Monday, April 29, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #15: Waka/Jawaka

When that crazed fan pushed Frank Zappa off the stage of the Rainbow Theatre in London in December of 1971, he couldn’t have known the long-term effect his actions would have on the composer’s subsequent career.

That Zappa had a subsequent career is something of a miracle. He suffered severe head trauma, multiple fractures and injuries to his back, legs and neck. He spent the majority of the next year in a wheelchair, and one of his legs healed incorrectly, causing it to be longer than the other. (See the lyric in “Dancin’ Fool,” released in 1979.) His voice also dropped considerably, due to a crushed larynx.

It would be nine months before Zappa would return to live performance, and even then, he was limited – he still wore a leg brace and couldn’t stand for long periods of time. During those nine months, Zappa literally had nothing else to do but recover, and write.

And so he wrote. Zappa finally took the time to compose music for larger ensembles – not as large as the orchestra he worked with on 200 Motels, but much more vast than his usual Mothers lineups. And he took the opportunity to explore jazz in a way he never had, writing for a shifting, rotating group of musicians with at least one foot in that world. This would not be the arena-filling comedy rock of the past few years. This would be music he could write from bed and organize and conduct from a wheelchair.

The results are unlike anything Zappa had attempted before. Zappa’s two new 1972 albums, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, stand alone in his catalog, a pair of dense, jazzy, mostly instrumental works featuring some of the finest players he’d ever worked with. The Mothers had disbanded by the time Zappa was ready to record this material – only drummer Aynsley Dunbar and keyboardist Don Preston remained for these sessions. But Zappa pulled from jazz and the burgeoning jazz-rock fusion circles, and came up with multiple fascinating ensembles.

There are 16 musicians on Waka/Jawaka, and it’s the smaller of the two records in scope. It consists of two swinging pop songs and two extended instrumental jazz-rock jams. The front cover illustration features a sink with the words “hot” and “rats” written on the spigots, which have led some to consider this a sequel to one of Zappa’s most popular records. But while the improvisatory tone is the same, the sound of this record bears no resemblance to Hot Rats.

Opener “Big Swifty” is, in fact, clearly influenced by Miles Davis – his Bitches Brew came out in April of 1970, helping to ignite a darker outgrowth of fusion. “Big Swifty” follows this pattern – it’s 17 minutes long, takes up the entire first side, and aside from a few minutes of composition at the beginning and the end, it’s a Bitches Brew-style jam. George Duke’s electric piano echoes Herbie Hancock’s work with the same instrument, while Zappa trades licks on guitar with Sal Marquez on heavily echoed trumpet. Dunbar and a bassist named Erroneous keep everything from floating off into space.

The second side opens with its two most accessible numbers, the shorter tunes “Your Mouth” and “It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal.” They both have very Zappa lyrics – “Your Mouth” is a blues piece about a man with a shotgun and a woman who won’t shut up, and “One-Shot Deal” is about a frog with a satchel – and tight melodies. Zappa himself doesn’t sing on these tunes, leaving the vocals to Marquez, Chris Peterson and Janet Ferguson. Tony Duran’s slide guitar in the latter song is a highlight.

The album concludes with the 11-minute title track, which points the way forward for many similar songs in the coming years. It’s a groove-rock jam, a full horn section giving way to solos by Zappa and Preston while Dunbar and Erroneous dance around Zappa’s fluid acoustic playing. “Waka/Jawaka” shows off Zappa’s gift for arranging horns, particularly in the final minutes. While some of the record is dark, the finale is like breaking sunshine.

Waka/Jawaka sets Zappa off on a path few could have envisioned him taking, but he proves to be a natural at it. While The Grand Wazoo is overall more effective (and more daring), the first of Zappa’s “wheelchair albums” is a fine effort, delivering what all the finest Zappa records do best: exceptional musicians playing exceptionally well.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to buy: Definitely the 2013 Zappa/Universal remaster, based on the original 1972 analog master. The horns are crisp and clear, and the entire album sounds much better than it did on Ryko’s master in the 1990s.

