Monday, October 14, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #33: Return of the Son of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar

Frank Zappa’s 1981 guitar solo trilogy closes out with this, perhaps its most varied and interesting installment. Four live tracks make up the first side, and two extended studio tracks the second. This record showcases Zappa’s fiery technique and melodic mastery alongside a variety of other players, but as usual, it’s a veritable showcase for drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Arthur Barrow.

The 1979-1980 band gets a workout on side one. The brief “Beat It With Your Fist” kicks things off – a snippet of guitar solo from an October 1980 performance of “The Torture Never Stops,” this rapid-fire salvo gives way to recordings of the voices in the piano from 1967’s Lumpy Gravy, before smashing into the third in the title track trilogy. “Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar” is another long, liquid solo from “Inca Roads,” this one recorded in February 1979. It goes on for more than eight minutes, and never gets tiresome.

“Pinocchio’s Furniture” is the witty title for a two-minute solo from a December 1980 take of “Chunga’s Revenge.” Coliauta is positively reserved on this one, while Zappa is spitting fire, his solo constantly moving and never landing where you expect it will. “Why Johnny Can’t Read” closes the live side out with four minutes of a February 1979 performance of “Pound for a Brown,” Zappa exploring a cleaner tone and filling the spaces beautifully. When you’re done listening to his fluid playing (more fluid than Jeff Beck?), tune in to what Coliauta is doing. He’s following Zappa’s lead almost telepathically, leaping through spinning hoops behind him, with Barrow in tow.

The studio side is quieter and more reflective. Both of the songs top nine minutes, and find Zappa exploring new musical combinations. Colaiuta joins him again for “Stucco Homes” – he recorded his drum track in early 1979, and Zappa and second guitarist Warren Cuccurullo overdubbed their performance on top. The guitar parts are clean and subtle – Cuccurullo is on an acoustic, Zappa soloing in a gorgeous ringing tone – while the drums lay down a fascinating, ever-changing, percolating bed. Though they were recorded months apart, the two elements of this song complement each other surprisingly well.

The final track, “Canard du Jour,” is a duet between Zappa on bouzouki, a Greek stringed instrument similar to a lute, and Jean-Luc Ponty on baritone violin. This is Ponty’s first appearance since Apostrophe, and in fact the track was recorded in 1972, before the Over-Nite Sensation sessions. It’s a revelation – Zappa takes the bouzouki as many places as he can in 10 minutes, and Ponty provides an otherworldly counterpoint to his improvisations. It’s quiet, but never restful – the two musicians constantly circle each other, and the collaboration clearly brings out new sides in both of them.

Taken on its own, Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar does a fine job of showcasing the different aspects of Frank Zappa’s guitar playing. But listened to as a trilogy – which is the only way you can buy them now – the Shut Up records are Exhibit A in the argument that Zappa was a master of the instrument, a sculptor creating tiny pieces of art whenever he played. As any connoisseur of the later and live albums can tell you, some of Zappa’s solos were better than others. But all of them – and especially the 20 collected here – are surprising, novel redefinitions of the art. Gail Zappa has said that Hendrix sits at Zappa’s feet in heaven. The three Shut Up albums make it hard to argue.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: The three Shut Up albums have been packaged together on CD since 1986, when they were first issued as a 2-CD set. The 1995 edition restored the three-LPs-in-a-box feel by separating each album onto its own disc, but this made the entire endeavor more expensive. Your best and most economical bet is the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster, which sounds better than any other edition, and reverts to the 2-CD format.

Next week: You Are What You Is.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #32: Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar Some More

The second of three albums of guitar solos Frank Zappa released in May of 1981 offers seven further examples of his gut-level, visceral playing style. Zappa was a master of the instrument, able to play technically demanding works that other accomplished guitarists would balk at. But when it came time to solo, Zappa put a lot of that technique aside, and played with a full-blooded vigor.

Zappa front-loaded Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More with textbook examples of his off-script, anything-can-happen sensibility. The humorously titled “Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression” is actually part of a solo from a December 1980 performance of “City of Tiny Lights,” and Zappa breathes fire all over the jaunty backing track. His tone is vicious here, and the relatively straightforward “Gee, I Like Your Pants” (two minutes of a February 1979 performance of “Inca Roads”) doesn’t let up. Zappa engages in some rare lightning-fast finger-tapping here, and even that is played with verve.

But it’s on “Canarsie,” a bizarre live/studio hybrid, that he really wades out into more dissonant waters. The basic track for this tune was recorded live in London in February 1979, with the always-astonishing Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Patrick O’Hearn on bass and Warren Cuccurullo on sitar. The jam is strange enough, but Zappa’s solo, recorded in the spring of 1979 in the studio, is a marvel of atonal insanity. At no point in this six-minute affair does Zappa play a single note you would expect him to. He’s everywhere at once.

He follows that up with the striking “Ship Ahoy,” originally played as the coda to the first known performance of “Zoot Allures” in Osaka, Japan in February 1976. But it’s strong enough to stand on its own. With minimal backing from drummer Terry Bozzio and bassist Roy Estrada, Zappa puts his guitar through a keyboard voltage control filter, creating a unique sample-and-sound-cancel effect. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard on a guitar before, and over five and a half minutes, he constantly finds new ways to use it, new sounds to coax from it.

The second side of the album is more straight-ahead. It includes the premiere of “The Deathless Horsie,” a solo spot Zappa would resurrect in later shows – this performance is from February of 1979, and it finds Colaiuta vamping around a simple keyboard line while Zappa plays. The solo here is somewhat restrained, but still engaging, and things get messier as the song progresses. The title track is, as before, a solo from a performance of “Inca Roads,” this one also from February 1979, and it features some of the most languid and melodic playing on offer here.

The album ends with a full performance of “Black Napkins” (here titled “Pink Napkins” because of the gorgeous, sentimental, clean guitar tone Zappa uses) from February 1977, with the Zoot Allures band. The roots of Zappa’s beautiful 1988 tour guitar tone are here – it sounds like water drops, bringing a new dimension to one of the composer’s signature pieces. It ends things on a particularly pretty note.

Again, if guitar solos are not high on your list, you may not get a lot out of the Shut Up series. But approach them with an open mind, and they may change your notions of what an album of guitar solos can sound like. On this volume, “Canarsie,” “Ship Ahoy” and “Pink Napkins” defy expectations the most, and are worth hearing whether you’re a guitar player or not.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: The three Shut Up albums have been packaged together on CD since 1986, when they were first issued as a 2-CD set. The 1995 edition restored the three-LPs-in-a-box feel by separating each album onto its own disc, but this made the entire endeavor more expensive. Your best and most economical bet is the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster, which sounds better than any other edition, and reverts to the 2-CD format.

Next week: Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #31: Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar

Frank Zappa is routinely considered one of the finest guitar players to have ever lived. He ranked #22 on Rolling Stone’s 2011 list of 100 greatest guitarists. Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines have done dozens of cover features on Zappa, with the former devoting an entire issue to him after his death. Revered players like Steve Vai bow down at Zappa’s feet, and Frank’s son Dweezil had to, in his words, re-learn how to play guitar before taking his father’s music out on the road with Zappa Plays Zappa.

And yet, an argument can be made that Zappa is actually underrated as a guitarist.

Certainly that was the case in May of 1981, when Zappa’s own Barking Pumpkin Records issued three albums designed to showcase his guitar solos. They were blessed with particularly Zappa-esque names: Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More and Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. Each ran to about 35 minutes, and all three were only obtainable through mail order.

But what should have remained niche records, interesting only to a select few, became the ultimate expression of Zappa the guitar player. It was on these albums that the uninitiated could finally hear just how good the man was. His playing runs the gamut from fierce and dirty to sublimely beautiful, but the element of his work that is most on display here is his unpredictability. Zappa rarely played anything the way one would expect a guitarist to play it. His spontaneous guitar sculptures are continuously surprising, even for people who don’t play the instrument.

It’s a style that takes some getting used to. Zappa could hear complex polyrhythms in his head, and would often play to those, as opposed to blending in with the work of his backing musicians. This leads to accents falling on the “wrong” notes, or some notes holding longer than you would expect, and if you are used to the Eddie Van Halen school of rock guitar playing, this may sound wrong to your ears at first. But after repeated listens, it becomes clear that Zappa is effectively rewriting the rulebook for guitar solos.

These three albums are comprised almost entirely of live guitar solos, taken from extended renditions of other songs. The seven tracks on the first album, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, were mostly recorded on the 1979-1980 tour, which means the phenomenal rhythm section of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Arthur Barrow is in full effect here. Half the fun of listening to this album is hearing what these two players are doing behind Zappa’s blistering lead work – they’re following, making decisions based on the lead playing, but they’re creating their own kind of musical alchemy as well.

Shut Up begins with some of Zappa’s fiercest playing, on the complex “Five-Five-FIVE” and the downright nasty “Hog Heaven.” The title track, taken from a February 1979 performance of “Inca Roads,” is Zappa’s first chance to stretch out here – the solo runs for 5:38, and never drags, Zappa making endlessly fascinating choices and the band switching gears behind him, totally in sync. The solo is surprisingly melodic, swooping back and forth over the two-note “Inca Roads” vamp.

Zappa unveils a clean guitar tone for “While You Were Out,” one of the few studio tracks in the three-album collection. The drums were recorded in early 1979, the two guitars (Zappa and Warren Cucurullo) improvised over them in late 1979. And yet, if you didn’t know it, you’d swear you were listening to another live jam session. Zappa’s peaceful tone offers an oasis between the louder live tracks, and showcase another, more placid side to his playing.

“Treacherous Cretins” and “Heavy Duty Judy” are their own distinct songs. The former finds Zappa soloing over a slow, repeated keyboard line and some unbelievable drumming from Coliauta, the latter is an explosion of guitar notes over a slinky horn figure. (This song will be resurrected for the 1988 tour, with even more trumpets and saxophones.) The album ends with a seven-minute blues jam called “Soup ‘n Old Clothes,” taken from a December 1980 performance of “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” As has been seen previously, Zappa played the blues fluently, and at the same time, like no one else.

If guitar solos do not excite you, this should not be your first Zappa purchase. But give this first volume a listen – it’s only 35 minutes – and it could redefine your idea of rock guitar playing. Zappa was just that good.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: The three Shut Up albums have been packaged together on CD since 1986, when they were first issued as a 2-CD set. The 1995 edition restored the three-LPs-in-a-box feel by separating each album onto its own disc, but this made the entire endeavor more expensive. Your best and most economical bet is the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster, which sounds better than any other edition, and reverts to the 2-CD format.

Next week: Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #30: Tinseltown Rebellion

After unleashing five albums (two of them doubles) in 1979, Frank Zappa took all of 1980 off as a recording artist. He continued to tour relentlessly, and he funneled much of his Sheik Yerbouti and Joe’s Garage money into his new home studio, which he ironically called the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, after the dead-end job Joe took in “A Little Green Rosetta.”

 The first project he intended to assemble at UMRK was a triple live album called Warts and All, which soon collapsed under its own weight. It became Crush All Boxes, a combination live/studio album, and that slowly morphed into Tinseltown Rebellion (although material intended for the aborted projects would appear on the next few Zappa releases). In fact, the cover of Tinseltown Rebellion is the same one intended for Crush All Boxes, and you can still make out the original title behind the new one.

Released in May of 1981, Tinseltown captures Zappa’s early-‘80s band on their 1979-1980 U.S. tour. This band is Zappa’s most reliant on synthesizers, with three keyboard players – Tommy Mars, Peter Wolf and Bob Harris – trading off here. It also, significantly, features the debut of guitarist Steve Vai, a Zappa disciple who would stay through 1984, and then would go on to a solo career that mainly serves as a tribute to Frank. Vai is an extraordinary player and composer in his own right, but his time with Zappa forever colored what he does.

This tour was also the last for drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who plays on all but two of the songs on Tinseltown. Coliauta is one of the finest drummers Zappa ever employed, although his talents are more evident on Joe’s Garage and the Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar series. The band also includes longtime Zappa collaborator Ray White, singer Ike Willis, guitarists Warren Cuccurullo and Denny Walley, bassist Arthur Barrow and percussionist Ed Mann.

