Most of Zappa’s albums are headspinningly diverse, but few offer more variation and jarring shifts then Uncle Meat. It’s truly a hodgepodge in the sense that is has no concept (like the similarly diverse We’re Only In It For The Money) or overarching identity soundwise (like the also-wacky Weasels Ripped My Flesh). It sounds like how the album cover looks: disjointed and bonkers, with a little bit of nightmare fuel. Oh, and orange-brown. If this music was a color, it would be orange-brown.
All this is a prelude to the revelation of “I’m not sure how to talk about this album.” I suppose how this album came to be is a good a place as any to start. As the cover very helpfully clears up, this is “most of the music from the Mother’s movie of the same name which we haven’t got enough money to finish yet.” The movie itself was postponed over and over before Zappa finally scrapped it together in a direct-to-VHS release in 1987, a full 18 years after the album’s release. The movie isn’t required viewing for the full experience, which is good because by all accounts it’s a unwatchable piece of garbage. One less thing to hunt down!
The one part where the movie DOES play a major role is the second disc, which contains almost forty-five minutes of dialogue and the famous “King Kong” suite. Now here’s my dirty little music critic cheat of the day: I didn’t listen to the second disc. I do not INTEND to listen to the second disc for a while, because it has a horrible reputation. On its own, that wouldn’t be enough to keep me away from it (Zappa was always interesting even when he was bad), but I since I ended up kind of loving Uncle Meat, I didn’t want to bring its rating down by having to factor in half an album’s worth of apparent crap. I’ll listen to it someday, especially since “King Kong” is apparently pretty good, but for now just let me have my petty little rating.
In my defense, this is a dang great album and I want it to have the arbitrary number it deserves. You’d think with all the connections it has to an infamous movie and infamous second disc there would be no way to salvage this disjointed whatchagot stew (thanks, John McFerrin) as anything other than one of Zappa’s many, MANY amiable mediocrities. Thankfully, it’s jam-packed with so many entertainingly goofy musical ideas that it ends up like a buffet of tasty bitesize Zappa songs that you can just pop in your mouth whenever you’re in the mood for them. It’s a similar structure to We’re Only In It For the Money, but without the bitterness. In fact, by Zappa standards, the humor is pretty lighthearted. Most of Zappa’s humor comes somewhere at the junction of dark, scathing, and gross. Uncle Meat doesn’t fit any of those categories, opting to let the entertaining goofiness of the music and absurdity of the spoken word parts tickle the receptacles instead. It feels like the lovechild of David Lynch and the Chapman brothers,, with several bits of confusingly awesome dialogue (not from the movie as far as I can tell). Like, tell me “The Voice of Cheese” isn’t a few passes away from being a normal monologue:
“Hello, teenage America, my name is Suzy Creamcheese. I’m Suzy Creemcheese because I’ve never worn fake eyelashes in my whole life and I never made it on surfing set and I never made it on beatnik set and I couldn’t cut the groupie set either and, um . . .actually I really f–ked up in Europe. Now that I’ve done it all over and nobody else will accept me, I’ve come home to my Mothers.”
Perfect. Why didn’t Zappa write like this more often?
This goofy-rather-then-satiric tone is what makes Uncle Meat more instantly likable then a lot of Zappa’s other albums. This bleeds over into the wacky, jazz-spiced music. It’s hard to pick highlights, since the quality is kept mostly level throughout, but I’ll try. “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution” features Frank pulling out some really nifty guitar work, noodling through a bunch of cool skiddish passages that remain engaging throughout the six-minute runtime. “Dog Breath, In The Year of the Plague” sounds like how the title does, managing to be surprisingly catchy and well-written melodically, making full use of the best parts of jazz, rock, and pop. “The Dog Breath Variations” is even better, playing with the catchy themes from the original piece to extremely enjoyable effect. “Our Bizarre Relationship” is another spoken word part that’s probably one of the weirdest and most hilarious things on a Zappa album (and the competition’s stiff on both counts). “Electric Aunt Jemima” is also snort-worthily funny, while also being irritatingly catchy and generally a great doo-wop song. “We Can Shoot You” finds a sweetspot between goofy and scary, in a haunted carnival kinda way. “The Air” is a very nice and amusing doo-wop piece. “Project X” gleefully messes around with atonality.
If I had to pick a favorite, I’d go with the title theme. It’s a little under two minutes long, but like Zappa’s more famous jazz fusion masterpiece “Peaches En Regalia”, it tirelessly packs neat ideas and varied tones into a very short space. I especially love that atmospheric outro…one of the most inspired moments on the album.
Speaking of inspired moments, there’s a few live clips! One of them features Zappa getting his grubby hands all over the famous Royal Albert Hall pipe organ, which he uses to play “Louie Louie.” The Mothers also put on a drunken performance of “God Bless America” at The Whisky A Go-Go. If those two scenarios don’t sound hilarious to you, I don’t think you and I can be friends.
If I could only bring one Zappa album to a deserted island…well, it’d probably be Burnt Weeny Sandwich. But if I could bring TWO, Uncle Meat would join me as well. Everything I like about Zappa is on these two albums, bringing moments of lightness to a very dark catalogue. If nothing else, Uncle Meat leaves me comfortable espousing that Frank Zappa, for all his inconsistency, was a genius.
“The first thing that attracted me to Mothers’ music was the fact that they played for twenty minutes and everybody was hissing and booing and falling off the dance floor and Elmer was yelling at them to get off stage and turn down their amplifiers.”
Thematic Content: 3/5
Resonance: 3/5 Which is pretty good for Zappa, but the goofiness isn’t really “human.”
Experience: Scientific experiment gone wrong! You’re a horrifying mutant! Day to day tasks now need to be completed with your telekinetic tongue and three beefy tentacles! Wait, this is actually kind of cool. You’ve even gathered a fandom, who have gone from sympathetic to admiring to worshipful. Isn’t logic the worst?
10/10. Best Song: Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme