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.

1 comment:

  1. Hands down one of my very favorite Zappa albums... saddled right next to one of my least favorite Zappa albums (Weasels) !!