Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #19: Roxy and Elsewhere

Legend has it there were two rules for members of Frank Zappa’s bands. First, no drugs. If Zappa caught you using, he would fire you. (Zappa’s only vices were cigarettes and coffee.) And second, you had to keep up. Zappa was remarkably prolific, often composing new and dazzlingly intricate pieces of music in his hotel room between shows on a tour. Once you were handed these new pieces, you had to play them quickly and correctly.

It’s no surprise, then, that Zappa’s bands routinely included the best musicians available. Passing the composer’s rigorous audition was like graduating from a conservatory. Buying a ticket to a Zappa show was essentially a guarantee that you were about to see some of the most remarkable players on the planet play some of the most challenging music they’d ever encountered. And the 11-member band that recorded Roxy and Elsewhere in 1973 and 1974 is routinely considered one of Zappa’s very best ensembles.

The Roxy band is top-to-bottom stacked with brilliant players. It includes several holdovers from the Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (‘) sessions, including saxophone player and singer Napoleon Murphy Brock, keyboardist George Duke, the three Fowlers (bassist Tom, trombonist Bruce and trumpeter Walt), drummer Ralph Humphrey, and the absolutely astonishing Ruth Underwood on mallet percussion. They’re joined by Mothers mainstays Don Preston and Jeff Simmons, and brand new (and fantastic) drummer Chester Thompson.

As you might expect, the better the players at his disposal, the more intricate the music Zappa would compose. This group could easily play the slicker, simpler material that made up most of Over-Nite and Apostrophe (‘), although hearing those songs performed by this ensemble was certainly thrilling. But Roxy and Elsewhere debuts the music Zappa wrote specifically for this band, and while they retain much of the jazz-rock feel, these songs head into much more complex waters.

As the title implies, Roxy and Elsewhere is a live album, although Zappa’s process blurs the lines between studio and concert documents. Most of the basic tracks were put to tape between December 8 and 10, 1973 (with additional recordings in May of 1974 in Pennsylvania and Chicago), but the album was extensively overdubbed in the studio. The live feel is certainly retained – the studio tracks were not fixes, but embellishments.

The songs on Roxy and Elsewhere are almost entirely new, making their album debuts here. The album is divided into four suites of nearly equal length, each taking up an entire record side. While the first side eases you in – “Penguin in Bondage” is practically a ditty, “Pygmy Twylyte” a brief horn-fueled segue and “Dummy Up” a hilarious jam in which the band tries to get Brock to smoke a gym sock, a high school diploma and a college degree – it’s the second side that truly showcases what this band can do.

“Village of the Sun” is one of Zappa’s most straightforward tunes, with its sweet melody and its clean guitar tones. (Steve Vai would go on to pinch this sound for most of his career.) It leads into a pair of dizzying instrumentals. The lightning-fast runs of “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” segue into the nine-minute “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing,” which showcases Bruce Fowler, George Duke, Zappa and the two drummers in solo spots. But the hero of these songs is Underwood, displaying a dexterity on the vibes that borders on the inhuman. It’s no wonder Zappa specifically calls her out during “Don’t You Ever,” announcing that she’s about to amaze the audience. While the crowd obviously can’t be seen, their wide-eyed stares can certainly be imagined.

Zappa kicks off the third side with “Cheepnis,” his remarkable ode to crappy monster movies. Cheepnis, as he says in the introduction, has nothing to do with the budget of the film, but rather with the quality control – visible wires, obvious zippers, puppeteers wandering into frame. The song is a loving tribute, and a splendid series of melodies. It also contains the album’s requisite poodle reference, making this the third Zappa album in a row to continue this trend. It’s a shame this song was never played beyond this tour, because “Cheepnis” is one of Zappa’s best. These days you can only buy “Cheepnis” in a remixed version, with pitch-shifted vocals and brighter-sounding guitars, and it sticks out on this record.

New versions of two older songs round out the side, and these are complete reinventions. “Son of Orange County” is essentially “Oh No” with a bit of “The Orange County Lumber Truck,” and the pig snorts from Lumpy Gravy thrown in for good measure. It’s played like a blues, with a strong solo from Zappa, and segues nicely into the slower, grittier “More Trouble Every Day,” a new take on Freak Out’s “Trouble Every Day.” This one sounds fully formed – the horn accents, the crawling groove, Zappa’s lower voice, it all works. This song would be played this way from this point on, and while the original, more blues-rap take is still effective, this is clearly Zappa’s preferred arrangement.

