Wind Blows are far less inspired, and speak more of the laid back vacation like quality of the album as a whole than their predecessors.

Among the brand new tracks, Ray Collins's own Anything, one of the few pieces on any Mothers record that is not even in part credited to Zappa, is a standout.  Though it is very simple and doesn't begin with much promise, it is the short, light, and sweet sax solo from Bunk Gardner, and the velvet group vocals that follow it, that wins the day.  One of the best slow tracks on the record, it comes after the soda pop frivolity of Jelly Roll Gum Drop, the title of which is not actually a dumb euphemism for the female nipple, but rather “jelly roll” was often used to refer to a desirable woman, perhaps one who, as in this song, could perform the latest dance crazes with great proficiency and grace.  It is perhaps the most direct attack on stupid pop lyrics, their approximation here amounting to the enumeration of popular dance routines delivered in monorhyme, and particularly taking to task novelty songs which are entirely based around commanding the audience to do the Mashed Potato, or the Locomotion, or the Twist, or more recently the Cha Cha Slide.  More of these soda pop songs appear throughout the album, such as Deseri, which is again about a girl who dances often and well.  It's fun and silly and laughably simple, but as I've noted so many times, it is once again the group vocals that make the music really worth hearing. They're a mile away from The Beach Boys, and the lines tend to be more metrically independent, indicating a textural approach which Zappa likely would have derived and transposed from his experiences with modern classical music.

Overall, Cruising with Ruben and The Jets is a fluffy pop record featuring a band essentially on holiday, a moment of rest and recuperation before the next big one, and yet there is something there, some lingering doubt carried over from its predecessors which hangs out just on the periphery of its sunny disposition.  The final track, Stuff Up the Cracks, is a nonchalant walking blues about emotional blackmail, in which the narrator delivers an ultimatum to his jelly roll. “If you decide to leave me, it's all over […] nothing left for me to do but cry […] stuff up the cracks, turn on the gas, I'm gonna take my life.”  It's just the right combination of pop theatrics and undertones of pathological uncomfortability to confirm the statement of self-awareness with which the album began, and the slow walking beat seems to take on a sinister quality in its image, hinting at small enclosures and an encroaching haze of lethal smoke. Make no mistake:  had Ruben been conceived as a movie, it would have been called The Mothers Go To The Beach, and that beach would have been the one I submitted as the ending of Lumpy Gravy.
Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on May 11, 2015, 11:45:58 PM
Uncle Meat, part one

The fifth Mothers studio album probably came as quite a surprise even to fans, or at least those fans who had not had the opportunity to see The Mothers in concert.  Just going by their studio work from 1966 to 1968, there was nothing really signposting this latest effort.  In fact, their previous two albums We're Only In It for the Money and Cruising with Ruben and The Jets seemed to suggest that a general pop idiom, whether played straight or experimental, would be the order of the day for the group, so, when Uncle Meat hit, any remaining semblance of predictability was emphatically defenestrated.  Though Zappa states that, as part of No Commercial Potential, this record and the three others could be cut up and rearranged twenty different ways and still work, Uncle Meat feels like a declaration of independence from any sort of stricture, even that of its claimed interrelativity to its NCP siblings, and indeed seems to stand on its own in the canon.

The plot from Freak Out! to Uncle Meat is one of declining focus on social themes and increasingly elaborate musical constructions.  With WOIIFTM it seems as though The Mothers wanted to disassociate from sociopolitical themes while also leaving an impossible act to follow for their contemporaries, freeing themselves to pursue even broader musical horizons than they had looked to before and making a definitive and undeniable stamp on their old haunt at the same time. With the shift from songwriting to composition, from vocal to instrumental pieces, they managed to fuse a warped variation on jazz with the sensibility of chamber music, augmenting both the jazz band and the chamber ensemble with electric guitar, electric bass, synthesiser and analogue signal modification.  Also notable when considering Uncle Meat as a breakthrough record are Ian Underwood Whips It Out and King Kong VI, both of which are substantially proportioned live tracks, and this melding of stage and studio creations, though primitive here, would become part of Zappa's signature sound from the mid 1970s onward, beginning perhaps with 1974's Roxy and Elsewhere. Yes indeed, folks, the blueprints for the archetypal Zappa record were laid out in rough here.

