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.

1 comment: