Wednesday, February 27, 2013

New Column: Climbing Up the Walls

This week in Tuesday Morning 3 A.M., I talk about Thom Yorke. And while it's great that Yorke is in a place where he can do whatever he wants, it's a shame that whatever he wants always turns out to be the same thing - twitchy, moody electro. Even when backed by Flea, Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco, as he is on the debut from his new band, Atoms for Peace (above), he creates the same stuff, and it sounds the same way.

In contrast, there is Everything Everything, a new-ish British band learning the right lessons from Radiohead's golden age, and building on them. It's no surprise that I think their second album, Arc, leaves Atoms for Peace in the dust. To read more about why, click over to the main site, and then come back here to tell me what you think.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #6: Uncle Meat

In 1968 alone, Frank Zappa gave us a stunningly realized satirical masterpiece, a difficult yet rewarding orchestral psychodrama, and an affectionate tribute to the music of his teenage years. For an encore – and as part of the same sessions – he decided to direct a movie, and compose and record its score.

Zappa was many things, but lazy was definitely not one of them.

The Uncle Meat film was intended to tell the story of an old man who used evil science to turn a teenage rock band (Ruben and the Jets?) into dog-faced monsters. Zappa was fond of low-budget horror films (see his later tune “Cheepnis”), and all indications are that Uncle Meat would have been one. It was never finished, and the footage was shelved until 1987, when it was assembled into a surreal documentary with the same title.

The soundtrack, however, did come out, in April of 1969, as the final of the four projects recorded at Apostolic Studios in New York. It’s the fifth Mothers of Invention album, and their second double. The cover announces it as “Most of the music from the Mothers movie of the same name, which we haven’t got enough money to finish yet.” Cal Schenkel’s oddly disturbing cover collage makes use of broken glass, dentures and a whole lot of deep red.

While much of Zappa’s early reputation was built on the impressive compositions of Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For the Money, the notion of the 1960s Mothers as a remarkable rock orchestra largely stems from this record. For the first time, Zappa gives us a taste of his band’s improvisational skills – for long stretches of this long record, the Mothers are given free rein to simply play.

But this is no jam session. Uncle Meat is perhaps the ultimate expression of Zappa’s anything-goes tape-splice philosophy, and his tight studio control. Its tracks were recorded throughout 1968, in both studio and live settings, and the album veers wildly from tightly composed chamber music to shuffling rock to jazz improv to snippets of conversations, much of it altered electronically to sound even stranger. All of this is presented as a single piece of music, connected in the editing booth.

First-time listeners may feel disoriented by all the musical ideas flying about here. In fact, second-time and third-time listeners may feel the same. The connecting thread, in theory, is the film, but with the soundtrack alone, imagining how these disparate pieces are meant to fit together is difficult. With repeated listens, the musical themes weaving in and out of this album do make themselves known, however. 

Uncle Meat features the debut of four of Zappa’s most indelible melodies, ones he would go on to play with virtually every incarnation of his band (and, in two cases, with the Ensemble Modern in the late ‘80s). They are: 
  • Uncle Meat,” the album’s opening track, here referred to as the “Main Title Theme.
  • Dog Breath,” here under its full title, “Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague.” 
  •  A Pound for a Brown on the Bus,” named after a bet between two of the Mothers over whether one would moon onlookers through the touring bus window.
  • King Kong,” here both as a prelude and an 18-minute spliced-together jam.

Zappa used these themes to stitch this entire album together. The minute-long “Zolar Czakl” is a more dissonant interpretation of “Uncle Meat,” for instance, while “The Legend of the Golden Arches” makes use of the “Pound for a Brown” bassline. The blistering alto sax solo that is “Ian Underwood Whips It Out” was taken from a performance of “King Kong,” and the underpinning of that song can clearly be heard beneath Underwood’s impassioned squonking. Both “Uncle Meat” and “Dog Breath” are performed in alternate versions as well.

It should be clear that this music was constantly evolving, and there exists no “definitive” version of any of these pieces. Like everything Zappa produced, the compositions themselves changed with time, improvisation, new instrumentalists, and new musical ideas. To Zappa, music was never “finished.” In fact, several times on Uncle Meat, Zappa grafted completely different performances of his music together, creating new compositions. In the grooves of this record, you can hear him questioning the very idea of a “song” or an “album,” as 1969 audiences knew them.

All this makes Uncle Meat sound like a dry academic exercise, when in fact it’s an exhilarating listen. The tightly composed pieces are a dizzying rush of notes, but between them, Zappa leavens the mix with humor, as usual. Suzy Creamcheese makes another appearance, talking about groupie love – a topic that would become much more prevalent in the Mothers’ music.

