Posted in Frank Zappa, Music Reviews

Frank Zappa – Apostrophe(‘) – Review

18_APOSTROPHE

“Best selling Zappa album.”

Every time I want to praise this album as the fun diversion that it is, that credential makes me more critical than I should be. I mean…really? This? Not We’re Only In It For The Money. Not Freak Out!. Not Absolutely Free. Not Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Uncle Meat, or any of the other masterpieces he did with the Mothers. Not Joe’s Garage with its insane yet cohesive story, not One Size Fits all with its twisty guitar passages, not Sheik Yerbouti with its unceasing provocation, not You Are What You Is with its colorful compositions…Apostrophe(‘). Wow.

All this may seem like a setup for a takedown, but Apostrophe(‘) is still a good album, one which is easy to casually enjoy and features some of the best instrumental performances in the Zappa catalogue (which is amazing considering the competition). It’s certainly not one of Frank’s missteps (Thing-Fish, 200 Motels, the Flo and Eddie era in general), or even one of his many mediocrities (most of the Lather albums). It’s a perfectly fine, occasionally funny, entertainingly jazzy, easily accessible album. In that way, I can see why it sold well, but I can’t think about it for very long without being bombarded with thoughts of “THIS SOLD MORE THEN BURNT WEENY SANDWICH AND UNCLE MEAT.”

It doesn’t help that the strength of this album is almost entirely in performance. The songwriting and lyricism on this album don’t excite me much at all, especially the former, which is more on par with Joe’s Garage then the immediate predecessor Overnite Sensation. This REALLY sucks because it’s not like Zappa isn’t a good composer (take a listen to You Are What You Is or Freak Out! if you have any doubts), so when he writes grooves instead of melodies it feels like I’m being denied.

The lyrics are slightly better. Apostrophe(‘) is a parody of rock-operas, and as such features a crazy story about eskimos, yellow snow, strictly commercial fur-trapping seal-beaters, pancake breakfasts, unhelpful wise men, and deadly foot diseases. It’s as whimsically immature and unpredictable as you could expect from the phrase “Zappa rock opera”, but it never rises above that. Joe’s Garage was kind of a bloated mess, but since it had connective tissue it felt like a natural, satisfying journey. Apostrophe(‘) is all over the place, not really parodying rock operas in any specific way. Though I will have to concede that the parts that are funny are REALLY funny.

And it was at that precise moment that he remembered

An ancient Eskimo legend

Wherein it is written

On whatever it is that they write it on up there

That if anything bad ever happens to your eyes

As a result of some sort of conflict

With anyone named Nanook

The only way you can get it fixed up

Is to go trudgin’ across the tundra

Mile after mile
Trudgin’ across the tundra
Right down to the parish of Saint Alfonzo

See? It’s not all bad. Actually screw that, dang this is a good album! The grooves are pleasant to the ear, the riffs are shaken out with energy and zest, the production is crisp and satisfying, the side one medley has failed to get old throughout the many, MANY listens I’ve given it, and the overall mood is just so fun and goofy. It’s a hair over thirty minutes, and makes for a quick, mostly satisfying listen.

But…best selling Zappa album? The one where I can’t even pick out individual songs without straining? The lazy parody elements? The arbitrary nature of its own existence? This thing is just a toss-off, no matter how fun it is. It doesn’t do much wrong, but doesn’t do much to excel. There aren’t really any standout songs, either (though the rockin’ funky title track is what I would go with if I had to pick a favorite), so in the end I don’t see what an album like Apostrophe(‘) contributes to the Zappa conversation. In some ways, it’s the opposite of most Zappa tossoffs: not interesting in any overall or conceptual way, but pleasant while it’s on. I can’t fault it much for that, of course, and if you like Zappa and haven’t heard this I would be shocked, but it does limit how high I can rate it. I enjoy it more then I like it, if that makes any sense.

Music: 3/5

Thematic Content: 2/5

Lyricism: 3/5

Diversity: 3/5

Resonance: 2/5

Experience: Transcribing the imaginative whims of a third grader and turning it in as a Hollywood script.

7/10. Best Song: Apostrophe(‘)

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Posted in Frank Zappa, Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention – Uncle Meat – Review

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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.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 3/5 

Lyricism: 4/5

Diversity: 5/5

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

Posted in Frank Zappa, Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Frank Zappa – You Are What You Is – Bitesize Review

Hi. I’m working on an Obscured By Clouds review. Maybe that’ll actually go up this week.

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This album is actually very useful, because it’s essentially a perfect Zappa thesis statement. Everything to conceptually like and dislike about Zappa is on here. If you can dig it, you’ll like Zappa. If you can’t, you probably won’t. Such it is for me: it’s difficult for me to really CONNECT with Zappa’s work on an emotional level because he’s so detached and cynical, but his wit and entertaining musicianship are enough to keep me coming back to him again and again. This album is essentially the blueprint of what has made Zappa one of my all-time favorite artists.

In a lot of ways, it’s Zappa’s version of The White Album, because it’s a headspinningly diverse catalogue of genre parodies. Everything from rock to jazz to gospel to western to anthem and everything else is here, with Zappa’s satiric lyrics functioning at an all-time high. The opening, “Teenage Wind”, lampoons what irresponsible young people see freedom as (“Free is when you don’t have to pay for nothing or do nothing/We want to be free/Free as the wind”). “Society Pages” lampoons the “beautiful people”; “I’m A Beautiful Guy” skewers the ridiculous arrogance of hard rock. There’s also the infamous “religion” trilogy, which stretches from “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing” to “Heavenly Bank Account.” Bashing the violence and bigotry of religious hypocrites and televangelists in particular is nothing new in rock music, but Zappa offers some of the sharpest and funniest writing this subgenre offers. Obviously I don’t agree with everything he says in these songs (being nominally religious myself), but the unhindered calling out of those who use religion to their own selfish ends is brutally satisfying.

But here’s the unexpected part of this album: the MUSIC is great! Not great in the usual Zappa way, where the emphasis is more on playing then composition, just great on a basic musical standard. The melodies here are really, really catchy and always fit the song perfectly. This is probably Zappa’s height as a composer, if not as a “musician.”

There’s basically nothing of note wrong with the album. It’s so polished and intentional that even the stuff that could be wrong with it…actually feels kind of right. “Doreen” is a parody arena song with a coda that goes on for waaaaay to long. It’s immediately followed by “Goblin Girl”, a wonderfully spooky piece of innuendo, which goes into its own lengthy coda. Suddenly, the coda starts to turn into the one from “Doreen” because the previous song has forgotten that it’s over. I didn’t even notice this effect until John McFerrin pointed it out to me, and I died laughing. Other than that, I suppose the middle stretch of the album isn’t up to par with the beginning and end, but there still isn’t a bad song on here. Heck, by Zappa standards, these are all fantastic.

Is it a perfect album? Probably not. Is it a perfect ZAPPA album? Pretty much yeah. Not transcendent (hence it’s denied the 10+), but only because it’s a perfect execution of a concept I don’t find all that resonant.

10/10.

Experience: Getting drunk while in a very anti-establishment mood and trying to interpret the music in the bar.

Best Song: I don’t even know how to begin choosing.