Next week: The Grand Wazoo.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

New Column: William Hartnell Was Wrong

It's new column time again. This week, we muck about with the past along with Marillion, Michael Roe and Quiet Company. All three have revisited older recordings, and all three have found ways to make new art out of old material. I liked all three of these albums, more than I'm liking the new series of Doctor Who, which I also discuss this week.

As usual, stop by the main site to read the column, then head back here to leave a comment.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #14: Just Another Band From L.A.

In an alternate universe, the Flo and Eddie incarnation of the Mothers continued well beyond 1971. There’s clear evidence, both in the Fillmore East album and the 200 Motels sessions, that Zappa was having a great time with this band, and in particular the two gregarious master improvisers out front. There’s no indication that the material was running out, and the Vaudeville act that the Mothers live show had become was legendary.

But that’s an alternate universe. In this one, a crazed fan pushed Zappa off a stage at the Rainbow Theater in London in December 1971, nearly killing him. Zappa suffered multiple fractures, head trauma and a crushed larynx, which led to his voice dropping considerably. It took him almost a year to heal to the point where he could tour again, and by that time, the rest of the Flo and Eddie Mothers had moved on.

Which leaves live album Just Another Band From L.A. as the swan song from this particular band. When it was recorded, in August 1971 at the Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, it was by no means intended to serve as the final document of these Mothers. But when it was released, in March 1972, Zappa was still in a wheelchair, and this phase of his career was over. That gives Just Another Band a sort of poignance – or, it would, if this record were not such a bawdy, raucous affair.

In August 1971, 200 Motels had yet to darken movie screens across the country, and the Mothers were still playing material from Zappa’s “life on the road” songbook. But the composer was evidently eager to move beyond this – Just Another Band contains no tunes about groupies, tour buses, mud sharks or vibrating beds. Those songs were all played during the same show, but for this collection, Zappa chose compositions that showed the ongoing evolution of his work with this particular band.

The most important track here is the first, the 25-minute “Billy the Mountain.” In many ways, it’s the ultimate Flo and Eddie song. It’s a constantly evolving spoof of rock operas, not limited to the fact that it’s an opera about a guy made of rock. As such, it’s Zappa’s first real stab at a programmatic piece, a technique he would perfect a few years later with “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary.”

There’s certainly a classical influence on this piece, with its repeated and reinterpreted motifs. Billy gets a six-note theme to himself, and his wife Ethel gets a 12-note interpolation of that theme. These melodies appear at the beginning of the piece, and crop up throughout, becoming musical shorthand for the main characters. “Billy the Mountain” is clearly meticulously arranged, honed over dozens of live performances.

And yet, it sounds like a free-flowing comedy routine, in the way that only the most practiced routines can. “Billy the Mountain” tells the story of the title character, one of the Rocky Mountains, and his wife Ethel, a tree growing off of his shoulder. The tale begins when Billy finally gets his royalty check for all of the postcards he’s posed for. He and Ethel decide to go to New York on a vacation, walking across the country – and destroying anything in their path. Along the way, Billy is drafted into the army, and he ignores the summons.

To stop Billy, the U.S. government taps superhero Studebaker Hoch, named after the Studebaker Silver Hawk automobile. Studebaker Hoch rubs himself down with Aunt Jemima syrup to attract an army of flies, who lift him off the ground to talk with Billy. This doesn’t go well, and Billy’s laughter causes an avalanche, sending Hoch to his (possible) death below. The moral of the story? “A mountain is something you don’t want to fuck with, don’t fuck with Billy, don’t fuck around.”

This is all great fun, and the band sells it as an ever-unfolding series of gags. Many of them are Los Angeles in-jokes, but just as many – including a poke at Jerry Lewis and an interpolation of the Tonight Show theme – are universally funny. The nimble band – Zappa, Jim Pons, Aynsley Dunbar, Ian Underwood and Don Preston – shifts from section to section without betraying any indication of how difficult it all is to play. While some of the jokes go on longer than they should, “Billy the Mountain” as a whole never drags.

“Billy” takes up the entire original first side of this album, and the second side feels like a strong series of four bonus tracks. Three of them are barely worth discussing – you get the Flo and Eddie reinterpretations of “Call Any Vegetable” and “Dog Breath,” both arranged with new focus on the vocals, and another extended in-joke, “Eddie Are You Kidding,” about Los Angeles store Zachary All Clothing and its advertisements starring its owner, Edward Nalbandian. The reinventions are interesting, and “Eddie” is a pleasant trifle.

But you also get “Magdalena,” one of the few cases in which Zappa’s envelope-pushing led him into the realm of the truly tasteless. The song itself is an intricate skipping soul-punk number, but it’s sung from the point of view of a man trying to rape his young daughter. It’s an outgrowth of the “what would you do, daddy” section of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” extended to uncomfortable lengths: “Magdalena, don’t you tease me like this, right in the hallway with your blouse and your tits, if your mommy ever finds us like this, she’ll call a lawyer, oh how mom will be pissed…”

Zappa does include one verse to show that he’s on Magdalena’s side: “The girl turned around and said ‘go eat shit’ and ran on down the hall, right on, Magdalena.” But then he allows Kaylan to improvise the father’s twisted pleas for the final minutes of the song, and it’s squirm-inducing. “I’d like to take you in the closet and take off all your clothes until you are virtually stark raving nude, spread mayonnaise and Kaopectate all over your body…” “I wanna take off your little training bra, I’m gonna take off your maroon hot pants…” “We can make love all night long, no one will ever know…”

Zappa defended lyrics like this by saying he was reporting on the vile attitudes and practices of Americans, without condoning them. But the song doesn’t make that clear, spending most of its time voicing the father’s point of view in a jaunty way. This would be a problem plaguing Zappa’s lyrics from this point forward – he’s never certain of the line between condemning behavior and celebrating it. “Magdalena” is a tremendous song, but its tone is disconcerting.

Overlook that, though, and Just Another Band From L.A. is a barrel of fun. It is arguably the most successful document of the Flo and Eddie era, proof that the concept could have carried on, if not for one insane fan. At one point during “Call Any Vegetable,” Zappa announced to the audience that the theme for that night’s show was “It is so fucking great to be alive.” He couldn’t have known when he said them just how resonant those words would be.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to buy: Broken record time, but the best bet is the 2012 remaster from Zappa/Universal. It reverts to the original analog master – the 1990s Ryko CDs use a duller and darker digital master – and the sound is bright and glorious.

Next week: Waka/Jawaka.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

New Column: Things Are Getting Scary

And we're back. After two weeks off to deal with a dead cat and a horrible illness, I've finally written a new column that I like. I hope you like it too.

This week, I've reviewed new albums from the Flaming Lips (above) and the Knife as part of a discussion about music designed to disturb and unnerve. As always, click on over to read it, and head back here to leave me a comment. It's good to be back.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #13: 200 Motels

It’s an unfortunate truth that as a filmmaker, Frank Zappa was a terrific musician.

This lack of affinity for the art form never stopped him, however. While in later years he would stick to concert films, like the extensive Baby Snakes, he definitely harbored the ambition early on to create a movie for theatrical release. He tried it in the 1960s with Uncle Meat, but shelved the idea when he ran out of money. But his second stab at filmmaking, the nigh-unwatchable 200 Motels, made it all the way to the multiplexes. (Where, of course, it died a sputtering death.) 

While the movie has not made the leap to the digital era, the soundtrack has, and it’s one of Zappa’s most difficult and complex works. United Artists gave Zappa $650,000 to make the film, and most of that money went toward hiring the London Philharmonic Orchestra to finally flesh out some of the composer’s more intricate melodies. In many ways, Zappa’s entire musical career to this point led to the meshing of rock and orchestral music that makes up the bulk of 200 Motels.

The prior Flo and Eddie-era Mothers albums were certainly a prelude to this monstrosity. Zappa was intent on capturing the experience of touring, both musically and visually, and the raunchy material on both Chunga’s Revenge and Fillmore East – June 1971 paved the way for the themes of 200 Motels. It includes surreal tales of backwater towns, an encounter with “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” in a country bar, a ripped-from-life retelling of bassist Jeff Simmons’ departure from the band, and many songs about groupies.