In between the difficult “Legend of the Golden Arches” and the even more difficult “Dog Breath Variations,” Zappa splices in a snippet of Don Preston playing “Louie Louie” on the Royal Albert Hall organ, his way of symbolically cutting through the pomposity. Zappa sequences the most complex and dissonant piece of the album, “Project X,” between two ’50s-inspired ditties. The sequencing helps guide you through the maze of heady ideas.

And when there are lyrics (“Basically, this is an instrumental album,” the liner notes proclaim), they are mostly nonsensical fun. “Electric Aunt Jemima” is about Zappa’s guitar amplifier. “Dog Breath,” “The Uncle Meat Variations” and “Cruising for Burgers” sport lyrics parodying the teenage concerns of Ruben and the Jets fans. And “Mr. Green Genes” is completely ridiculous. It’s essentially a list of things you should eat, beginning with vegetables and moving on to shoes, shoe boxes and garbage trucks. “Nutritiousness, deliciousness, worthlessness,” the band exclaims at the end, and that pretty much sums it up.

While the lyrics are only here for a laugh, the music is serious business. So it’s thrilling to hear the Mothers cut loose on several tracks here. Zappa gives us an extended guitar and percussion piece early (“Nine Types of Industrial Pollution”), then steps out of the way, ceding the spotlight. Alto saxophonist Ian Underwood shines on the aforementioned “Ian Underwood Whips It Out,” and his soon-to-be-wife Ruth Komanoff shows off her skills with mallet percussion on many of these tunes.

And then there is “King Kong,” the combustible jam that takes up all of the original side four. Don Preston, Motorhead Sherwood, Bunk Gardner and Underwood all get extended solo spots, and even though the piece is stitched together from several different recordings, it sounds like a loose, live powerhouse. Of course, Zappa can’t resist messing with it – Gardner’s clarinet solo is heavily processed, to the point where it sounds like a fritzing computer, and the whole piece ends with a tape-effect  nightmare.

In many ways, Uncle Meat marks the first successful integration of Zappa’s jazz-rock leanings and his compositional acumen. It presents the Mothers as a chamber orchestra of a completely different kind, one with the skill to perform this intensely complex music, but also the ability to explode in a fury of improvisation. And it presents Zappa as a band leader without any musical borders.

Yes, it’s daunting. Uncle Meat is not an album for casual listening, and if your previous experience of Zappa has been limited to “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “Valley Girl,” this will sound bewildering. But for those willing to stick with it, there are innumerable rewards. Uncle Meat is one of Zappa’s very best messes. 

Rating: Essential. 

Which version to buy: Unfortunately, your options are limited, unless you can track down the original vinyl. All of the CD versions of this album are drenched in digital reverb, the results of a 1987 digital remix. More unfortunately, Zappa saw fit to include three “penalty tracks,” shoved between sides three and four. You get 45 interminable minutes of dialogue from the finally completed movie, and a song called “Tango Na Minchia Tanta” that was clearly recorded in the ‘80s, and has no connection to Uncle Meat. These tracks completely disrupt the feel of the album, and they’re included on both the 1993 Ryko edition and the 2012 Zappa/Universal reissue. So there’s no avoiding them. I’m holding out hope for an Uncle Meat sessions project/object release sometime this year. 

Next week: Mothermania.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

New Column: Animal Joy Part Two

And here is the second of my quick-hit animal-related review columns. This one focuses on a pair of bands I tried out on a whim, and a pair of new albums I'm not completely sold on. Foals (above) are an impressive outfit from Oxford, and their third record is called Holy Fire. It's more danceable and has more hit potential than anything they've done. And Local Natives hail from Los Angeles, and their second record is called Hummingbird. It's a more sedate affair, thanks largely to their choice of producer, and while it doesn't leave me cold, it does make me yawn.

As always, check out the column at the main site, then head back here to talk about it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #5: Cruising With Ruben and the Jets

Some artists like to keep their audiences on their toes. Frank Zappa liked to keep his in a state of perpetual bewilderment.

There’s no other way to explain Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, Zappa’s third album of 1968. After mercilessly lampooning straight-ahead rock and R&B for years, suddenly here is an album on which Zappa and his Mothers lovingly perform tunes that could be 1950s standards, without a trace of irony. Even songs that were played as parody on Freak Out appear here, completely straight.