The fourth side is given over to the 17-minute “Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen’s Church),” an insanely complicated piece of music that leads into an ecstatic jam, complete with audience participation. (When Zappa begins things by saying “this is a hard one to play,” you know it’s damn difficult.) For its first four minutes or so, this sounds like two truckloads of musical notes colliding on an interstate. The Fowlers play lines that would seem humanly impossible, and the two drummers match them perfectly. Underwood naturally follows suit, dazzling once again on the vibes.

But then it becomes a free for all – “sort of like jazz, in its own peculiar way,” Zappa says – with audience members invited to dance to George Duke’s scat singing and playing. It’s fantastic fun, and it remains musically intricate to the end.

Roxy and Elsewhere is one of the few instances in which Zappa’s restless nature becomes a detriment. This particular band is only featured on a few releases, including the archival You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore Volume 2, and they deserved more. The 11-piece Roxy band is one of the finest ensembles Zappa ever assembled, and on this album, they play some of his most intricate and enjoyable works, combining the crowd-pleasing nature of his early ‘70s material with the complexity of his earlier and later pieces. Plus, Roxy and Elsewhere is a boatload of fun. Should you decide to start your Zappa journey here, you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: If you want the original Roxy and Elsewhere, you only have one option: the 1974 vinyl record. “Cheepnis” was remixed for the original 1992 CD, and the entire album digitally remastered for the 1995 CD. The 2012 Zappa/Universal release mimics the 1995 disc, which means it uses the slightly muffled digital master and includes the remix of “Cheepnis.” But it still sounds pretty great.

Next week: One Size Fits All.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #18: Apostrophe (')

In a lot of ways, Apostrophe (‘) was an afterthought, a way of continuing the commercial momentum of Over-Nite Sensation. Released in March 1974, a mere six months after its predecessor, its scant 32 minutes are made up of material recorded during the Over-Nite sessions and before. Listeners would be forgiven for thinking of it as a hodgepodge: two of its tracks date back to the Grand Wazoo sessions, and one is a Hot Rats outtake.

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that Apostrophe (‘) not only holds together as an album, but provided Zappa with his greatest commercial success in the United States, peaking at #10 on the Billboard charts. Such popularity was a clear motivation behind much of the material that ended up on this album and its predecessor, but of the two, Apostrophe (‘) seems the unlikelier to tickle the public’s fancy.

Of course, it’s impossible to tell what the listening public will latch onto, and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” is no exception. On Apostrophe (‘), “Yellow Snow” is a four-song suite that opens the album, telling the tale of an Eskimo named Nanook and his run-in with a fur trapper determined to kill Nanook's favorite baby seal. An edited version of the suite made it to radio in 1974, becoming something of a hit, and driving sales of the album.

It’s one of the unlikeliest hit singles in history – and, granted, it only made it to #86 – because of its silliness and its complexity. Though it begins simply enough, with “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and the story-song “Nanook Rubs It” sticking to repeated bluesy chord progressions, the final two tracks, “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” and “Father O’Blivion,” are whirling workouts, making full use of mallet percussionist Ruth Underwood. It’s an audacious way to open the record, signaling that even though Apostrophe (‘) follows on from the smoother Over-Nite sessions, it’s a different beast.

But this album is still Zappa in crowd-pleasing mode. “Cosmik Debris” could have fit onto Over-Nite nicely, its horn arrangements bumping up against George Duke’s soulful piano while Zappa rips out a piercing guitar solo. The song is an assault on fortune tellers and other magical flim-flammers, its refrain (“Look here, brother, who you jammin’ with that cosmic debris”) sung by Motown-style backup vocalists. “I got troubles of my own, I said, and you can’t help me out, so take your meditations and your preparations and ram ‘em up your snout,” Zappa snarls in his low, rumbling voice.

The ramshackle nature of the album becomes clear in its second half. The brief, underwhelming “Excentrifugal Forz” takes its backing track from a Hot Rats outtake, while the six-minute title song is an instrumental jam between Zappa on guitar, Cream’s Jack Bruce on bass and Jim Gordon on drums. The finale, “Stink-Foot,” is a six-minute “Zappa dialect” blues that begins as a tale of a man unable to remove his python boot, and ends with an extended conversation between a man and a dog, all about apostrophes. It’s slick and simple and surreal, exactly the sort of thing you’d expect early-1970s Frank Zappa to do.

