Monday, January 28, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #2: Absolutely Free

The Mothers’ first album, Freak Out, was actually fairly accessible, despite its satirical leanings. But by any reasonable measure, their second, Absolutely Free, was completely insane.

Released in May 1967, about a week before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Absolutely Free marked an enormous leap in ambition and confidence for Zappa, not just as a composer but also as a bandleader. The group who recorded this album was a very different beast: with the addition of saxophonist Bunk Gardner, keyboardist Don Preston and drummer Billy Mundi (as well as second guitarist Jim Fielder, who left after the sessions), the Mothers were becoming a true rock and roll orchestra.

They needed to be, to play Zappa’s new music. While Freak Out was the first Zappa album, Absolutely Free is the one on which he came into his own. It’s the first one on which he successfully brought his compositional skill to bear on this sneering rock outfit he’d been leading, the first one he assembled into its final form through tape edits, and the first one on which he truly kicked at the boundaries of good taste.

The first time you listen to Absolutely Free, it will sound like chaos. The two sides are woven into seamless “oratorios,” through painstaking tape edits. The band is loose throughout – this is possibly the most unrefined-sounding album Zappa ever let out of the gate. On top of that (literally), Zappa and the band refuse to take any of the vocals seriously, peppering this album with fake operatic voices, off-key falsettos and meta commentary. (“This is the exciting part, this is like the Supremes,” Zappa says at one point. “See the way it builds up?”)

But listen further, and it becomes clear that Absolutely Free is Zappa’s mission statement. These songs are intricate and beautifully composed – Zappa would go on to create sweeping orchestral versions of “Duke of Prunes” – but the way they are presented, as pointed comedy routines, makes their classical influence more palatable to a rock audience. It’s a technique he would return to throughout his career, and indicative of his philosophy that all music flows from one source. (He went on to present that philosophy in allegorical form on his next album.) 

Absolutely Free veers between sharp social criticism and outright nonsense, further establishing the Zappa style. The first oratorio, which shares the album’s title, begins with “Plastic People,” a sharp critique of the masses: “Take the day and walk around, watch the Nazis run your town, then go home and check yourself, you think we’re singing ‘bout someone else…” It opens with the riff from “Louie Louie,” Zappa’s favorite low-art touchstone, and a general broadside to his rock audience.

“The Duke of Prunes” is a lovely song, and may once have had lovely (or smutty) lyrics. But the nouns have been replaced, Mad Libs style, with the words “prune,” “cheese” and “beans.” “Prune, if it is a real prune, knows no cheese,” Zappa sings with enough faux passion to make you think he means it. “And so my love, I offer you, a love that is strong, a prune that is true…”

This leads into the centerpiece of side one, “Call Any Vegetable.” Yes, it’s really about vegetables, and how we should communicate with them. The song is a convincing guitar and flute blues, but Zappa continually interrupts the proceedings, first with a ramble about prunes, then to splice in Ray Collins yodeling “rutabaga” (seriously), and finally to insert an otherwise unrelated seven-minute full-band jam session, Zappa and Gardner launching into dueling solos. (This is the first hint on record of Zappa’s prowess with the guitar.) It’s an absolutely ridiculous 11 minutes, down to the heavy breathing of the pumpkin at the end, but it all works.

The second side is more straightforward, including twisted lounge music (“America Drinks”), a catchy rock song about high school politics (“Status Back Baby”) and an intricately arranged number about even more plastic people (“Uncle Bernie’s Farm”). “Son of Suzy Creamcheese” brings back the hypothetical groupie from Freak Out, asking her the same question (“What’s got into you?”) over a hyperactive, tricky riff that shifts time signatures with nearly every line.

In a way, though, everything here is prelude to “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” Zappa’s first tape-splice symphony. Musically, it’s the most complex piece Zappa had yet unveiled, comprised of more than a dozen different sections, fully orchestrated with strings, trumpets and clarinets. It bounds from eerie dissonance to tap-dance barrelhouse to low-budget pomp, every moment stitched together in the editing booth to form a seven-minute suite of unprecedented cohesiveness. (Remember, this was two years before Abbey Road.)

It’s the lyrics of “Brown Shoes” that usually command attention, however. A stinging expose of the ugliness that festers within picket-fence suburbia, the song is about what’s really going on in the minds of the men who control our plastic little world. Zappa’s central image here is of “City Hall Fred,” who lusts after a 13-year-old “teenage queen” who is “rocking and rolling and acting obscene.”

And here begins one of Zappa’s most frustrating traits: he blunts his satire with salaciousness. Zappa is a provocateur, always seeking new ways to push whatever boundaries he feels have been imposed on him. His lyrics, though often sung first-person, depict and espouse behavior Zappa himself did not believe or engage in. His constant defense for songs like “Honey, Don’t You Want a Man Like Me” or “Jewish Princess” was that they were indictments of the songs’ narrators.

This would hold more weight if Zappa did not describe these behaviors in such detail, and with such glee. In the case of “Brown Shoes,” he spends about half the song on Fred’s teen-lust dream, culminating in the line “Smother my daughter in chocolate syrup and strap her on again.” The tittering joy with which Zappa sings these lines makes it harder to accept them as a condemnation.

This is not prudishness. “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” remains a monumental achievement, sexual content and all. It simply doesn’t make its point as effectively as it might, a malady that will follow Zappa until the end of his days. It’s also telling that after the torrent of underage sexual fantasies in “Brown Shoes,” the album ends with “America Drinks and Goes Home,” in which the audience pays no attention to the seedy underbelly Zappa has just exposed. That is trademark Zappa cynicism, and it works perfectly.

The more modern CD version of Absolutely Free includes a non-album single, recorded at the same time: “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right” and its b-side, “Big Leg Emma.” These are fun, dumb little blues-rock numbers, and indicative of what Zappa believed the public would want to hear on a radio-ready single.

It’s hard to imagine the same public appreciating the intricacy of Absolutely Free – the album contains three different references to the work of Igor Stravinsky, according to this researcher. In May of 1967, there had never been an album quite like it. If Freak Out provided the foundation, Absolutely Free finds Zappa sketching the full blueprint, and preparing to build his world. 

Rating: Essential. 

Which version to buy: The 2012 remaster on Zappa/Universal, without question. Unlike the 1995 Ryko CD, the new version reverts to the original analog mix, untouched by digital reverb. The sound is excellent, vintage without slipping into muddiness. It’s the definitive version. 

Next Week: Lumpy Gravy

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