It was released under the Ruben and the Jets moniker, with only a word balloon on the front cover to give the game away: “Is this the Mothers of Invention recording under a different name in a last-ditch attempt to get their cruddy music on the radio?” The original Mothers, of course, were a mainstream R&B band before Zappa took the reins, so in an odd way, this feels like a prequel rather than the next chapter of the MOI story.

Zappa plays the farce to the hilt, inventing a backstory for Ruben Sano and his band – one that has more to do with cars and girls and greasy hairdos than music. The packaging may lead you to expect some sarcasm here, some acknowledgement that this music is somehow beneath the band that created We’re Only In It for the Money. But besides Zappa’s description of the proceedings as “an album of cretin simplicity,” there’s nothing here to suggest that this is not a labor of love.

In fact, the only logical conclusion is that Zappa truly adores this type of music. He would return to it again and again, dropping R&B covers like “Valerie” and “The Closer You Are” onto his albums, and recording and releasing a ditty called “Sharleena” more times than just about any other song of his. The Mothers sound comfortable with this greasy, repetitive material, and singers Ray Collins and Roy Estrada give it their all, bringing real heart to the performances.

Cruising With Ruben and the Jets includes five songs from Freak Out, here remade as rhythm and blues tunes. “I’m Not Satisfied,” a burst of energetic rock on Freak Out, is smoothed out into a 6/8 ballad with “da-da-da” backing vocals. “Any Way the Wind Blows” is similarly slowed down and prettied up. Even “You Didn’t Try to Call Me,” a savage parody in its original incarnation, is here transformed into the very thing it was parodying.

Zappa’s new songs continue in the same vein. The lyrics, of course, are darker than one would expect from ‘50s R&B – “Cheap Thrills” is about exactly what you’d expect, its three-chord rhythm an endless bit of juvenile giddiness. Closer “Stuff Up the Cracks” finds our lovelorn protagonist giving up and committing suicide, turning on the car in his garage and listening to the radio as he dies.

But others, like the silly “Jelly Roll Gum Drop,” are as innocent as they sound. And with “Anything,” Zappa proved that he could write a truly lovely song, without any of his signature contempt. The Mothers’ willingness to dive straight into this sound and craft this record with such love makes Ruben and the Jets a delightful little listen.

Too bad you can’t buy that version of the album anymore, at least not under its original name. In 1984, Zappa decided to re-record very ‘80s-sounding bass and drums onto all but the closing track, and that’s the only version available in stores. The disconnect between the rhythm section and the rest of the performances here cannot be overstated – the heavily reverbed drums and bass essentially turn this into the parody that it worked so hard not to be. It’s disastrous.

And it’s a shame, because Zappa would never make another record like Cruising With Ruben and the Jets. It’s a simple, let-your-hair-down kind of record, created with genuine affection, and celebrating an era that, despite Zappa’s commitment to complexity and boundary-pushing, would continue to inspire him. It’s nothing essential, and your Zappa collection would be complete without it, but taken for what it is, Ruben and the Jets is a lot of fun. 

Rating: Skippable 

Which version to buy: Unless you track down the original vinyl, it doesn’t matter. Every CD version of Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, including the 2012 re-release, is the 1984 train wreck. Zappa’s alterations ruin the entire feel of the album, and while the ‘80s version is a curiosity, it’s not much fun to listen to. If you want to hear the original 1968 mix of the album, you have to buy the Greasy Love Songs Project/Object from the Zappa website. 

Next week: Uncle Meat.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

New Column: Animal Joy Part One

This week and next, we're taking a look at bands and albums with animal names. I've definitely had weaker justifications for grouping reviews together, but damn if I can't remember one right now.

Still, this week's two subjects are splendid little records. The Eels return after a three-year break with a full-band effort that stands with their best, and Frightened Rabbit (above) expand their sound on a fourth album bursting with gigantic melodies and intricate lyrics. Read all about it at the main site, then head back here to leave me a comment. Thanks for reading! 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #4: We're Only In It for the Money

The Mothers’ third album, We’re Only In It for the Money, is widely considered Frank Zappa’s masterpiece. It’s certainly his sharpest and most focused piece of social criticism, his most finely honed parody, and his most prophetic and (arguably) most relevant work. If these are the qualities you’re looking for in a Zappa album, you won’t do better than this one. 

Money was the first of four albums that grew from the No Commercial Potential sessions, an extended stay at Apostolic Studios in New York. (The re-edited Lumpy Gravy was the second.) It hit stores in March of 1968, during the apex of flower power, while kids across the country were still singing “All You Need is Love.” But those were the clean-cut suburban kids, not the “freaks” of Zappa’s audience. Zappa considered the Beatles to be representative of the corporatization of America, and was determined to speak from a different perspective.