But sandwiched between the latter two tracks is one of Zappa’s most surprising numbers. “Uncle Remus,” co-written with George Duke, is as serious as Zappa ever allowed himself to be. It’s a look at race relations in America, similar to his “Trouble Every Day,” referencing the narrator of the old Br’er Rabbit tales. The main character of “Uncle Remus” ponders his place in American society, before heading to Beverly Hills to “knock the little jockeys off the rich people’s lawn.” Beneath this, Duke lays down a delicate and delightful electric piano bed. It’s an anomaly here, and it only lasts 2:44 before Zappa returns to singing about “imaginary diseases” and poodles. But it’s marvelous.

Apostrophe (‘) continues Zappa’s early ‘70s dalliance in the land of Strictly Commercial – it’s a well-made and likeable album, even if it’s over too quickly. If not for the success of “Yellow Snow,” however, it would likely not be considered among the composer’s most memorable works. With 24 musicians swapping in and out on tracks from three different sessions, it’s not particularly cohesive, and it certainly feels like it was rushed together. That it is still enjoyable and fun is a testament to the skill of its creator.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to buy: Yes, Virginia, it’s the 2012 Zappa/Universal release again, remastered from the original vinyl mixes. Like Over-Nite Sensation, this version of Apostrophe (‘) remains true to the sound of the record while boosting the quality. You’ll find this album offered in a budget-priced two-fer with Over-Nite, and that’s fine if you’re trying to save money, but the 2012 individual release is your best bet.

Next week: Roxy and Elsewhere.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

New Column: One Forward, Two Back

If you'd asked me last week which new album I expected to thrill me more, the new Vampire Weekend (above) or the new Boxer Rebellion, I know which one I would have picked. And I would have been dead wrong.

This week's column examines both of those albums, and finds more to love about Vampire Weekend's odd, splendid Modern Vampires of the City than about the Boxer Rebellion's stuck-in-place Promises. Head on over to the main site to read all about it, and come back here to leave a comment.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #17: Over-Nite Sensation

Whenever a brilliant artist makes a screaming left turn into a new sound or style, fans and critics start hunting for clues. They search the back catalog, looking for the roots of this transformation, so it doesn’t seem quite as jarring. The best of these mid-stream course-changes seem to arrive out of nowhere, fully formed, with no obvious hints in the artist’s previous work.

Frank Zappa performed that particular magic trick a dozen times during his career, with a confidence bordering on arrogance. (Only in his Synclavier work in the 1980s can you hear Zappa struggling to become comfortable with a new musical form.) 1973’s Over-Nite Sensation is one of the most striking changes of direction Zappa would pull off, and it arrived whole – there is no sense of evolution here, no sound in progress. It’s a complete work that sounds like nothing that came before it.

That’s fascinating, given how fully Over-Nite Sensation sets the template for all of Zappa’s subsequent rock records. When people say a song is “Zappa-esque,” they usually mean it sounds like Over-Nite Sensation, or its three successors. Those four mid-‘70s albums contain much of Zappa’s most popular material, and their mix of jazz, rock, sleaze and silliness is the overriding impression the general public has of the composer’s work.

This isn’t a case for pity, though. Yes, most of Zappa’s more serious material has gone unappreciated by the public at large, but the fact that Over-Nite Sensation has overshadowed it is not accidental. Zappa’s mid-‘70s output is a case of selling out with style, of crafting music specifically to draw a crowd and move units, and yet retaining an individualism that cannot be faked. Zappa certainly intended the music on this album to explode in popularity, and he designed it for that purpose. But even though this sounds nothing like Zappa’s previous music, it still somehow sounds like Zappa.

Still, fans of Zappa’s more complex and dense work will be stunned by the slick, shimmying, funk-fueled rock that makes up all of Over-Nite Sensation. The songs are relatively short – the longest is “Montana” at 6:37 – and the production is glossy and ready for the radio. Zappa’s thick and dirty guitar playing is the star of this show, musically speaking, along with his dazzling horn arrangements. Eleven musicians are credited, but the core of this album is Zappa, drummer Ralph Humphrey, bassist Tom Fowler and keyboardist George Duke. Together, they make for a surprisingly effective funk machine, even if Zappa spends just as much time sending up the genre as he does celebrating it.

Zappa sings most of these tunes himself, debuting his lower vocal register, a side effect of the shattered larynx he suffered when he was pushed off stage in 1971. This new tone makes Zappa sound even more sarcastic and detached than before, which he puts to great effect on “I’m the Slime” and “Dinah-Moe Humm.” Zappa enlisted cartoon voice artist Ricky Lancelotti to strain your speakers with his overblown vocals on “Fifty-Fifty” and “Zomby Woof,” and brought in Tina Turner and the Ikettes for some (uncredited) backing vocals on five songs.