Tinseltown begins with two studio-enhanced tracks, “Fine Girl” and the nine-minute “Easy Meat,” which introduce new drummer David Logeman. It is in the instrumental midsection of “Easy Meat” where the newfound emphasis on synthesizers truly becomes apparent, with Tommy Mars overdubbing blatting keyboard horns atop one another. The effect is intricate, but dated, though Zappa’s guitar solo saves things.

The following 13 tracks are entirely live, with no overdubs, and they offer a strong glimpse of Zappa’s sound and material during this period. The music is slightly more plastic, befitting the era to come, and the songs performed with a wink. The album contains a healthy mix of new songs and reinvented old tunes, including “Love of My Life,” “I Ain’t Got No Heart” and a raucous run through “Tell Me You Love Me.” Hearing the thick synthesizers crash through songs from Freak Out and Cruising With Ruben and the Jets is fascinating, even if it feels a little disrespectful, as is the keyboard-heavy take on “Peaches in Regalia” that closes the album.

The new songs continue Zappa’s obsession with sexual and romantic foibles, and your enjoyment of this album will likely depend on your reaction to the lyrics. Zappa has not quite entered his bitter old man phase, but he can see it from here, and his words are becoming even more sarcastic and sneering. Opener “Fine Girl” emphasizes its subject’s willingness to do the dishes and laundry, before she “go down in the evening, all the way down.” “Easy Meat” is about a sexual predator, who “saw her tiny titties through her see-through blouse, I just had to take the girl to my house,” where she “rub my head and beat me off with a copy of Rolling Stone,” before he ditches her: “I told her I was late, I had another date…”

“Bamboozled By Love” is perhaps the most problematic. It is a parody of blues-style done-me-wrong songs, in which Willis’ character threatens to kill the object of his affection: “I ain’t the type for begging, I ain’t the type to plead, if she don’t change those evil ways I’m gonna make her bleed, she can scream and she can holler, bang her head along the wall, if she don’t give me what I want, she ain’t gonna have no head at all…”

More successful, though no less smirking, is the title track, an evisceration of the then-current music scene. It follows a new wave band through their first record contract through the selling-out process: “They used to play all kinds of stuff and some of it was nice, some of it was musical but then they took some guy’s advice, to get a record deal, he said, they would have to be more punk, forget their chops and play real dumb or else they would be sunk…” The band “sells their ass, their cock and balls” to “those record company pricks who come to skim the cream from the cesspools of excitement where Jim Morrison once stood.” The music is filled with clever references, and aside from some vague homophobia (“…leather groups and plastic groups and groups that look real queer…”), this song is on target.

“The Blue Light” contains the first released instance of a vocal technique Zappa would use more frequently in the 1980s. He called it “breakdown” – it is similar to improvised scat singing, but with far less tunefulness. In later years, Vai would be enlisted to transcribe improvised breakdown singing and play it on the guitar along with live recordings.

Whatever else can be said about Tinseltown Rebellion, it showcases a band that can play “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” live, and that alone deserves respect. It is a transitional release, one that showcases the musicians who would play with Zappa throughout the early 1980s, and its new material points forward to the likes of You Are What You Is and Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. It’s a perfectly fine, if inessential, live document that heralds a new era in Zappa’s output.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to buy: The 1990s Ryko CD master introduced several errors – cross-fades, drop-outs – to the mix, and though Ryko did issue a much-improved version in 1998, it is nearly impossible to tell which version you have before buying it. However, the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster returns to the original vinyl mix, and it sounds impeccable. This is the definitive Tinseltown Rebellion on CD.

Next week: Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #29: Joe's Garage Acts II and III

Released a mere two months after Act I, the double album Joe’s Garage Acts II and III completed the tragic story of Joe, as told by the Central Scrutinizer. While Act I was mainly harmless fun, Act II is not for the squeamish, and Act III contains some of Zappa’s angriest and most beautiful work, sitting side by side. Again, the songs were written before the story, but it’s the unfolding concept that gives this material its genuine emotional weight, something very few Zappa albums aspire to.

