Wednesday, March 27, 2013

New Column: Not Guilty

If you're a regular reader of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M., you probably have a pretty wide musical appetite. Which means you probably like some things that other people just can't believe you like.

This week's column is all about that, and about how you should never feel guilty for enjoying what you enjoy. It includes reviews of the new Justin Timberlake (above) and Mavericks albums, and since it's the end of March, it concludes with my First Quarter Report for 2013. But if nothing else, I hope to impress upon you that when it comes to music, there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure.

Read the column here, and head back to the blog to leave me a comment. Cheers!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #10: Weasels Ripped My Flesh

Before reading on, take a moment to admire that album cover. It’s one of the most iconic pieces of jacket art ever created, and the “RZZZZ” adds that perfect surrealist touch.

Weasels Ripped My Flesh, released in August of 1970, is the second collection of posthumous archival recordings from the original Mothers. It followed the first, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, by about six months, and taken together, the two albums show off different, yet strangely complementary sides of the band. Where Burnt Weeny was Zappa’s most beautiful recording to date, Weasels is his ugliest and most abrasive. At times, it feels like small rodents tearing into your face.

 There are 11 tracks on this album, and only four of those will seem like actual songs to the casual listener. The rest of the record is given over to random, dissonant moments that occurred on stage, those bits of Mothers concerts that seemed ready to plunge off the rails at any moment. These are not jams, nor do they effectively show the caliber of players at Zappa’s command. They are assemblages of freeform squawking noise.

Of course, most of this is not as random as it sounds. On stage, Zappa would “conduct” his players, through a series of gestures, looks and raised eyebrows. The musicians needed to know which musical idea each signal corresponded to, and play them at a moment’s notice. The scalding opener “Didja Get Any Onya” is made up of those prearranged ideas, and Zappa is cueing each one, from the pounding rhythm to the vocal squonks.

Knowing that doesn’t make the music sound any more structured, though. (It’s similar to knowing how John Zorn’s file card pieces were created. They still sound like improvised honking.) During the second half of “Toads of the Short Forest,” Zappa points out to the audience that nearly every musician is playing in a different time signature. (“And the alto sax is blowing his nose.”) It’s fascinating in an academic way, but difficult to listen to.

Some of these tracks start off as tightly composed pieces, and then devolve into on-stage lunacy. “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue,” dedicated to the free jazz giant who died in 1964, is beautifully arranged and frighteningly complex for about three minutes, but it goes on for a further four minutes of randomly-hit percussion and duck calls. “Dwarf Nebula Processional and Dwarf Nebula” begins with a lovely chamber piece, and finishes up with electronic noise, a la “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny.”

So why does this album work as well as it does? Zappa maintains a fine balance between the abrasive tracks and the more melodic ones, sequencing the record perfectly. The sandpaper-in-your-face drums and German accents (by Little Feat’s Lowell George) of “Didja Get Any Onya” collapse into a lovely version of Little Richard’s blues “Directly From My Heart to You,” with vocals and violin by Sugar Cane Harris. (This is actually an outtake from the Hot Rats sessions.)

The Debussy-referencing “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask,” all random-sounding notes and not-quite-harmonies, gives way to the pretty, spritely first half of “Toads of the Short Forest.” And that song’s second half dissolves into the brief, gentle guitar solo “Get a Little.”

And near the album’s conclusion, Zappa relents and gives us a trilogy of actual songs. “Oh No” appears here with vocals after making its instrumental debut on Lumpy Gravy, and for the first time, Zappa’s cynicism brings down a perfectly beautiful piece. The lyrics are aimed at John Lennon and Yoko Ono (“Oh No,” Ono, get it?), and eviscerate them for believing that love can change the world. The juxtaposition of such a lovely melody with such a bleak conceit is jarring, but will become Zappa’s modus operandi.