In form and structure, Uncle Meat casts the assured polish of its predecessors aside and becomes a wild beast, possibly mirroring Don Preston's transformation into the titular Mr Hyde-like character in the film for which the album was supposed to serve as soundtrack.  In what could be the most ludicrous metaphor I have made to date, and one of a manner I particularly hate, that of architectural environs (I'm looking at you, Scheffer), the album replicates the urban sprawl of a Californian city, one we might read about in The Crying of Lot 49 that is compared and contrasted with a circuit board, just like the ones in the synthesisers on this album!  Heh heh heh, sigh, brief pause, if anyone has a gun...  People who know this album can probably confirm what I'm saying, as clumsily as I've said it, that there is a sense of a larger world than had been previously encountered in popular music at the time, as if a smog has lifted and glinting structures stretching far beyond what we could have imagined have been revealed.  That's almost what it feels like, but as usual there is no single means of explaining a Mothers record, they are this, they are that, and at the same time they are something else as well, and that something else is probably beyond comprehension, or at least mine.  It would be ridiculous to suggest (but I think I crossed that line in these reviews a while ago) that this is some kind of master plan conceived by a genius whose every thought is beyond us mere mortals, and I certainly do not wish to make a god of Zappa, who was, after all, just a hard working man with ideas that fell some way from the norm, but it is the nature of music to always be beyond true understanding, we can analyse till the cows come home, but we will never really understand, at least not on the level of waking consciousness, and on deeper levels we are left with a kind of understanding that can never be translated into words.

Uncle Meat is the first album in this sojourn through Zappa's world in which my initial objective, that of developing logical lenses by which I might determine his true musical philosophy, is challenged and even more disturbingly defeated.  Here there is no curtain pulling, indeed no curtain to pull, and any sort of narrative or system of allusions I might wish to shoehorn in would appear totally disjointed even when compared with the abstractions of Lumpy Gravy.  We are, although I have already compared this to an urban sprawl, entering the lawless wild west that comprises most of Zappa's releases from here on in.  Though we will be heading in one clear direction chronologically, our exploration will be a wandering one.  Harrison Birtwistle says that his music is, like all music, a journey, but a journey made with a dog who keeps stopping to have a good sniff around:  that is the kind of journey one takes when one follows Zappa.  At least in those early few years of output we find some kind of unification and focus, but, in my overstated analogy of “urban sprawl,” here we come to the edge and possibly traverse it.

Immediately upon placing the all-purpose osmium-tipped needle (thanks for that one, Frank) to the black disc, the Main Title Theme breaks out in excited fanfares.  It sounds like a cartoon soundtrack, we can imagine a deranged Bugs Bunny in regal attire sat before marching platoons of dejected Daffy Duck clones wearing forced smiles, but the tone is neither militaristic nor oppressive, so what am I getting at?  I suppose it is a roundabout and hamfisted way of signifying the polarised manic fervour and energy of the two things, of the image and of the sound - where one is of oppression and dejectedness, the other is of willingness and joy.  We are entering a wacky cartoon landscape with this opening, although we can also say that the album seems to double back on itself, cycling around to a deranged new perspective in the form of Zolar Czakl, for which the Bugs Bunny image may be more directly appropriate. This opening, then, is actually ten minutes long, a formal procession:  first fanfare > speech > improvisation > second fanfare, a somewhat worship-like structure, where the organ improvisation on themes of the Mass Ordinary are replaced with guitars and percussion – Hot Rats is in the air here.  What church are we in?  On Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa's birth certificate, in the Religion field, “musician” is given, and I guess that's as good a church as any for Uncle Meat to celebrate.  After all, what mysteries of God can match the mysteries of music?  Vibrations in time and space, the stuff of the universe, the conscious shaping of the primal force of sound into a construction:  that's what we call music.  Why not devote oneself to that?  This opening sequence is the closest the album comes to narrative in what is essentially a non-narrative venture, a density of tangents and thematic recall perhaps greater than that of Lumpy Gravy, and unapologetically so.

Working at speed, Dog Breath in the Year of the Plague is next up.  It's one of my favourite Mothers songs, an energetic, upbeat composition with a typical Zappa deconstruction of doo-wop group vocals, a considerable introduction after which Ray's smooth falsetto delivers lyrics about cars, because for The Mothers cars remain a focal point of teenage desire.  The old stuff is lingering, peeking out from behind corners, injecting itself into erstwhile unrelated material, it's still there but it presents itself in different ways than it did on Freak Out! To express the point, when Roy Estrada tries to hijack the song the music breaks out from underneath him.  This can be taken in one of two ways, either we apply the Rejected Mexican Pope Theory (see: Ahead of Their Time (1993)) to the situation or we can more sensibly if equally incorrectly read it as a gesture symbolic and exemplary of The Mothers' changing focus from the song to the instrumental.  Uncle Meat takes the group quite far from their starting point, and this is taken further, or at least to different areas, by Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which reminds me that while this is my personal choice for their best album, it is also in many ways their last.  While Ray had already quit of his own accord, unhappy with the direction of the band (seems that Ruben was his swansong), Zappa himself was preparing to sell up shop and go solo.  It didn't quite go according to plan, and after Hot Rats he was back with a new incarnation of The Mothers, the hugely divisive Flo & Eddie band, the crude humour and Vaudeville antics of which garnered a whole new kind of hatred for their live shows from a certain type of concert-goer, and in large part this is perhaps deserved.  Even so, Zappa, and I agree with him, didn't really seem to consider this or other '70s Mothers line-ups to really be The Mothers, and he switched back and forth between crediting new albums to “The Mothers” or to “Frank Zappa” or even “Zappa / Mothers”, and any number of variations in between, which if nothing else go to show that automatic metadata tagging systems are terrible (and don't forget that Zappa predicted iTunes; he knew what he was doing when he pulled that shit!), up until 1975, when Bongo Fury, and a personally disastrous tour with Captain Beefheart, put a fin to it all. But that's a story for another time, a glimpse ahead — no cribbing, kids.
Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on May 11, 2015, 11:47:43 PM
Uncle Meat, part two