And because he was Frank Zappa, that perspective came with teeth. Zappa saw a hippie movement that he found ridiculous, a violent Los Angeles police force cracking down on “freaks,” and a society that not only condoned this but encouraged it. The civilization of the ‘60s was rotting from the inside, Zappa believed, and if you expected lasting change to come from a love-in, you were part of the problem.

Structurally, Money and Lumpy Gravy are two sides of the same coin. (The cover art links them as “phazes” of one another.) Money is another triumph of editing, as beautiful, melodic songs are spliced together with sound effects, electronic noise sculptures and dialogue to create a cohesive whole. It would still be 18 months before Abbey Road hit stores, but Zappa was showing the Beatles how the side-long suite thing was done.

But while Gravy was the work of Zappa the orchestral composer, Money is Zappa the tricky pop craftsman. The songs do a fine job of parodying the acoustic ‘60s hippie sound, and they straddle the line between melodic and complex with ease. There are eight Mothers on this album, with the addition of incredible pianist Ian Underwood and saxophonist Motorhead Sherwood, and the sound is vibrant. It remains parody throughout, but the songs are no joke.

In fact, this album – despite its Sgt. Pepper-mocking cover and ironic title – contains some of Zappa’s most straightforward songs. He rarely cuts to the heart of things as he does on “Mom and Dad,” a chilling lament for a teenage “freak” killed by police. “You sit home and drink all night, they look too weird, it served them right,” Zappa sings, launching a familiar attack, but giving it more resonance. “Ever wonder why your daughter looks so sad? It’s such a drag to have to love a plastic mom and dad.” 

Money plays like a single piece, darting from one memorable melodic snippet to another, but never staying in one place for very long. The album is remarkably busy, ideas flying by at light speed. Zappa interrupts songs with pig snorts, whispers and general insanity, and abandons melodies as quickly as they arrive. Just as a pop gem like “Lonely Little Girl” gets going, it dissipates, on to the next.

Thanks to pitch-shifted vocals and a production style that can sometimes seem cartoony – just listen to the simultaneous monologues, one in each speaker, on “Flower Punk” – this album feels surreal, like you can’t trust it. It’s one of Zappa’s most sincere pieces of work, and his tongue is still firmly in his cheek.

Zappa’s anything-is-music aesthetic is in full bloom here as well, with no less than five of these tracks given over to noise and dialogue. The album ends with “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a six-minute collage of sped-up pianos, woodwinds, laughter, static and other seemingly random sounds. But careful listening will reveal that this song is as carefully composed as anything else on the album. As a bonus, it ends with a weak pluck on a piano string that fades out over a full minute, the final touch of the album’s Sgt. Pepper parody.

This album definitely holds up to any amount of analysis, but none of that will get at the sheer visceral thrill of listening to this thing. We’re Only In It for the Money is savage, an absolutely freewheeling excoriation of the 1960s, like lobbing grenades along the Magical Mystery Tour. Its first side viciously attacks hippie culture – Zappa only requires the 2:34 of “Who Needs the Peace Corps” to set fire to the San Francisco scene that birthed the Grateful Dead. “I’ll stay a week and get the crabs and take a bus back home, I’m really just a phony but forgive me ‘cause I’m stoned…”

“Concentration Moon” and “Mom and Dad” call out police for cracking down on those hippies, talking about “cops killing creeps” two years before the Kent State shootings in Ohio. In “Harry, You’re a Beast,” Zappa continues the theme of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” pointing at a complacent society as the root cause of the rot. He answers the question of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body” with “I think it’s your mind,” and he never penned a more potent verse than the one that ends that song: “All your children are poor unfortunate victims of systems beyond their control, a plague upon your ignorance that keeps the young from the truth they deserve…”

“Absolutely Free” co-opts the sound and language of hippies to instruct them on how to actually shake off their shackles. (Zappa is, as ever, distrusting of his rock audience’s intelligence: “The first word in this song is ‘discorporate,’” he intones with a sardonic grin. “It means to leave your body.”) “Flower Punk” goes so far as to directly reference “Hey Joe,” a hit for Jimi Hendrix in 1966, as it mercilessly assaults the flower power mentality.