The instant classic “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” appears here, raw and rocking, Zappa taking the lead vocal and smoking on six-string. But even this song has its abrasive moments – a processed brass section is used to create a dissonant bridge. More straightforward is “The Orange County Lumber Truck,” a live favorite for the original Mothers. It’s an instrumental piece with a hummable tune and a ripping Zappa guitar solo.

That’s cut short here to make room for the closing title track, which is literally two minutes of every member of the band making as much explosive racket as they can on stage. The result sounds like a particularly annoying vacuum cleaner, but it may be the perfect way to end this ferocious, ugly album. After Zappa abruptly cuts the noise off, the audience cheers, as if they couldn’t get enough.

In some ways, Weasels Ripped My Flesh is the perfect capstone to the original Mothers, showing off Zappa’s anything-can-be-music aesthetic to its fullest. It contains some of the band’s wildest playing, punctuated by some moments of linear beauty. It’s a difficult album to like on first listen (and even on tenth), but it contains an energy that other original Mothers albums lack. Whether that energy makes up for a dearth of well-written songs is up to the individual listener.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to buy: Once again, the Zappa/UME remaster from 2012 utilizes the 1970 analog mix, and sounds considerably better than any CD version before it. The tradeoff: you lose about three minutes from “Didja Get Any Onya,” which were added by Zappa for the 1995 Ryko release. But the sound quality is such an improvement that the new version is recommended anyway.

Next week: Chunga’s Revenge.  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #9: Burnt Weeny Sandwich

In 1968, Frank Zappa disbanded the original Mothers of Invention, eager to pursue new musical opportunities. But so vast was the backlog of unreleased recordings by this lineup that he assembled two further Mothers albums, both made up of leftover songs from the band’s various sessions. 

Burnt Weeny Sandwich was the first of these, released in February of 1970, and you’d expect from its origins (and its title) that this would be a hodgepodge, a haphazard collection of also-rans that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But you’d be wrong. In fact, Burnt Weeny Sandwich is arguably the finest album the original Mothers produced, and it plays like a well-considered whole.

Where its subsequent twin, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, concentrated on live recordings and rampant noise, Burnt Weeny makes Zappa’s finest case for the Mothers as rock and roll orchestra. Throughout the 1970s, Zappa would find new ways to integrate the sleazy rock he would soon embrace and the more complex compositions he clearly reveled in, but he would rarely create something this pure and lovely again.

Though the album was reportedly named after one of Zappa’s favorite snacks – a burnt hot dog between two slices of bread, with mustard – it’s structured like a sandwich of sorts. The first and last tracks are covers of doo-wop songs: “WPLJ,” which stands for white port and lemon juice, was a hit for the Four Deuces in 1956, and “Valarie” was a 1960 single by Jackie and the Starlites. Both of these tracks are lovingly recreated, further proof that Zappa simply loved this early, uncomplicated rock and roll.

In between those tracks lies a suite of instrumental pieces, all of them beautifully arranged. There are 13 Mothers on this album, and about half of them play brass and woodwind instruments. Ian Underwood is once again a star player, but horn players Bunk and Buzz Gardner and woodwinder Jim Sherwood are all highlighted as well. And while this is complex stuff, there’s a clarity to these pieces that shines through. An album like Uncle Meat is hard to take in, difficult to parse. Burnt Weeny Sandwich contains only a few pieces that are not immediately hummable, and some of Zappa’s full-on prettiest melodies.

The two centerpiece compositions are “Holiday in Berlin” and “The Little House I Used to Live In.” The former is here in two forms: an “overture” that features out-of-tune saxes for some reason, and a “full blown” rendition that lasts six minutes. The entire first side of the album builds up to that full version, and it’s bright and joyous. Portions of this piece would find their way into the score for 200 Motels two years later. Here, though, the song is a lovely jaunt, woodwinds and vibes giving way to a spot-on, yet restrained guitar solo.