Of course, it’s all wrapped up in a silly cautionary tale, still being narrated by the whispering Central Scrutinizer, voice of a world in which music has been outlawed. When last we left Joe, he had contracted a venereal disease from a woman named Lucille, and had fallen in with L. Ron Hoover’s First Church of Appliantology, an obvious swipe at Scientology. In Act II, Joe gets deeper into the world of machine sex, finds a willing robot named Sy Borg, and has very rough sex with him (introducing a new Zappa word, "plook"), to the point where Sy is irreparably damaged. Joe cannot pay for the robot, and is sent to jail with all the former music industry executives, who rape him repeatedly.

He is set free at the end of Act II, and in Act III, he wanders the music-less landscape aimlessly, hearing imaginary guitar solos in his head. He imagines a whole world for himself, one in which he achieved his dream of music stardom, but in the end realizes that it’s all an illusion. He imagines one final guitar solo, then puts away his dreams and takes a job frosting muffins. Though the story ends there, one imagines that Joe dies unfulfilled, and the possible scofflaws watching the Central Scrutinizer’s story are sufficiently frightened away from the world of music.

It’s a bleak story, but the bright and shiny music that accompanies it is consistently enjoyable. While Act I mainly contented itself with relatively simple rock songs, Acts II and III show off the phenomenal skill of Zappa’s late-‘70s band. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta in particular shines on complex numbers like “Stick It Out” and “Keep It Greasey,” and Arthur Barrow’s bass work is impeccable. Zappa saves the spotlight for himself more often on these two records, particularly on Act III, and uses Joe’s Garage as his final proof of concept for xenochrony – most of the lengthy guitar solos were lifted from live performances of other songs, and the new studio tracks constructed around them.

While Joe’s Garage is remarkably cohesive, Act II begins with two tracks that betray the fact that the songs came first. “A Token of My Extreme” had been around in instrumental form since 1974, and featured often in concerts by the Roxy and Elsewhere band, and “Stick It Out” hails from as early as 1970, when it was part of the Flo and Eddie band’s “Sofa” routine. In their new forms, these songs detail Joe’s association with L. Ron Hoover and his realization that he is a latent appliance fetishist, coming around to the idea that “sexual gratification can only be achieved through the use of machines.” This is Zappa’s wry commentary on sex toys, similar to “Penguin in Bondage,” and his slap across the face to L. Ron Hubbard.

It could certainly be argued that the Central Scrutinizer would want to show Joe’s descent into sexual deviancy in the greatest detail, to dissuade the tender souls watching his cautionary film. Whether that in-story device excuses the content of Act II is up to the individual listener. It is the most sexually explicit set of songs in Zappa’s catalog to date, beginning with “Stick It Out,” a rhythmically complex song in which Joe propositions a robot named Sy Borg: “Fuck me, you ugly son of a bitch,” “stick out your hot curly weenie,” “make it go fast, in and out, magical pig, till it squirts, squirts.” Later he warns Sy not to “get no jizz on that sofa.” (Note the monologue from “Jewish Princess” near the end, delivered in Sy’s robotic monotone.)

“Sy Borg” is a nine-minute slow-jam reggae number that follows Joe and Sy back to Joe’s apartment. “I never plooked a tiny chrome-plated machine that looks like a magical pig with marital aids stuck all over it, such as yourself before,” Ike Willis sings, as ever throwing himself into the character of Joe. “Gimme that blow job,” he pleads, and later Sy requests he “plook me now, you savage rascal.” The song treads the line between ridiculous and uncomfortable for its entire running time. (Special mention should be made of Peter Wolf’s synthesizer solo, which is terrific.)

At the end of “Sy Borg,” Joe kills his electronic paramour by “plooking too hard,” and he is taken to jail with “all the other criminals from the music business” who “take turns snorting detergent and plooking each other.” “Dong Work for Yuda” is the most tangentially related of these songs – it purports to give the listener an idea of prison life, but is really about John Smothers, Zappa’s bodyguard, who had a distinct pattern of speech. Terry Bozzio mimics it for this song: “This girl must be pracketing richcraft!” The song makes special mention of John’s “iron sausage,” which serves not only as a prison rape reference, but a conceptual continuity clue – the original title of “The Torture Never Stops” was “The Night of the Iron Sausage.”