The second side is less focused – Zappa takes a three-song break to tell you about childhood friends who saved their snot in jars – but it all leads to the remarkable string of short pieces from “Lonely Little Girl” to “Mother People.” “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” is one of Zappa’s most hummable melodies, and the sarcastic vocal tone clearly shows how idiotic he thinks its sentiment is. That is driven home by the reprise of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body.”

But it’s “Mother People” that feels like the mission statement here. “We are the other people, you’re the other people too,” Zappa sings over one of his most kinetic rock compositions. It’s an invitation – if you’ve found yourself agreeing with this album, and that makes you an outsider, the Mothers are waiting for you. But heed the final verses: “Do you think that I love you, stupid and blind? Do you think that I dream through the night of holding you near me?” Zappa’s savage wit would turn and bite even some of his most ardent fans as time went on.

Zappa’s bleak view of society would never dissipate either, although he would slip into paranoia in his later years (Thing-Fish, Meets the Mothers of Prevention). We’re Only In It for the Money finds Zappa the satirist and social critic in perhaps the finest form of his career – so fine that many were disappointed when he turned to other lyrical and musical pursuits. It remains one of his most important albums, and one of his very best. 

Rating: Essential, clearly. 

Which version to get: This is kind of tricky. When Verve Records received the master for Money, they took umbrage at two sections (The repeated “don’t come in me” in “Harry, You’re a Beast” and the “shitty little person” verse of “Mother People”), and edited them without Zappa’s knowledge. Frank reversed that decision when he remixed Money in 1984. Unfortunately, he also overdubbed horrific-sounding ‘80s drums and bass on the entire album, completely ruining it. For years, this was the only version available on CD – if you see a two-fer Ryko CD with this and Lumpy Gravy on it, run away quickly.

The 1995 Ryko CD restores the original vinyl version of the album, with digital tweaking, which means the “offending” sections are once again censored. The 2012 Zappa/Universal reissue uses the same master, which means it doesn’t matter which of those you get. However, the 2012 version features, for the first time ever, the hilarious Sgt. Pepper parody on the front cover, where it belongs. (Record company politics have kept it sequestered inside since 1968.) That makes the new version the one to get.

Additionally, if you want to hear the original vinyl mix of the record, you need the Lumpy Money Project/Object from the Zappa Family Trust. That set also includes the 1984 abomination, if you’re curious about that. 

Next week: Cruising With Ruben and the Jets.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

First Listen: Fiction Family Reunion

The combination of Switchfoot's Jon Foreman and Nickel Creek's Sean Watkins may seem like a weird one, but it works far better than you'd expect. Fiction Family's wittily-titled second record is less immediate and less pop than their first, its songs slowly working its way into your brain. It opens weakly with "Avalon," but by the time the quick and splendid "Damaged" rolls around, the band is on all cylinders.

"God Badge" continues Foreman's one-man war against religious arrogance: "Put your God badge down and love someone." It's a sentiment this reviewer never tires of. Watkins gets to show his bluegrassy stuff on "Just Rob Me," and Foreman's world-weary voice works well on "Give Me Back My Girl." Once again, Fiction Family has proven that this strange alchemy can make gold.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

New Column: They Found Now

My Bloody Valentine.

If you were around and listening to music in 1991, chances are good that those three words in that order mean a great deal to you. In '91, they released an album called Loveless that changed everything, influencing countless bands that came after them. And then they disappeared, evaporating into a cloud of broken promises and false hopes for more than 21 years.

And chances are, you were just as surprised as I was when, on Saturday night, My Bloody Valentine released their first new album in more than two decades. I can still hardly believe that it exists. But it's here, and it's real, and it's the subject of this week's column. Can it possibly live up to the classic that preceded it, and be worth the two-decade-long wait? (I'll give you a hint: the column is subtitled "My Bloody Valentine's Miraculous Return.")

Read all about it on the main tm3am site. Then head back here to leave me a comment. Then head to and buy the damn thing, if you haven't already. After more than 21 years, the wait is over.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #3: Lumpy Gravy

If Zappa’s first two albums were statements of purpose, his third, Lumpy Gravy, was a statement of philosophy.

Whatever you are expecting when you press play on this thing, the album will defy those expectations. The cover promises a piece “that started out to be a ballet, but probably didn’t make it,” performed by a group with the absurd name of The Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. On the back cover, Zappa is dressed in a top hat and tails, sneering at you as he hands you his white gloves.

Is Lumpy Gravy an orchestral piece, the present-day composer taking up his baton for the first time on record? Well, it started that way. Capitol Records paid Zappa to produce “something with an orchestra,” and after 11 days of intensive composition and a $40,000 session with 50 musicians, Zappa emerged with a 22-minute piece, designed as an oratorio. It was entirely instrumental, and contained some of his most indelible melodies.