“Little House” takes up most of the second side – it stretches to 18:42 – and may be Zappa’s ultimate jazz rock orchestra piece. It opens with a piano solo by Underwood, following nicely from his showcase piece “Aybe Sea,” then erupts into a maelstrom of drums and sound. What follows is one of Zappa’s Big Melodies, played first on guitar, and then on woodwinds and other instruments. It’s frantic, riveting stuff, and once it’s done, strap in for a raucous, extended, powerful violin solo by Sugarcane Harris.

There’s an indescribable elation that comes from hearing such well-trained, precise players truly cut loose, and “Little House” offers that in spades. The middle section is remarkable, Harris and Underwood (on piano) darting around one another while Art Tripp lays down a tremendous 6/8 groove. The song ends, then rises up again for a loud, processed end section with Zappa laying claim to the organ.

It ends with audience applause (pasted in from a live performance), which includes Zappa’s confrontation with a heckler. One of his most famous quotes is from this section: “Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, and don’t kid yourself.” More amusing is his final advice to the screaming man: “You’ll hurt your throat, stop it!”

Filling out the record are the two “phases” of “Igor’s Boogie,” together clocking in at only 75 seconds, and a guitar and percussion improvisation called “Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich.” The Igor in question is Igor Stravinsky, and the two short pieces are appropriately dissonant, but they’re the only ones that are. The rest of Burnt Weeny Sandwich is as pure an expression of beauty as Frank Zappa ever delivered, and a fine eulogy for this side of the original Mothers of Invention.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: Without question, the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster. Not only does it return to the original analog mix, which sounds amazing, but it corrects a glitch found on every previous CD edition. The Zappa Family truly came through on this one.

Next week: Weasels Ripped My Flesh.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

First Listen: Clutch, Earth Rocker

This one is for Jon Pirrong. He's been after me to try Clutch for a couple years, and for no good reason, I've just never taken his recommendation. So when I heard that the long-running Maryland band would be releasing its 10th album this month, I decided to seize the opportunity.

Earth Rocker is the band's first independent release, which is usually a good sign - you're getting the band as they want to sound, unfiltered and unfettered. I figured that would make this album a fine entry point for me. Earth Rocker is my first Clutch album, and though I'm not sure how many more I will buy, I liked it for what it is.

Clutch, at least on this record, is a groove metal band that lives somewhere between ZZ Top and Monster Magnet. They lay down some thick, pummeling riffs, and lead singer Neil Fallon bellows out lyrics like some unholy, kind of goofy spawn of Dave Wyndorf and Glenn Danzig. The lyrics are uniformly ridiculous, but you get the sense that Fallon doesn't really take them seriously either.

After five charging tracks ("DC Sound Attack" has exactly enough cowbell), "Gone Cold" signifies the more experimental second half. Its clean blues and sung-spoken lyrics work well, and the more expansive epics that follow - particularly closers "Oh Isabella" and "The Wolf Man Kindly Requests..." - are convincing. They've clearly been around a while, and the band sparks off each other nicely.

I'd never call Earth Rocker a masterpiece, but for fun, silly metal, it's pretty good. So, which Clutch album should I try next?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #8: Hot Rats

After spending years acclimating his audience to his jump-cut, anything-can-be-music style, what does Frank Zappa do? Chuck all that out the window for his second solo album, Hot Rats, the most linear and, frankly, beautiful album he had yet made.

Hot Rats, released in October of 1969, is often called the Zappa album for those who don’t like Zappa. It is certainly one of his most accessible, despite being almost entirely instrumental. Where Zappa’s previous albums could be brittle and off-putting, Hot Rats is just a joy to listen to. Every song practically overflows with Zappa’s pure love of music.

Earlier in 1968, Zappa had disbanded the original Mothers of Invention, eager to explore other musical avenues. It was reportedly a rather unceremonious dumping – the only one Zappa retained was multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood. Though he would resurrect the Mothers name in 1971, he would never play with most of the original band again.