In fact, Zappa had never before combined his low and high arts as thoroughly as he did on 200 Motels. In Flo and Eddie, Zappa had found gleeful accomplices – they could sing anything put in front of them, and would happily spout Zappa’s increasingly perverse lyrics. And with the London Philharmonic, Zappa could explore the fuller sounds he had been after. So what we have here is mainly sophomoric humor set to impossibly beautiful (and very difficult) orchestration, with rock band flourishes. A true mixing of highbrow and lowbrow. 

Zappa was unhappy with the performances of his session players, but imagine you are a member of the prestigious London Philharmonic, and you are given a piece called “Penis Dimension.” Now, imagine you are unable to properly play a piece called “Penis Dimension,” because it’s remarkably intricate, and you have been given very little time to learn it. Orchestral players had a tendency to underestimate Zappa as a composer, and Zappa had a tendency to overestimate his players’ willingness to pursue perfection at union scale wages.

If there are issues with the performances on 200 Motels, they’re likely recognizable only to the composer himself. The score is in parts breathtaking – the opening “Semi-Fraudulent Direct From Hollywood Overture” uses lines from “Little House I Used to Live In,” “Dance of the Just Plain Folks” is a dark instrumental piece that changes shape every few seconds, and “Janet’s Big Dance Number” is claustrophobic and eerie.

“Janet’s” is part of a suite of songs on the first disc that describe groupies getting ready to meet and have sex with touring musicians, and they’re perfect examples of the clash of low and high arts. The orchestra provides interludes while the rock band thunders in for three linked vocal pieces. In “Half a Dozen Provocative Squats,” Flo and Eddie provide a lament for the sexually frustrated woman: “The last guy to do her got in and got soft, a sad but typical case.”

“Shove It Right In” picks up the story, finding groupies on the prowl: “At least there’s sort of a choice there, 20 or 30 at times there have been, somewhat desirable boys there, dressed really spiffy with long hair, looking for girls they can shove it right in…” The powerful orchestral piece “Lucy’s Seduction of a Bored Violinist and Postlude” concludes the tale. It’s like a concerto of smuttiness.

Does this work? At times the scatological humor overpowers the orchestral score, easily the more interesting of the two elements. The Mothers – the same lineup that made Fillmore East – take the spotlight a few times, most notably on the single “Magic Fingers,” and the bawdier material works better with blistering guitars. But there’s no denying the genuine beauty of the melodies in “What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning,” for example.

And then there is “Dental Hygiene Dilemma,” a song that achieves almost Inception levels of recursion. Zappa was a compulsive documentarian, and had a habit of recording his band members at all times – in their hotel rooms, during cab rides, anywhere he could place a microphone. That’s how he managed to record Simmons grousing about the “comedy music” Zappa kept making him play, and musing about leaving the band and starting a more serious solo career.

Zappa decided, when writing the script for 200 Motels, to include this secretly taped conversation as a scene, with Simmons playing himself. He did not, however, run this idea past Simmons – the first the bassist heard of it was at a read-through of the script. And as the band was intoning the lines about Simmons quitting the band, he did just that, getting up and walking out. (Even this conversation was recorded by Zappa, and appears on Playground Psychotics. Confused yet?)

Without Simmons (he was replaced in the film by actor Martin Lickert), Zappa switched gears – he created “Dental Hygiene Dilemma,” a psychodrama about Simmons’ exit, accompanied in the film by animation. Flo and Eddie play Simmons and his conscience, arguing over whether Simmons is “too heavy” to remain in Zappa’s “comedy band.” The music is remarkably complex, and Volman and Kaylan attack their roles with relish. It’s one of the most striking pieces on the album, and only the start of Zappa’s obsession with secretly recording his band members.

After a set of shorter, more dissonant orchestral numbers, 200 Motels concludes with “Strictly Genteel,” an 11-minute summation of Zappa’s genre-crashing ambitions. The song is built on one of Zappa’s most straightforward and stately melodies – it is clearly the grand finale – and it gives equal weight to the London Philharmonic and the Mothers. It begins with strings and Theodore Bikel singing about terrible English food, and ends with cascading guitars and drums and Volman ranting about Zappa’s all-encompassing control. It’s the blending of low and high art, writ large.