Despite the multitude of musicians, Over-Nite Sensation is the closest Zappa had yet come to a superstar solo album, one in which the spotlight was firmly on him. It’s a concentrated attempt to forge a public identity beyond the Mothers of Invention, and it’s remarkably successful. Over-Nite Sensation establishes Zappa as a sex-obsessed, guitar-slinging rock star with a sneer and a love of the absurd. These qualities are as much a part of his trademark from this point forward as his distinctive facial hair.

Let’s start with “sex-obsessed.” While Zappa has certainly sung about sex before, he’s never celebrated it the way he does on Over-Nite Sensation. “Camarillo Brillo” uses clever wordplay (he rhymes “she stripped away her rancid poncho” with “we did it ‘till we were unconcho”) to tell the story of a hook-up with a tarot reader. “Dirty Love” begins vaguely enough, Zappa declaring, “I don’t need no consolation, I don’t want your reservation, I only got one destination and that’s your dirty love” before the song brings in another character who enjoys making poodles arouse her with their mouths. “Poodle bites, poodle chews it,” Zappa sings as the song fades. (From this point forward, poodle references would be a recurring part of the “conceptual continuity” tying Zappa’s records together. There’s no purpose to this continuity, other than, in Zappa’s words, to “unify the collection.”)

And then there is “Dinah-Moe Humm,” one of Zappa’s most famous songs. This one tells the long and sordid tale of a woman who bets Zappa a “$40 bill” that he cannot bring her to orgasm. After trying and failing, he ends up getting it on with Dinah-Moe’s sister, which of course arouses Dinah-Moe herself, and they all have sex together. Yes, that’s the entire song, and most of the lyrics are sung-spoken over a pulsing, relentless funk beat. It’s a riotous sendup and a genuinely sleazy tune at the same time.

If you can deal with that, you’ll have a great time listening to Over-Nite Sensation. “I’m the Slime” is a horn-drenched moment of social consciousness, Zappa railing against the all-pervasiveness of television: “Your mind is totally controlled, it has been stuffed into my mold, and you will do as you are told until the rights to you are sold…” Zappa speaks most of this song in a frightening low rumble, and punctuates it with the first of many filthy-sounding guitar solos.

“Zomby Woof” is one of Zappa’s most celebrated pieces from this period, and justifiably so. The trumpets-and-vibes riff (showcasing the amazing Ruth Underwood on mallet percussion) is constantly shifting, giving way occasionally to a thumping guitar line. Zappa and Lancelotti trade off on vocals, the latter adding ferocity to this werewolf tale. And the guitar solo is a monster, if you’ll pardon the pun. The album concludes with another favorite, “Montana,” a loping fantasia about giving it all up to go raise dental floss in the titular state. (Yes, it makes no sense. Go with it.) While the Ikettes sing the last refrain (“Moving to Montana soon…”), Kin Vassey provides the crowning touch with his impassioned “yippie-aye-o-ti-ay.”

Over-Nite Sensation also marks the debut of the “Zappa dialect,” a bizarre mix of puns, portmanteaus and misplaced verb tenses that will mark the remainder of his vocal work. “Did it till we were unconcho” is a good example, but much of “Fifty-Fifty,” hollered by Lancelotti, fits the bill: “My dandruff is loose and my breath is chartreuse, I know I ain’t cute and my voice is ka-poot…” The dialect would grow and change over time, but it has its roots here.

Yes, this album was specifically designed to shift units, and help fund some of Zappa’s more complex musical projects. But it stands as a tremendous slice of dirty funk-rock all the same, an enduring ball of fun. Songs from Over-Nite Sensation would make it into Zappa’s set lists for the next 15 years – he once remarked that he funded a home studio by singing “Dinah-Moe Humm” over and over again. It’s not just a sellout album, it’s a remarkable shift for Zappa from oddball composer to full-on rock star, as even the title indicates.

From this point on, Zappa’s denser compositions would sit side-by-side with this more gut-level, prurient rock. It’s this very dichotomy that prevents him from being taken seriously as a composer, despite his work with the London Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Modern, and even the Synclavier. But in many ways, it’s also this dichotomy that provided many rock fans with their first taste of orchestral music – it’s a short hop from “Dinah-Moe Humm” to the orchestral take of “Duke of Prunes” to “Mo and Herb’s Vacation,” and Zappa provided that pathway. Heck, the Lather box set is almost a complete musical education in itself.