Capitol released the original Lumpy Gravy in 1967, but MGM/Verve Records cried foul, citing an ongoing contract with Zappa as a recording artist. The record was pulled, and copies of it are very rare. (The Zappa Family later released the original Lumpy Gravy on the three-CD Lumpy Money Project/Object.) And if Zappa had been a less imaginative artist, that might have been it.

But in late 1967, Zappa and the Mothers entered a studio in New York City to begin working on a pile of material with the working title of No Commercial Potential. (Verve must have loved that.) As part of this project, Zappa extensively reworked Lumpy Gravy, re-releasing this entirely new beast in May of 1968. (In a way, Lumpy Gravy is both Zappa’s third and fifth album.) And if the original Lumpy Gravy was a straightforward showcase for Zappa’s composing skills, the new one does nothing less than illuminate his view of music’s place in our universe.

Like “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” all of Lumpy Gravy was assembled in the editing room, stitched together splice by splice, placing disparate elements next to each other and watching how they combine. The original orchestral music is here, but it now shares space with percussive flourishes, electronic noise, snippets of Mothers jam sessions and loads of dialogue.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of this album as orchestral pieces stitched together with non-musical interludes. That’s missing the point entirely – to Zappa, this is all music, all part of the same composition. In fact, that’s the entire message of the album, a message that would reverberate through the rest of Zappa’s career. And to grasp it, you have to listen to the dialogue.

During his extended stay at Apostolic Studios in New York, Zappa recorded hours of spoken word improvisations. If you visited the studio while the Mothers were there, chances are you ended up on tape. Zappa would maneuver his subjects underneath the lid of the studio’s grand piano for added resonance, and give them topics to discuss. He then edited that dialogue into a loose story about people trapped in a piano, kept captive by marauding bands of pigs and ponies, and by their own fear.

It’s easy to extrapolate that the pigs are police officers and the ponies are long-haired hippies, two of the targets of the concurrently-recorded We’re Only In It for the Money. The piano denizens try to understand the fight between the two factions, but they’re simple folk, as noted in the section about working at gas stations. (Note the snippet of “Louie Louie,” Zappa’s common-folk call sign. Note also a later song called “Wind Up Working in a Gas Station” with the same theme, albeit more sarcastic.) They end up even more scared and confused and the music veers chaotically from melody to dissonance, depicting this confusion.

The most important moment of the record, however, occurs in the first section. (Lumpy Gravy is two 16-minute pieces of music, with no track breaks.) One of the piano denizens suggests that the entire universe is comprised of a single musical note, and everything we know grew out of that. It’s a fairly sensible conclusion for someone who lives in a musical instrument to come to, and actually has some basis in astrophysics. But as a metaphor for the album, and for Zappa’s entire career, it’s perfect.

There are no musical boundaries on Lumpy Gravy. The opening movements (which went on to become “Theme From Lumpy Gravy” and “Oh No”) are unreservedly melodic, even jaunty, Zappa’s players blurring the lines between rock and orchestral music. As things progress, we get sped-up horn fanfares, percussion sculptures, grating metallic noise, a snippet of Mothers track “King Kong,” and near the end, a long, dissonant, Stravinsky-inspired piece for strings that sounds tense and uncomfortable. And then things end with a blissful instrumental run-through of “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.”

It’s all the same music to Zappa, all flowing from the same source, the same note. It’s impossible to overstate how important this concept is to understanding the man’s catalog. For the next 25 years, Zappa would explore dozens of different types of music, smashing them together and editing them right next to each other, and he assumed from this moment forward that his audience was down with that.

Zappa considered Lumpy Gravy such an important statement that he continued and completed the story it tells in his final work, Civilization Phaze III, released after his death in 1993. If you can listen to the 32 minutes of Lumpy Gravy without skipping sections, or dismissing some parts as non-musical, you’ll be ready for anything the rest of his more difficult work will throw at you. It’s not an easy listen, but it is definitely a rewarding one. 

Rating: Essential. 

Which version to buy: Unless you seek out the original vinyl, there really is only one version to buy. Both the 1995 Ryko and 2012 Zappa/Universal CDs use the same digital master, created in 1993, and it sounds fine. If you want to hear the first version of Lumpy Gravy, you should pick up the Lumpy Money Project/Object from the Zappa family. (You should buy that anyway, because it’s fantastic.) 

Next Week: We’re Only In It for the Money.