“Yuda” is an interlude before the onslaught of the eight-minute “Keep It Greasey,” which is entirely about the aforementioned prison rape. “Keep it greasey so it’ll go down easy, roll it over and grease it down, I’ll drive you through the heart of town…” It’s one of the most complex pieces on the album, putting Coliauta and Barrow through their astonishing paces, and showcasing Zappa’s xenochrony technique – the band improvised on a tricky groove behind a long, previously recorded guitar solo. That technique is used again on “Outside Now,” the devastating closer to Act II, in which Joe dreams up his first imaginary guitar solo while waiting for release.

The imaginary solos make up the bulk of Act III, and they represent what the world has lost. Even the xenochrony technique adds to this theme – the solos are literally from the past, even as the band plays around them. Joe is let out of prison at the start of “He Used to Cut the Grass,” and spends the entire song walking around “in a semi-catatonic state,” thinking of guitar notes. Zappa weaves in the voice of the angry neighbor from “Joe’s Garage,” giving the song its title, and completes the running gag of the Central Scrutinizer’s loading zone announcements – “The white zone is for loading and unloading only.” None of this sounds like it would be emotionally affecting, but it is.

Zappa’s playing is remarkable here, lyrical in “Grass” and sharp and angry in “Packard Goose,” his 11-minute riposte to music reviewers. It’s another song that clearly did not originate with the Joe’s Garage concept, and it feels shoehorned in, but it allows Joe one last burst of anger. Coliauta and Barrow are superb here, improvising some insanely complex rhythms behind Zappa’s solo (taken from a performance of “Easy Meat” from March 1979).

The transcendent moment of “Packard Goose” arrives with the return of Mary, from Act I. Mary delivers a philosophical monologue that has gone on to be a Zappa calling card: “Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music. Music is the best.”

This leads into “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” arguably the most beautiful nine minutes Zappa ever committed to tape. The dream-like instrumental takes the form of Joe’s final imaginary guitar solo, his last escape from the real world, and Zappa’s tone and playing have never been more emotional. It’s sad, sure, but it’s also angry, reminding the listener of what the world would lose, should the dystopia of Joe’s Garage come to pass. The band keeps things simple (well, as simple as a song in 9/4 could be), and Zappa soars – “Watermelon” is the album’s only guitar solo played live in the studio. Zappa himself named it one of his signature pieces (alongside “Black Napkins” and “Zoot Allures”). It’s a highlight not only of this album, but of Zappa’s collection.

Unable to let things end on such a wistful note, Zappa concludes Joe’s Garage with “A Little Green Rosetta,” a song intended (in much shorter form) for Lather. The jokey number follows Joe as he hocks his imaginary guitar and gets a job at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, adorning muffins with green frosting. (“A little green rosetta, makes a muffin better…”) As the Central Scrutinizer puts down his megaphone, the closing-credits singalong becomes Zappa’s final admission that all of this is just a little stupid. In some ways, “A Little Green Rosetta” devalues the genuine feeling and incisive points made earlier in the record, but Zappa doesn’t care: “This is a stupid song, and that’s the way I like it,” he sings.

But look past the closing minutes, and the reliance on sexual imagery (which here more than ever act as a distraction from the musicianship and the intelligence on display), and Joe’s Garage is a masterpiece. In fact, even with those things, it stands as one of Zappa’s very best works, containing everything there is to admire and detest about the man’s music. If new listeners are ambitious, starting here would offer a fine summation of the wonder and frustration of being a Zappa fan.

One thing the album undoubtedly gets right, though: music is the best.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: The three acts of Joe’s Garage are not available separately on CD. The 2012 Zappa/Universal double album collecting Acts I, II and III is pristine. It’s only a slight improvement over the previous CD versions, but enough of one.

Next week: Tinseltown Rebellion.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #28: Joe's Garage Act I

1979 was a banner year for Frank Zappa fans. Not only did Warner Bros. release the final two Lather records, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites, but Frank himself issued a double album (Sheik Yerbouti) and this, a triple-album rock opera. Act I of Joe’s Garage was released in September 1979, with the double-disc Acts II and III following in November.