Underwood became Zappa’s musical partner on Hot Rats, joined by several studio musicians. (Max Bennett, John Guerin, Paul Humphrey, Shuggie Otis, Ron Selico – it’s odd how many of these guys never played with Zappa again after this.) For the first time, the present-day composer had a 16-track recording studio at his disposal, and Underwood would be Zappa’s one-man chamber orchestra, overdubbing complex piano, organ, saxophone, clarinet and flute parts.

Three of the album’s songs are intricately composed pieces, while the other three are free-flowing jam sessions. Zappa was equally fascinated by precision and improvisation, and on Hot Rats, he shows off his skills in both areas. And they are considerable.

The album opens with one of his most enduring pieces, “Peaches en Regalia.” The melody is warm and inviting, and every few seconds Zappa mixes another color into the palette. Every time you think it can’t get more interesting, or more hummable, he surprises you. The song is a compact 3:39, and in that short span, Zappa makes all the case he would ever need to for his rock and roll orchestra concept. Even if he’d never written another song in this style, “Peaches en Regalia” would be immortal.

And it will not prepare you for the dirty grind of “Willie the Pimp,” the following track. Filthy guitars, thick violin lines by Sugar Cane Harris, and the inimitable vocals of Captain Beefheart, here making his Zappa album debut, grease up this bluesy, one-riff piece. Zappa and Beefheart (nee Don Van Vliet) were childhood friends, and Zappa would go on to produce some of Beefheart’s best-known work, and collaborate with him on the 1975 album Bongo Fury. Here, Beefheart’s unchained voice brings out the sleaze in “Willie,” the tale of a khaki-wearing, greasy-haired pimp selling women at the Lido Hotel.

But it isn’t Beefheart you’ll remember from this song. This is the point where we have to start talking about Frank Zappa the guitar player, since in many ways he makes his grand entrance here.

There have been hints of Zappa’s prowess with the guitar before this – his extended solos on “Call Any Vegetable” and “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution” were inventive – but his seven-plus-minute jam on “Willie the Pimp” is something else entirely. It is liquid mercury, never sticking to typical patterns, always seeking the next note in unlikely places. Every second of it moves, tossing off new melodic ideas, but it’s never flashy. Zappa likened soloing to sculpting music from the air, and on this flowing piece – edited down from a longer improv – it’s easy to see what he means.

Zappa lets the jams flow twice more on Hot Rats. “Son of Mr. Green Genes” is a new, jazzy arrangement of the Uncle Meat song, trading off dense horn charts with wild solos, and the 13-minute “The Gumbo Variations” is pure jazz rock, with a hummable saxophone head (over a throbbing bass line by Bennett) and long solos from Underwood, Harris and Zappa. It’s freeform, but it’s consistently interesting, and Humphrey’s drumming keeps everything moving forward.

As for the more tightly composed pieces, “Little Umbrellas” uses a jazz bass and drum foundation to build a strikingly complicated piano and organ structure, with occasional flute flourishes from Underwood, and closer “It Must Be a Camel” lurches from one strange harmonic moment to another, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes wonderfully, before making room for another great guitar solo. In the liner notes, Zappa referred to Hot Rats as “a movie for your ears,” and the three more orchestral pieces – “Peaches,” “Umbrellas” and “Camel” – earn that distinction.

If you’re listening to the Zappa catalog in sequence, Hot Rats will come as a surprise. Gone is the cynicism and tape-splice fastidiousness of prior albums, and in its place is an unmistakable joy. This dichotomy will continue throughout his work – as a lyricist, Zappa is dark, satirical, grumpy and even nasty, and the music accompanying his words cannot help but follow suit.

But when he works instrumentally, his genuine excitement at the infinite possibilities of music comes through. You can hear it in his solos, in his arrangements for his more jazz-oriented bands, and in his glorious orchestral scores. His vocal work asks why you would want to live in such a terrible and ridiculous world, and his instrumental work provides the answer. 