The main sequence from Dog Breath to Cruising for Burgers can be seen as the album proper, buffered on both sides by suites. If we take this model for the album, Zappa was already thinking well beyond the constraints of the LP side.  Where previously they might have been things to play with, limitations to inform structure, here they are out of the question entirely, minor obstacles to be ignored without consequence.  In addition to the sheer variety — both in source and in nature — of material explored throughout the four disimplied sides, the disimplication itself is a key factor in establishing the album's status as The Mothers' most ambitious studio effort.  The sequence is continuous, despite side breaks, but I must of course admit that listening to it on a computer, an environment where side breaks are the somewhat equivalent of ghost stories about a girl who died at your school twenty years ago and still roams the halls at night, allows a significantly different reading of the structure than if I were listening to it on vinyl, a luxury(?) in which I do indulge once in a while.  The experience is certainly different, and yet there is never the sense, unlike in Absolutely Free, that I have hit the end of a suite when the needle has finally worked its way to the middle, not until the end of Side 3, or at least not until the start of Side 4. King Kong is the album's ultimate destination, but is for its self unity a separate entity all the same, marking itself out not by its differences from the main sequence but by its similarities to the opening sequence. After all, do we not end up at a pop festival, and is that not a kind of church?

The main sequence is a bridge between these two outer parts, not just in the literal sequence of events that makes up the album, but in thematic content.  The Legend of the Golden Arches is the first direct link between parts One and Two, associating in no uncertain terms the Uncle Meat melody and that of A Pound for a Brown on the Bus, and the two are even more strongly related by a cheeky reference in Pound to the quick fade-out of Golden Arches, wherein someone, possibly a piano person (they also appear in Prelude to King Kong), is heard saying “fade.”  What is the Golden Arches?  The McDonald's logo?  The version we all know from countless advertising campaigns and, worse still, actually finding ourselves inside or within the vicinity of one of their outlets, was developed in 1968, a gigantic thrice-bent French fry in the shape of an M, not so much golden as jaundice yellow, a stylised approximation of a sideways glance at their San Ber'dino restaurant, which had arches built into its design, along with several other early McDonald's outlets in California.  And since we are Cruising for Burgers (oh boy, the ridiculous links we are amassing) we have a kind of closure to the middle section, as Uncle Meat, the film of which this album serves as a soundtrack, is about a guy who turns into a monster and his girlfriend who loves burger meat, and what Californian urban sprawl is complete without a McDonald's or two?  Indeed, what urban area in any part of the world these days is without its complement of purveyors of fine American cuisine?  Uncle Meat, then, is “about” the rise of globalisation post World War II, you heard it here first!  And I say it again:  oh boy, the ridiculous links we are amassing.  To remedy this wackiness, I shall proceed in the same vein for a while longer, at least until the end of the review.

Now that the thematic ties, both seriously and non-seriously stated, have been established for a good 50 minutes of the album, and the structural links are accounted for from start to finish, it's time to look into the odd corners of town, where strange shops selling things you never knew you wanted until you saw them abound.  We might think Ian Underwood Whips It Out to be one such item, but it is in fact as much prologue to King Kong as the Prelude to King Kong itself, an all out jam with Underwood on rapid fire saxophone.  How about Mr Green Genes?  An attack on consumerism, perhaps in line with the potential McDonald's Takes Over the World theory?  That is, at least in part, accounted for.  Or how about Electric Aunt Jemima?  Another brand name, another dollar, and also a reference to Zappa's guitar amplifier of the same name (spurious info, it should be noted, sirs and madams), but most of all a black stereotype from the minstrel shows of the Reconstruction era, a female Uncle Ben, a black Aunt Bessie. Meanwhile, other tracks such as Louie Louie, God Bless America, Our Bizarre Relationship, and If We'd All Been Living In California speak to Zappa's ever present interest in band life and folklore, which would later expand into full-blownness with 200 Motels, and individual songs like Punky's Whips, Jumbo Go Away, The Jazz Discharge Party Hats... more glimpses ahead, more stories for other times, but relevant, seeing as we are at the end of an era here.