200 Motels has only briefly been available since its release in 1971, and because of that, it’s seen as a curiosity in Zappa’s catalog. In reality, it’s a landmark, an experimental melding of Zappa’s most ambitious and most earthbound tendencies, soaring and complex music used to convey his most inconsequential and smut-filled lyrics. In later years, Zappa would tend to separate his sleazy rock from his orchestral scores – he would rarely combine them like this again. 200 Motels is not entirely successful, nor is it clear what it would sound like if it were entirely successful. It’s an entity unto itself, an island even in Zappa’s vast sea of music. It’s a one-of-a-kind work, and in some ways, that’s a good thing.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to buy: Well, if you want a CD copy, there’s only one choice: MGM and Ryko teamed up to release this, finally, in 1997. It’s out of print now, of course, and it could use a thorough remastering. But since it’s the only option, buy it if you can find it.

Next week: Just Another Band From L.A.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #12: Fillmore East - June 1971

Chunga’s Revenge was really just the prelude. This live album, released two months after it was recorded, was the true opening salvo of the Flo and Eddie era. It remains one of the most controversial releases of Frank Zappa’s long career, signaling a turn away from the biting social commentary of Mothers albums past and a turn towards a more scatological form of observational humor.

That’s an academic way of putting it. The truth is that Fillmore East – June 1971 is one long dick joke. It is part of Zappa’s attempts to capture the life of a rock band on the road, and was recorded after filming had wrapped for the similarly themed Mothers movie, 200 Motels. The material on Fillmore East – and it is almost entirely new – is an expansion of the groupie routines from 200 Motels, in which Zappa “immortalized” the apparently numerous women in each town desperate to have sex with his band members.

In Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, previously with the Turtles), Zappa had found more-than-willing accomplices. Though Zappa still led and conducted his band on stage, Flo and Eddie were the frontmen, gleefully leading the group through one routine after another. They’re remarkably strong singers, the finest Zappa had yet employed, but they also excelled at improvised comedy. The groupie material, which makes up 80 percent of this album, grew and evolved each night of the tour, Flo and Eddie encouraged to keep pushing boundaries.

The sleazy subject matter was matched by Zappa’s new, pared-down Mothers, featuring himself on guitar, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, bassist Jim Pons (also from the Turtles), and keyboardists Ian Underwood and Bob Harris. Gone is the sense of the band as rock orchestra – the new Mothers were a nimble rock band, drawing from blues more than any of Zappa’s other influences. Zappa’s guitar playing had taken on a particularly raw and nasty tone, which fit this new material perfectly.

Anyone picking up Fillmore East – June 1971 would know right away that this was a different kind of Mothers album. The front cover is plain white, with the words “The Mothers” and the album title scrawled in pencil. The recording quality is similarly unvarnished – this sounds like a high-end bootleg, and given how particular Zappa was about sound quality, this can only be intentional. This is a steamy, down-and-dirty kind of record.

After a splendid, stripped-down version of “The Little House I Used to Live In,” which shows off Underwood’s chops, Zappa gets things started with “The Mud Shark,” a retelling of a story originally relayed by members of the Vanilla Fudge. The tale involves the Edgewater Inn in Seattle, where guests can rent fishing poles and cast them out their room windows into the ocean below. It includes the titular mud shark, a young groupie and a movie camera. You can probably guess the rest.

This leads into the groupie material. Volman and Kaylan role play as the groupies on “What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are,” and as the virile musician, here called “Bwana Dik.” “I am endowed beyond your wildest Clearasil-spattered fantasies,” Volman sings, before declaring that “all groupies must bow down in the sacred presence of the latex solar beef.”

Things get even raunchier in “Do You Like My New Car,” seven minutes of Volman pretending to be a groupie hoping to seduce Kaylan. Here it becomes clear that groupies, in Zappa’s world, are only interested in having sex with musicians who have a song in the charts “with a bullet.” (Each time that phrase is uttered, the band punctuates it with a quick explosion.) At one point, Volman’s character is referred to as a “voluptuous Manhattan island clit,” and sex with soda bottles and donkeys is explored.

So what makes this album-length dick joke worth listening to? For one, it’s an epic dick joke, with an epic punchline – the groupies demand to hear the band’s hit song (with a bullet!), and the group launches into the Turtles smash “Happy Together.” It’s such a metatextual left turn that it’s completely unexpected, even if you know the song is coming. It almost makes all of the buildup worth it, which could be a sexual metaphor in and of itself. Volman and Kaylan absolutely sell this material, too – it’s hard not to grin along with them, even when they’re talking about shoving an enchilada up a donkey’s ass.

