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.  

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