No, it's Project X and We Can Shoot You that catch my attention as being conspicuously outside the “norms” established here, holding as they do no connective materials or structural similarities to anything on the album but each other, two outsiders standing defiant down a seldom chanced upon street out on the very margins of the city, bountiful in their superfluity of techniques instrumental and editorial.  We Can Shoot You is more precursor to Burnt Weeny Sandwich than anything, a hard edged percussion introduction matching that of Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, which in itself is a kind of callback to Nine Types of Industrial Pollution, that was actually sourced from an outtake for Lonely Little Girl.  The links run deep, my friends, and perhaps we shall only reach the tip of the iceberg, but we're getting there.  The percussion dissipates suddenly into a flurry of synthesisers and woodwinds, plus piano(?) and guitar(??), which morphs seamlessly into layers of pitch-bent woodwinds that seem to go around each other in a kind of vertical dance.  Project X meanwhile begins in a much more lyrical mode:  a static guitar chord is gradually encumbered with layered woodwinds, which bursts out then with percussion and drums as a superimposed fanfare, this continues in near enough ternary form for another round, then seems to take We Can Shoot You's progression of materials in reverse, with the pitch-bent woodwinds this time texturally applied in a slow glissando which leads into the synth/wind ensemble playing, but stops before the percussion can arrive.  For some reason this last part reminds me of the music one would hear accompanying a haunted house/castle level in Super Mario World, but in a completely deranged form, as though it were actually a track from EarthBound modified by the... blue blue... blue blue.  Or was that the haunted hotel in Threed?  Nonetheless, blue blue.  This “WorldBound” tune is broken into by overblown reeds out of nowhere, then returns to its normal state, the intrusion and its defeat are handled rather seamlessly, making Project X one of Zappa's more accomplished constructions in tape of the early years.

There are of course tracks we have not yet discussed.  Sleeping in a Jar is lyrically incongruous, and there does not appear to be any real basis for linking it to the rest of the album in that way, at best it might be formed of some youth anecdote, but is that the correct way to look at it?  As it turns out, maybe not.  The internet is a wonderful thing, and you can find new theories about all sorts of stuff in the most unlikely of places.  For instance, in the comments section for a YouTube video titled Sleeping in A Jar TV ad. 1969, I encountered TheButcherClan*, who sees it as a commentary on the conflict between progressive and conservative values.  “[The parents are] sleeping in a jar, meaning, they are preserving themselves whilst being unconscious […] It's common for people to store things that are important to them or things that are good memories underneath the bed […] the jarred up sleeping parents are being placed under the bed for safe keeping when you deconstruct it literally.  Or figuratively, they are preserving their old world values and ideals in a jar under their bed and refusing to hear new ideas.”  I certainly could not have come up with such an astute analysis myself, for all these years having thought it was just some weird song about tiny parents sleeping in a jar, and maybe there is a weak parent à la Mom and Dad analogy in there somewhere, but this new explanation, true or not, goes a long way to explaining where it fits in the Mothers tradition of social commentary.  On a musical note, the end of the song clearly features a heavily up-pitched snippet from the Nine Types of Industrial Pollution guitar solo, a neat tie to the first part of the album.

So, and I mean I have to tell you, I love Uncle Meat, but this review, which I actually got burned out on, even though it's certainly not the longest I've done here, was one long headache to write.  It seems to slip through the fingers like sand picked up from an amorphous blob of desert, dunes shifting perpetually, no oases in sight, mirages of realisation as soon forgotten as reached, yet it also contains the hand, and the rest of the body, and forces it to wander in a maze of allusion and interconnected references to something over here, something over there, a little something elsewhere entirely, always twisting and turning before you have the chance to get to wherever those things really are.  It speaks volumes, the realisation I had while writing this review, that it was such an easy, breezy listen before I actually started to think about how it all fit together musically, lyrically, structurally, and hell, none of what I've said here is even correct, how could it be?  This is the joy of music, it is anything to anyone at any time, and different things to the same person at different times, in different places, different moods.  AAFNRAAA indeed:  Uncle Meat is the motto's very embodiment on record.

*Thanks to TheButcherClan for their analysis of Sleeping in a Jar (source (
Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on November 27, 2015, 03:23:08 PM
Hot Rats

Everyone who hates Frank Zappa's favourite Frank Zappa album came out in 1969.  Unintentional double entendres (is that even possible?) aside, it's true that most people who can't stand Zappa love Hot Rats despite the mustachioed gentleman who brought it to them.  But why?  Comedy.  That's right, you heard right, people just hate Zappa when he's cracking jokes and being bawdy, so when there comes a straight instrumental album with no funny asides and generally serious if light-hearted demeanour from the stable of this much maligned musician, there is rejoicing among people who simply cannot bear the idea of laughing when listening to music.  It's gotta be serious, it's gotta speak to my soul, it's gotta be a little unusual but inoffensively so, that way I can say I have good taste while being totally unchallenged by the music and by my friends, because it's not the normal stuff the plebes are gobbling up, but it's also not so weird that people can't get the appeal right away.  Right man, I am cool.  Yeah, just me and my socially acceptable Frank Zappa record, bopping along, no danger.  Let's suck each others' dicks because we only like this one Frank Zappa record, oh yeah, we're awesome.  Oh but I am being cruel today, aren't I?  Yes.