That’s a lot of material, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that there would be some dip in quality towards the end. But Joe’s Garage is one of Zappa’s most extraordinary recordings. It's two hours long, tells a (mostly) coherent story, makes some fierce political points, introduces several musicians who would be with the composer throughout the early ‘80s, offers yet more proof that Zappa was one of the best guitarists who ever lived, and even packs an emotional wallop. Joe’s Garage is confident and consistent, balancing Zappa’s cranky-old-man anger with snarky fun. 

Joe’s Garage is a story about a world in which music has been outlawed. Ever the reactionary, Zappa saw this as a definite possibility, as detailed in his liner notes. The world of Joe’s Garage lives under a system of total criminalization, an attempt to make everyone the same in the eyes of the law. With the understanding that most people are too lazy to commit real crimes, the lawmakers of this world have banned music as a way of tricking people into becoming criminals.

It’s convoluted, but regardless of the logical hoops, the result is a world without music. The album, then, takes the form of one of those cheesy educational filmstrips, the ones that attempted to keep kids from drinking and doing drugs by showing cautionary tales. It’s narrated by the Central Scrutinizer, a shadowy, whispering figure (who quite resembles the voice threatening to erase all of the Zappa masters on We’re Only In It for the Money), and it traces the story of Joe, a wannabe musician who picks up a guitar and, very quickly, descends into a life of sexual depravity.

For once, Zappa has a conceptual framework on which to hang his own fascination with sex in all its forms. Joe’s Garage is filthy – it includes songs about sex with machines, venereal diseases, prison rape, and of course, groupies. And though it’s clear that the songs came first, and the concept stitching them together was written later, the notion that the Central Scrutinizer would want to show these acts in as much finger-wagging detail as possible helps to excuse Zappa’s excesses this time. It still can get a bit much, particularly on songs like “Stick It Out” and “Sy Borg,” but it makes sense for the story.

Musically, Joe’s Garage is the slickest rock album Zappa had ever produced. Everything here sounds mixed for radio, even songs like “Crew Slut,” which could not possibly have been radio hits. Zappa’s late-‘70s band is in the midst of morphing into his early-‘80s band, with guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, keyboardist Peter Wolf, bassist Arthur Barrow and phenomenal drummer Vinnie Colaiuta all making their debuts.

But perhaps the most important debut belongs to singer Ike Willis, Zappa’s new partner in crime. Willis has a tremendous, soulful voice, and a sense of humor that matches Zappa’s – he threw himself into every crazy, perverse idea Zappa threw at him, and by the time of 1984’s Thing-Fish, he was a full collaborator, urging Zappa to push things further. Willis adds immeasurably to Joe’s Garage, starting with its title track, but truly shining on the mournful “Outside Now,” which closes Act II.

But listeners in September 1979 had no idea what awaited them two months hence. In Act I, Joe barely leaves his garage. The Scrutinizer begins Joe’s tale with his first musical infraction – creating a band and jamming with them. “Joe’s Garage” is a determinedly simple affair, based around a typical three-chord rock progression symbolizing the uncomplicated joy of music. The signature two-note guitar line appears here in a joyous rendition, as Joe and his band attract the attention of the girls in the neighborhood, and one angry mother. Then the SWAT team moves in.

“Naturally, we went easy on him,” the Scrutinizer says, and Joe is let off with a warning. He moves into “church-oriented social activities,” and here we get “Catholic Girls,” Zappa’s rejoinder to the Anti-Defamation League for criticizing “Jewish Princess” earlier in the year. Here Zappa delivers a stream of clichés and stereotypes about suburban Catholics, which hewed much closer to his own demographic, as a way of showing that everyone should laugh at themselves. (Listen for the “Jewish Princess” riff near the end, driving the point home.)

“Catholic Girls” introduces Mary, the female lead of Joe’s Garage, voiced by Dale Bozzio, wife of Terry. Mary is one of those Catholic girls “learning to blow all the Catholic boys,” with “a tongue like a cow, she can make you go ‘wow’.” The action follows Mary from here, as she falls in with a band, then participates in a wet t-shirt contest to afford bus fare. Both of these songs – “Crew Slut” and “Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt” – are breezy yet sneering affairs, and Zappa’s turn as the host of the wet t-shirt contest is both creepy and hilarious. “Our prize tonight is fifty American dollars to the girl with the most exciting mammalian protuberances…”

Having made his point with Mary – that music leads to sexual excess – the Scrutinizer turns back to Joe, who has contracted a venereal disease from a local girl named Lucille. “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee” is a song only Zappa would write, full of mock drama and a dazzling orchestral interlude. Willis sings his heart out on this one, particularly at the end – the final refrain must be heard to be believed. The album ends on a cliffhanger. After a slow and slinky cover of Jeff Simmons’ “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up,” the Scrutinizer tells us that Joe, his mind in a fog, begins giving money to L. Ron Hoover and the First Church of Appliantology.