But for another, the band is tremendous. Underwood, Pons and Dunbar form a lean rock machine, and Zappa’s dirty guitar playing is perfectly attuned to them. The band slays the new arrangement of “Little House,” and Zappa’s fiery solos on both parts of “Willie the Pimp” are superb. If you focus on the frontmen during “Bwana Dik” and “Latex Solar Beef,” you may miss how complex these songs are. And the encores, including a take on “Peaches En Regalia” driven by wordless vocals and a slam through Mothers single “Tears Began to Fall,” are terrific. There are precious few opportunities in Zappa’s catalog to hear this particular band, which is a shame.

Some see the change in tone on Fillmore East – June 1971 as a shame as well. This album marks a turning point – rarely again would Zappa engage in social criticism as pointed as that on We’re Only In It for the Money without also indulging these baser instincts. Joe’s Garage, for example, is rightly cited as one of Zappa’s finest works – it’s about a world in which music has been outlawed, and about a man who imagines guitar solos in the air. But it’s also about sex with household appliances, anal rape in prison, and receiving blowjobs from robots.

While that lyrical direction arguably began with “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” this is the album on which Zappa doubles down, and chooses that path for the rest of his career. He seemed to enjoy people suggesting that his sexual humor cheapened his musical work, and for the rest of his career, he would not compromise either one. In some ways, the Flo and Eddie band was his way of testing the waters, and as we’ll see over the next two entries, he pushed the bounds of good taste repeatedly. Zappa would soon give us the likes of “Bobby Brown Goes Down” and “He’s So Gay,” and that journey truly began here.

Despite all that, Fillmore East is a fun little record, and the “Happy Together” moment will bring a smile, if nothing else will. The Flo and Eddie years remain the most argued-over and passionately defended era of Zappa’s career. If you want to find out why, you need to hear this.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: Again, the Zappa family came through with the 2012 Zappa/UME remaster. The new release reverts to the original 1971 analog mix, ignoring the master Zappa made in the 1980s. Good thing, too – that master added tons of digital reverb and eliminated “Willie the Pimp Part Two.” The new version restores the original (still raw) mix, and the missing track, making it the definitive CD release of this album.

Next week: 200 Motels.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Late Column: Can't Beat a Record Store

Hello, all. Apologies for the lack of updates this week - been dealing with a sick cat, as well as some other life stresses. I finally got this week's column up, though, in which I praise my local record store, Kiss the Sky, and review three new-to-me bands: Little Green Cars (above), Young Dreams and And So I Watch You From Afar. They're all quite good. Read all about it here, then head back here to leave a comment, if you like.

I'll be on track next week. Expect Zappa on Monday, a column on Wednesday, and whatever else I can get to in between. Thanks for your patience.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #11: Chunga's Revenge

Chunga’s Revenge is an important album in the Frank Zappa catalog. It introduced the second incarnation of the Mothers of Invention, featuring ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman on vocals. As such, audiences looked to it to answer the question of where Zappa intended to go next, after dissolving the original Mothers. It also followed hot on the heels of two odds-and-sods collections from the prior band, and was his first “new” statement since Hot Rats.

So why does Chunga’s sound more like a haphazard compilation than either of its immediate predecessors? Frankly, this album is a bit of a mess. It culls five studio tracks from the new Mothers and places them on the same piece of wax as two instrumental jams, one long bit of live insanity, a brief percussion piece and a holdover from the Hot Rats sessions, all of which were performed with different groups of musicians.

Chunga’s, released in October of 1970 (Zappa’s third record of the year), is not the confident step forward it perhaps should have been. It presents a slightly confused vision, one that Zappa and his band would hone for their next release, and spends a little too long making you wait to hear the new direction. However, if you consider every album and every song part of a single unified work, as Zappa did, this album starts to make more sense. Why shouldn’t these pieces exist together? Only marketing concerns would keep them apart.