Hot Rats comes in three distinct flavours.  The first is the straight instrumental composition, exemplified by Peaches en Regalia, Little Umbrellas, and It Must Be a Camel.  The second is the jam track, here represented by Willie the Pimp, and The Gumbo Variations.  The third is Zappa's admixture of the two in the form of Son of Mr Green Genes.  These flavours are dispersed throughout the album, and no two alike tracks touch each other in the sequence.  There isn't so much a thematic progression as a formal continuity at play here, which in some ways puts it more in line with Zappa's previous solo effort Lumpy Gravy than any of the Mothers albums, even Uncle Meat, of the same year, and the upcoming Burnt Weeny Sandwich.  Although Zappa's opinion of what was and what was not a Mothers album over the next six or seven years would appear to make little to no sense, for the time being his solo releases were markedly different in style, tone, and form, Zappa eschewing social commentary entirely, taking a purely musical approach to the composition. 

Having said that, Hot Rats and Lumpy Gravy differ sharply in terms of composition vs. improvisation.  Where Lumpy Gravy is totally composed, a studio construction of material weighed and balanced through careful decision making, Hot Rats is much freer, looser, with Zappa frequently taking centre stage on guitar.  This is perhaps the album's major flaw.  Zappa in 1969 was, unfortunately, not at the top of his game as a guitarist, he was competent and his musical ideas were very much his own, yet the flair and mastery he was to exhibit just a few years down the line with the last official Mothers band are nowhere to be seen among his offerings here.  That's not to say the guitar playing on [/i]Hot Rats[/i] is bad, not at all, rather that for the album to effectively hinge upon it is perhaps not the route Zappa should have taken at this stage in his career.  This also could have been aided perhaps by a little whackiness in the manner of Uncle Meat.  Consider how great Nine Types of Industrial Pollution sounds, then compare it to the solo on Son of Mr Green Genes, the latter certainly isn't bad, but the former not only has a lot more going on, it also manages to be just as cohesive as the latter.  Now, I know what you're saying:  “that technique just wouldn't work on this album,” but actually, just take a look at Peaches en Regalia, that technique is in evidence right there on the very first track, instruments speeded up and slowed down, fitting together in all kinds of wild, mechanically cartoonish ways.  You're going to tell me the rest of the album couldn't have done with a shot of that to help it along?

The entire Zappa back-catalogue was remastered in the late '80s and early '90s, some as late as '93, when Zappa would have been in very ill health.  These are the masters put out by Ryko, which you're probably familiar with if you were listening to Zappa on CD any time before 2012.  While most of the albums received little more than a basic ─ some would say detrimental ─ rejigging, the differences between the CD version of Hot Rats and the original LP are staggering.  Due to the constraints of the two-side LP format, Zappa ended up cutting down The Gumbo Variations significantly and chopping a few bars off the intro of Willie the Pimp, so the CD remaster on Ryko was not just a re-release with a different mix, it was a restoration of a classic, like the long lost footage from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, discovered on a reel that was, for some reason, in Buenos Aires of all places.  So here's one of Zappa's most popular records, and it's now got five minutes of stuff probably no one but the lucky few involved in the original studio sessions has ever heard before. Best of all, it isn't an hour's worth of audio excerpts from a fucking movie sandwiched between the original sides!

However, the reality of listening to LP and CD cuts side by side is not one of “oh, that's cool, I never guessed there was an edit there” but one of “oh, why did they change the mix to cover up half the instruments?”  Certainly, the Ryko release sounds a whole lot cleaner, but it also loses vibrancy as a result, and gains in its place a sort of clinical, sterile environment for its musical operations.  It's not terrible ─ and I feel like I'm saying that in one way or another quite frequently in this review ─ it's actually quite a punchy mix that is perfectly enjoyable in its own right, but as a matter of comparisons, simply too much of the original is lost.  I guess somewhere in there lies a compelling analogy for analogue vs. digital in general, and sure, vinyl is fun, there's something tactile about the whole process of handling the disc, operating the turntable, and the warm crackle is a nostalgic sound that somehow adds value to the listening experience rather than distorting the music; CDs are cleaner, more efficient, they hold more music, they're easily portable, and the cases are made of solid plastic rather than flimsy sheets of card stuck together with adhesive.  This used to be the argument, way back before peer-to-peer and BitTorrent were things, people used to say of CDs:  “they'll never catch on,” and in some ways they were right, as they've probably had the shortest lifespan at the top of the audio media chain of any since wax cylinders or shellac.  CDs are totally outdated now, there is no real point in having them any more except to have a visible collection with which to amaze visitors to your home, a testament to your amazing taste, except people would rather check out your, your iPod library, whatever, no one gives a fuck about CDs.  Vinyl, on the other hand, somehow, has come back, it's cool to own things on vinyl, it's cool to listen to things on vinyl, and, for certain roguish types on the internet, vinyl rips of older albums, and even newer albums which were mastered digitally and therefore have no reason to be on vinyl, are where it's at, not just for fidelity but for cultural cachet.  Retro's the new new, baby, uh...  Well, at least with Hot Rats you are getting the better version by adhering to idiotic trends.

“But why aren't you talking about the music, man?”  Well, what do you want me to say, the band is tight?  This is one of the reasons I can't talk about jazz.  Describing improvisations, analysing them, seems to me to take all the value out of actually listening to them, because you're going into the listening process then with someone else's words in your head, you've built up a preconception based on the interpretation of someone who is not you; and I, having to think about it so hard as to even come close to transcribing it into words that amount to more than a mere technical description of technique and theory, I'm even ruining it for myself.  Every ounce of spontaneity, invention, surprise, and ─ dare I say it ─ soul is gone, because I boiled the broth so much that I cooked all the flavour out of the ingredients.  They were delicious when they went into the pan, now they're bland and mushy, and it's my fault for going too far, for not giving due respect to the materials I was working with.  Is this a cop out?  Yeah, probably, but that's just how I feel.  What one gains from analysis of a composition, one loses in overthinking an improvisation, because the intent is different, the mood, the mode, the technique, the method of exploration, it's all different, bound up in the immediacy of the act, the spirit of the moment.  Even here, with Zappa showcasing his style in what would later be shown to be fledgling, perhaps even embryonic form, that remains true.

Hot Rats, while it is for all the world another unique Zappa album to add to the pile that has so far accumulated, feels like not so much a bold statement in its own right as it does a return to Freak Out!  Now hold on, what the fuck?  This album is nothing like Freak Out!!  (ha ha)  You're right, they are entirely dissimilar, and yet Zappa here seems, like the Mothers on their debut outing, to be showing us potential, proof of concept rather than the real deal.  So we have a kind of return to zero, marking the end of one era and the start of another, a watershed record in every sense, and yet this great cleansing of the palate would prove to be half-hearted, as from now until 1976 there comes a weird episode in Zappa's career in which he can't quite decide if the Mothers are still a thing or not, and has even more trouble deciding if it's his name, theirs, or any number of combinations of the two that deserve to be credited for each new release.
Title: Re: The Zappa Reviews
Post by: Crudblud on January 16, 2017, 07:24:47 PM
Oh, right, this fucking thing.

Burnt Weeny Sandwich

Burnt Weeny Sandwich is the first posthumous release of Frank Zappa's career.  The Mothers had been disbanded, they were done, finished, ended, through, so through were they that it was thought that their throughness was thorough and final.  It turns out not to be the case, since Zappa had apparently made the decision in haste and would then bring the name back all of a sudden just months later.  Who knows why, but one might speculate that the Mothers, despite Hot Rats, despite a (shall we say) healthy dose of self-promotion the past few years, still had a higher profile than Zappa himself.  You can say that he was the band in the public view, and that's at least partly true, but what are you without what you are?  (...I can resist jokes once in a while, folks...)

“Burt Weenysandwich?  What the heck kind of a name is that?  Oh, oh, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, I... well, I still don't get it.”  That's okay, pard, sit a spell and let me spin you a tale to set your back hairs a-twitchin'.  Where I was going with that I don't know, but I've got to fill space somehow, and I sure as hell ain't talkin' about no music in this here music review.  Yes, that's a Hot Rats callback, and yes, I will redo that one eventually.

The album is a fork in the road.  The path not taken was the continuation of the Mothers, an outfit which, you might think it easy to see in hindsight, had possibly done all it could do.  I take the view that the Mothers, assuming the banner could continue to absorb more people and change formations as it went on, as Zappa's later touring bands would do, had many more years ahead of it, eventually arriving at the amorphous absurdity suggested by the name “United Mutations”.  Without taking up half the review with pointless speculation as to what would and would not happen in this alternate timeline, let's just say that things would have been very different.
Under the circumstances, and while it would be absolutely hideous to conflate biographical details with musical output (a musicological crime we are thankfully not often incited to commit when talking about Zappa), it's easy to see the upbeat, melodic, “optimistic” sounds that make up the music throughout as being incredibly sad, tinged with nostalgia and a sense of loss.  But that's what a combination of hindsight and alcohol will do for your writings on music, folks.  At the time Zappa had already given up on sociopolitical commentary, not wishing to be associated with the burgeoning political rock scene, and the mainstay in 1969 was definitely (and perhaps defiantly, too) instrumental music, or songs with lyrics too absurd for anyone to find much of anything in them without looking like a fool, which is a certain kind of serendipity for my purposes in that I can maintain my sappy maudlin approach without a trace of irony and say “what, you see some other way of dancing about this architecture?”

