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.

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