Taken in that light, Zappa seems to be easing his audience in over the first side of this album. Zappa’s new Mothers consist of drummer Aynsley Dunbar, bassist Jeff Simmons, pianist Ian Underwood and brass and keys player George Duke. But the real draw here is Volman and Kaylan, who – for contract reasons – have adopted the names The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. That’s Flo and Eddie for short, and after making their mark with the Mothers, the pair would go on to use those names for their own act.

That act was pure comedy. Flo and Eddie were both strong singers, but Zappa was more interested in their ability to deliver smutty laughs, which they did with abandon. Flo and Eddie fronted the Mothers for three years and four albums, and it remains the most controversial period in Zappa’s history. With them aboard, Zappa seemed intent on chronicling “life on the road,” telling sordid tales of groupies and sex in odd places (and sometimes, as we’ll hear on the next album, with weird animal species). Flo and Eddie were not just willing participants, they attacked these roles with relish. There was no line they wouldn’t cross, and this left Zappa with no boundaries either.

We get the barest hints of that on Chunga’s Revenge, the most reserved of the Flo and Eddie albums. But there’s no doubt the new lineup of the band is the main attraction, which naturally means that Zappa makes you wait until side two to hear what they really sound like. The first half of the record kicks off with “Transylvania Boogie,” an absolutely incendiary jam between Zappa, Underwood, Dunbar and bassist Max Bennett. It’s unclear how much of this was planned out beforehand, but the fluid tempo shifts sound organic and remarkable.

Zappa himself takes the lead on “Road Ladies,” the first and most obvious “life on the road” song. It’s a standard blues about the healing powers of groupies, the first piece of what would become the Mothers movie, 200 Motels. That leads into the jazzy instrumental Hot Rats castoff “Twenty Small Cigars” and a nine-minute mosaic of live improvisations – mostly pounding drums and yelping – called “The Nancy and Mary Music.” That’s all of side one.

Thankfully, the full power of Mothers Mark II is brought to bear on the second side. The four glossy studio tracks featuring Flo and Eddie are all powerhouses, debuting a new guitar-driven rock sound designed for 1970s radio. “Tell Me You Love Me” is a prototypical rock single, one of Zappa’s first, and it shows off just how strong his new vocalists could be. Zappa’s guitar has rarely sounded this fierce – if not for “Transylvania Boogie,” it would be the most ferocious thing here.

Zappa takes on the USO in “Would You Go All the Way,” suggesting that the entertainment provided for our troops goes beyond a little theatrical show, and begins his long-standing feud with unions on “Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink.” (Zappa had several bad experiences with musicians unions, frustrated at the players’ unwillingness to stay late or put in extra effort, and extrapolated that into an “all unions are bad” mindset.) Both of those songs make use of Duke’s impeccable brass playing.

In between them, we get the title track, a classic Zappa instrumental. It’s lilting bass lines and memorable melody lead into a wah-wah sax solo from Underwood and a typically terrific guitar solo from Zappa. The same can’t be said of “The Clap,” a percussion piece that sounds more scattered and improvised than usual.

Zappa concludes things on an uncharacteristically sweet note, with one of his most heartfelt pieces. He would go on to record “Sharleena” five times in total between 1970 and 1984, and it’s deserving of the honor – it’s a lovely little tune, perhaps the only one of his originals that approaches the timeless status of the ‘50s balladry he adored. The Chunga’s Revenge version is delightfully straightforward, Volman and Kaylan nailing the vocal. It’s a simple piece, worlds away from the complex orchestrations that make up the rest of the Flo and Eddie years, but an effective one.

It caps off an album that points both forward and backward without much confidence. Chunga’s Revenge follows a period of intense musicianship and social criticism, and precedes an era of even more intense musicianship and intricate dick jokes. It has a tendency to get lost and forgotten, despite the handful of gems it contains, and that’s down to its slight and confused nature. As the opening salvo of Mothers Mark II, Chunga’s Revenge isn’t nearly as strong as it should be.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to get: This is going to sound like a broken record, but the 2012 Zappa/UME reissue is the one you want. Unlike previous CD editions, this one returns to the original 1970 vinyl master, and makes it even brighter and fuller. If nothing else, this album at least sounds fantastic.

Next week: Fillmore East, June 1971.