Rating: Essential. 

Which version to buy: When Hot Rats was originally released on CD, Zappa digitally remixed it, sonically boxing it in and removing a lot of its charm. He did add four minutes of unreleased solos to “The Gumbo Variations,” but that seemed a harsh tradeoff. However, the 2012 Zappa/Universal release corrects this problem, using the original 1969 vinyl master as a starting point, and the results are marvelous. Hot Rats has never sounded this good. It practically bursts from your speakers. This version does revert to the shorter “Gumbo Variations,” but that’s fine. Get both the new and old CDs if you’re a completist, but the best version of Hot Rats out there is the sparkling new one. 

Next week: Burnt Weeny Sandwich.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

New Column: Middle Age is the Best Age

I'm in the wilds of Minnesota this week on a work trip, but I did manage to write a new column for you over at Since I took a listen to some new bands last week, I figured I'd balance it out with some older guys this week.

Not retirement age old, you understand - Trent Reznor, Johnny Marr and the two Johns from They Might Be Giants (above) are all around 50, and yet they all keep evolving and trying new things, to great effect. I liked all three of the albums on tap this week. Click on over to the main tm3am site to read why, and then head back here (or go to my Facebook page) to join the conversation about it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #7: Mothermania

In Zappa’s world, recombination means redefinition.

Zappa was fond of saying that his entire massive catalog was really one album. Any song from any of his releases could be re-edited and re-ordered to sit alongside any other, and through context, the meaning and impact of both songs would change.

This doesn’t seem like a revolutionary idea – if you’ve ever bought a greatest hits album, you get the gist – but Zappa was a master at recombining his material into new and surprising forms. From the Broadway-style revue of Thing-Fish to the impossible live series You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore (on which Zappa spliced together performances by bands separated by decades) to his albums of guitar solos, some of which grew into new songs in the studio, Zappa’s catalog is one large organism, constantly evolving from its own tissue.

Fans have been clamoring for the CD release of 1969’s Mothermania – the first Zappa-compiled collection of previously-released Mothers material – for years. This may come as a surprise, since there isn’t a single song here that isn’t represented on the first three Mothers albums. But this album is a clear example of Zappa’s ability to redefine his work through context and subtle changes.

For most listeners, Mothermania will just feel like a best-of set from Freak Out, Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It for the Money. In fact, it’s one of many – reportedly, Zappa assembled this collection because he was tired of seeing his material repackaged without his consent. This is Zappa’s idea of the best of the early Mothers, and just for that insight, it’s fascinating for fans. (Opening with the audacious and offensive “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” is like throwing down a gauntlet, and including “It Can’t Happen Here” over other, more palatable Freak Out songs shows that Zappa’s heart is with his more difficult pieces.)

For the casual listener, though, Mothermania might seem redundant. Much of it is, but there are several reasons that Zappa fans clamored for this album’s release, a request finally granted in 2012. Here’s what you can get here that you can’t get elsewhere:

·       The original, uncensored version of “Mother People,” without the spliced-in string interlude.
·       The shorter version of “Call Any Vegetable,” without the lengthy jam (“Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin”).
·       A completely new version of “The Idiot Bastard Son,” with an emphasis on piano.
·       The original vinyl mixes of Freak Out and Absolutely Free material, which remained unavailable on CD for years. (The original forms of both albums are now available elsewhere.)

If that’s not enough to entice you into buying the album, no harm done. Mothermania’s release last year was an event in the Zappa fan universe, and the album does offer an interesting perspective on some familiar work. But like any compilation, its worth is in the eye (and the wallet) of the beholder.

Rating: Skippable.

Which version to buy: Well, if you’re looking for a CD, there’s only one – the 2012 Zappa/Universal release. It’s identical to the original 1969 vinyl, and it sounds great.

Next week: Hot Rats.