The structure of the album is symmetrical—single track>suite>side break>suite>single track—and in practice almost symmetrical, almost only by virtue of a few minutes' difference in duration between sides.  In this way Zappa returns to Absolutely Free, acknowledging the LP format as a reasonable constraint to be built around rather than an annoyance to be defied.  Both albums use suites as their major units of organisation, but where Absolutely Free is all singing, all dancing, Burnt Weeny Sandwich shoves singing to the outermost extremities, in the form of two cover versions of popular doo-wop songs by Four Deuces (WPLJ) and Jackie & the Starlites (Valarie).  These two covers, which could be Ruben and the Jets off-cuts (and I don't mean that negatively), bookend the album, a greeting and a farewell which mark out more of that bittersweet Territory of the End with pleasant cliché. 

Both tracks showcase the Mothers as singers.  Common throughout Zappa's line-ups is the expectation that all or most members of the band will have some vocal parts, the '60s incarnations of the Mothers have some of the finest examples of the group as doublers of voice and instrument.  Here more than anywhere in the post-Ray Collins era is his absence felt, this material is exactly his kind of territory, and while Zappa, who was admittedly not much for singing, does a fine enough job, bringing just enough sincerity to his delivery of WPLJ's fluffy lyrics, you can't help but wonder how Collins's presence might have influenced things.  By all accounts it doesn't seem like Collins himself had much influence so far as exercising his will over the musical direction of the band goes, but his voice lent itself well to particular instrumentations, which Zappa had well prepared to be one of the all-too-often unsung highlights of Freak Out!  The difference in instrumentation here, compared even to Ruben, let alone the debut, and discounting the obvious changes of personnel over just a few short years, speaks volumes on Collins's subtle but central importance to the music making of the Mothers.

WPLJ, despite being musically alien to the rest of the album, sets up a vibe of fun that will be carried on through the first suite and over the side break.  First off, sharp material contrast is in the offing with Igor's Boogie, Phase One, which, along with its respective Phase Two, is just one of many Stravinsky references and tributes Zappa would make throughout his career.  Rather than quoting, as he had done previously, melodies of Stravinsky, this time Zappa writes original music in homage to the Russian ex-pat.  The music in both Phases points towards L'histoire du soldat (1916), a jaunty ensemble piece with percussion.  They are similar in structure to one another, hitting equivalent gestures at equivalent times (handy for light analysis such as this because they're both the exact same length), such that it is almost accurate to call Phase Two a double (in the sense of the Baroque dance suite, e.g.: Allemande et double) or more properly a variation of Phase One.  In keeping with the theme of the End, Stravinsky was coming to the end of his life, and indeed had ceased to compose after around 1968.  It doesn't particularly matter, in fact doesn't matter at all that this was the case, or if Stravinsky had the chance to hear these brief movements, which are essentially glue for larger works which he might well have found much more interesting, but it is interesting to think what Zappa could have made here had he produced a full suite of this music.

The major pairing on side one is that of the two Holiday in Berlin pieces, which contain music that would later appear in the soundtrack for 200 Motels.  The first of the two tracks, the Overture, presents a sequence of three linked melodies which are quite fluffy and pleasant, this is offset by a wilfully vulgar encroachment of dissonance by having certain of the instruments, most notably the double bass on the final melody, shade the melodies in colours borne of playing slightly outside of 12TET.  The double bass in particular achieves the remarkable feat of sitting between two chairs without contradiction, lending the whole affair a shimmering, spectral quality.

Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown, the longest track of the Side One suite, elaborates on the basic sequence shown previously in the Overture, with yet more material that would develop into 200 Motels.  The arrangement is much softer, avoids the grand dissonances of its predecessor, and is more given over to the pillowy largesse of Strictly Genteel, which was originally conceived as the finale to 200 Motels.  Zappa's clear desire here, which is another perspective on the same landscapes he painted with Lumpy Gravy, and which he would paint again with 200 Motels, is the total amalgamation of popular and classical music.  It's a theme that dominated Zappa's early career and one to which he would return—though it's fair to say he never entirely left—with yet another perspective in his final years.

Full-Blown gives us the second of two guitar solos in the Side One suite, and it is, in my estimation, the better of the two.  The first, which is featured on the potentially interesting Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, begins with sharp percussion and baleful bells and other metal percussions which, when I was younger, made me think of a bombed out church lost to some war, and someone shovelling through the rubble, looking for something.  The guitar solo slowly fades in over the top of this and the whole thing decidedly becomes sub-Nine Types of Industrial Pollution, a less interesting cousin one is forced to meet and talk with at the Mothers' Farewell Party.  It isn't bad, but didn't we have enough of this from not only Nine Types but the guitar-heavy Hot Rats, which had already done more and better than is on offer here?  The saving grace is in the final percussion section, which sets up for a smooth transition into Igor's Boogie, Phase Two.  Why couldn't the rest of the track have been like that?

The finale of the Side One suite is Aybe Sea (easy as one-two-three! C'mon guys, lets sue some motherfuckers!), which is the suite's summation, with its Stravinskian rhythms, and its tonality, which begins in the same mode as Holiday in Berlin.  The piece ends on a cryptic note which builds expectation for Side Two.  The use of harpsichord is perhaps at its most striking in this piece, where it is paired and contrasted with the piano, its own future replacement, which, if I was going to take my shamelessly emotionalist reading of the album way back on the fourth paragraph entirely too far, I could say is a microcosm of the entire album: the presentation of past and future in simultaneity.  Aybe Sea is, in my estimation, among Zappa's most beautiful work, in part for its contrasting of past and present in different ways, for example the way in which its harmonies progress towards jazz, while maintaining a neo-Baroque sensibility which underpins the whole thing.  Furthermore, the piece offers a real insight to Zappa's level of control and assuredness as a composer and as an arranger, both of which can be difficult to grasp in some of his best and most esoteric work.

Side Two is dominated by Little House I Used to Live In, a giant edifice which is by turns dazzling and exasperating.  Zappa continues from the end of Aybe Sea with a great opening for solo piano which takes the jazz harmonies and removes them from the neo-Baroque context, essentially freeing them up to become somehow unstuck in time.  This is followed by the full ensemble playing music from Return of the Son of the Hunchback Duke (possibly the Duke of Prunes following an unfortunate accident in his magic go-kart), a piece the Mothers would play in their concerts around 1969, which is also the source of the main melody of Aybe Sea, though not the rest of that piece.  The original Hunchback Duke contrasts the Aybe Sea melody with a march in the diminished scale, which lends a certain Eastern European or even Middle Eastern sensibility to the proceedings, in concert it often transitioned from this into Help, I'm a Rock!, which has a similar tonality.  Zappa was keen on folk and traditional music from all over the world, and the musics of East Europe and the Middle East in particular found their way into a fair amount of his music throughout his career.  The journey to the east in Little House, however, heads farther on towards India, with a predilection for certain scales and drones which have a quasi-raga quality.

The Duke section ends with a guitar solo, one of the better ones on the album, and moves into a violin solo by Sugarcane Harris, who had previously jammed with Zappa on The Gumbo Variations.  Harris's improvisational style, which is much better in my view than that of Jean Luc Ponty or Jerry Goodman (of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame), mainly because of its being steeped in the blues and not merely in the smug excitation of pentatonic noodling, is not substantial enough to go on for as long as it does here.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the jam session itself is a makeweight, out of place and coming at the expense of the through-composed music that makes up the rest of the suite, which it would have pretend to the throne of King Kong rather than let it continue as it is.  Zappa's delight in editing leads him to slip up in a few places throughout Little House, and this insert is one of the worst of his career.  At this point, no matter how good the rest of the side is (and it is mostly very good), the piece is given up to sitting between two chairs, this time with contradiction, and while it might make an interesting mirror to what I said earlier, it's a shame for the album itself.  If you're curious, try taking a scalpel to the audio and taking out the jam session; it actually flows rather well, but still you would hope for something more.

A brief interlude for winds, vibraphone, guitar, and just a little harpsichord, which sounds like it could be from a film soundtrack, follows the jam session.  It is a return, in some ways, to the aesthetics of the first half, but again unstuck in time, the notes seeming to float in the space suggested by the slow, delicate pacing.  This leads into a jubilant finale—mostly of drums and a ludicrous synth lead, but also some We're Only In It for the Money-style sped-up guitar repeating music from earlier portions of the piece—which is perhaps a little too far over to the jam session side of things to really seem like a fitting conclusion.  And that is why I said Little House is “by turns dazzling and exasperating”:  Zappa seemed to have contrived to undermine the beauty and character and indeed the structural certainty of his composition by attacking it with something wilder, freer, more crude, more vulgar.  It is a gesture to be respected for its daring, without which Zappa would not have been Zappa, but I feel that it is also what ultimately renders the piece a collection of great bits rather than a cohesive, self-sufficient work that moves from a beginning to a logical end point.  At the same time, Little House concludes with applause, yet another look back to the past in the form of an offer to perform Brown Shoes Don't Make It, and Zappa's well known quote “everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don't kid yourself.”  The move from studio to live points towards Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which was to be the live-music-oriented companion piece to this album, and would also be the last official Mothers release until Ahead of Their Time in 1993—though it is worth noting that the superb and slightly earlier You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 5's first disc is compiled from Mothers concert tapes.

Burnt Weeny Sandwich is a crucial album in the discography.  It not only marks the end of an era, but sees the Mothers doing some of their very best work, even if Zappa's overzealousness at the editing desk serves to undermine it just a little.  These flaws, which are concentrated really only in Little House I Used to Live In, do highlight the tense relationship between Zappa and the Mothers, and the way they could sometimes work to each other's detriment despite their intentions being to do the best work they could.  The contradictions and the ironies thus on display are part of what give the album its unique character among a catalogue of uniquely characterful albums, one that we might wish had gone on just a little longer than it had, but no less diminished in stature by its premature end.