The story would pick up on Act II three months later. (Half of Act II is about robot sex, the other half about prison sex.) As a standalone album, Joe’s Garage Act I is naturally incomplete, but there’s enough here to satisfy fans of Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti material. The rip-snorting guitar-rock is toned down by many orders of magnitude here – if not for the sex-obsessed lyrics, much of this would fit nicely on classic rock radio. Zappa does take one extended solo, during “On the Bus,” but largely leaves the guitar heroics for Act III. This first act is a shined-up, glittering little record, with few hints of the depravity, anger and sadness that awaited in November. 

Rating: Essential. 

Which version to buy: Joe’s Garage is only available as a two-CD set merging all three acts. The 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster sounds crisper and clearer than previous versions, but this album has always sounded good. 

Next week: Joe’s Garage Acts II and III.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #27: Orchestral Favorites

And so we come to the final of the four Lather albums. This one, as the title indicates, includes the pieces Zappa wrote for a large ensemble – in this case, the 37-piece Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra. Separated from Lather and clumped together, these pieces make up Zappa’s second all-instrumental album, and third with an orchestra, after Lumpy Gravy and 200 Motels. It also sports the ugliest of Gary Panter’s unauthorized covers.

Orchestral Favorites contains three tracks intended for Lather, and two constructed from the themes of 200 Motels. Both the brief-yet-lovely “Naval Aviation in Art?” and the dark and dissonant “Pedro’s Dowry” are full-on orchestral scores. The other three represent Zappa’s last attempt to combine his rock club and concert hall sides, with Terry Bozzio on drums, Dave Parlato on bass, and a guitar solo in “Duke of Prunes” by the man himself.

This is significant, since Orchestral Favorites is genuinely – if unintentionally – the end of an era. Not only is it the last time that Zappa would combine these two different sides of his musical personality, but Lather, in its intended form, represents the last time Zappa’s low and high arts would share disc space. On Lather, the three orchestral pieces bump up next to guitar solos, live jazz jams and horn-driven rock anthems, and share the stage with the likes of “Titties and Beer” and “Punky’s Whips.” The inference is that this is all music to Zappa, with no boundaries between them.

But the mandate that he cut up this material into four themed releases seems to have had a ripple effect on the remainder of Zappa’s career. From this point on, the orchestral works would not incorporate any rock elements, and would appear on their own – the London Symphony Orchestra albums, The Perfect Stranger, The Yellow Shark. Zappa would begin composing this same kind of music on the Synclavier in the early ‘80s, and those pieces would also appear separate from his work with rock and jazz bands.

So as Zappa’s final statement on the merging of guitars, drums and strings, Orchestral Favorites is a fine record. “Strictly Genteel” is stately, stripped of its lyrics, while the first rendition of “Bogus Pomp” unveils the sweeping melodies behind the surreal tuna sandwich imagery of 200 Motels. Similarly, this take of “Duke of Prunes” captures the beauty of the tune, miles away from the insanity of Absolutely Free. Bozzio’s drumming sometimes plods, but he fits in well with the large ensemble, in a mix that favors him.

Still, for an artist who began his career bulldozing the barriers between musical forms, the themed releases from this point forward are somewhat disheartening. Zappa would go on to tremendous achievements as an orchestral composer, and fascinating explorations of the guitar in a rock setting. Enjoy this as a final, successful argument for Zappa’s unified field theory that brought both of those sides together. 

Rating: Worthy. 

Which version to buy: Doesn’t matter. Every CD edition, including the 2012 Zappa/Universal release, is the same, and they all sound fine.

Next week: Joe’s Garage Act I.