As a gateway drug, Over-Nite Sensation is exactly what it should be. Zappa would mine this particular style for years, edging into more complex arrangements and then pulling back, allowing his audience to catch up. It’s perhaps the most musically generous era of his career, the most immediately likeable. Over-Nite Sensation (and its twin, 1974’s Apostrophe) set the template for Zappa’s more accessible music, but it’s a fun document all on its own. It’s a major turning point in Zappa’s career, for better and for worse. But mostly for better.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: Yes, again, it’s the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster, which uses the original 1973 analog master as its source. The sound is crisp and slick, as it should be, while the 1990s Ryko version sounds muted in comparison. The two-fer edition that pairs this album with Apostrophe is similarly muffled.

Next week: Apostrophe.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

New Column: Living for This

In this week's column, I list off my 10 most anticipated albums of the summer - everything from next week's Boxer Rebellion (above) and Vampire Weekend records to August's just-announced new Travis. And I'm curious about your lists. What are you most looking forward to this summer? And why?

I also take a look at anticipation gone wrong, in the form of the dreadful new Phoenix album, Bankrupt. As always, head to the main site to read the column, and then pop back here to leave me a comment.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #16: The Grand Wazoo

There are a lot of reasons to admire Frank Zappa as a composer, but here are three that sum up much of the acclaim:

1.     The sheer amount of music he produced.
2.     The sheer quality of most of that music.
3.     The speed at which he produced it.
Zappa wrote a ton of music, more than would seem humanly possible in the short amount of time he had. And he rarely relied on simple structures or progressions. More often than not, Zappa's music was intensely difficult to perform, and only the best musicians could keep up with both his prodigious output and his demand for accuracy and excellence.

The early 1970s were a particularly prolific time for Zappa, and he assembled some of his most talented ensembles to play his new music. That streak truly begins on The Grand Wazoo, the second of Zappa’s “wheelchair albums.” Released in December of 1972, this album builds upon the template established on Waka/Jawaka. Had he continued down this path, The Grand Wazoo would have been a fascinating signpost to the future.

As it is, this is merely the best of Zappa’s two mostly-instrumental jazz-rock works. There are 25 musicians on this album, and unlike its predecessor, it doesn’t rely on extended jams. (There are a few, but they aren’t the backbone of the album.) The Grand Wazoo is heavily structured music, with intricate arrangements – blocky horn charts, thick piano lines, and a virtual web of cascading melodies and countermelodies.

In some ways, this is orchestral music with jazz instruments. The opening title track stacks trumpets and trombones atop one another – it begins with a minute of groovy guitar playing, but as soon as the horns kick in, Zappa shows off his skill as an arranger. The brass lines weave in and around solos from trumpeter Sal Marquez and trombonist Bill Byers, with Zappa, bassist Erroneous and drummer Aynsley Dunbar providing the shifting backdrop. The song lasts 13 minutes, but it never slips into jam-band tedium.

“For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers)” is the one song with vocals, by Janet Neville-Ferguson and Sal Marquez, but it dispenses with relating the true-life tale of cover artist Cal Schenkel’s encounter with a pair of strangers, and slips into a surreal mass of bizarre tones. During this time, Zappa was also composing one of his masterpieces, “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary,” and portions of the “New Brown Clouds” section of that piece crop up here.

“For Calvin” is the album’s one moment of slightly dissonant oddness. From there, the record showcases some of Zappa’s most effervescent melodies. The second side of The Grand Wazoo practically erupts with joy. It purports to tell the story (written out in the liner notes) of an illusory replica of ancient Rome presided over by Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, in which questions – people who do not like music – are marched into an arena and made to fight for their lives.

But this is all secondary, as are all of Zappa’s programmatic explanations. All you need to know is that the brief “Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus” is a complex, brassy delight, “Eat That Question” is a showpiece for pianist George Duke (and contains one of Zappa’s best jazzy riffs), and closer “Blessed Relief” is one of the few moments of pure beauty in the composer’s catalog. It feels like the theme to a 1970s television show, the muted trumpets playing a wistful melody. Zappa here was not concerned with anything but writing the prettiest song he could, and it would be a while before he tapped this particular skill again.

In fact, Zappa would never again immerse himself in jazz the way he did during his period of limited mobility in 1972. He ended up touring with these large ensembles, first with a massive group called the Grand Wazoo, and then with a smaller one called the Petit Wazoo. (Both were captured for posterity, and live albums were released after Zappa’s death.) But immediately following those tours, Zappa began following a different path, one that led him to his greatest commercial success, and he abandoned this musical trail. Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo are all that remain, and are often forgotten between the 1960s Mothers and the more popular sleaze-rock that followed. Both are little gems, and The Grand Wazoo is one of Zappa’s finest works. It is not to be missed.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: Once again, the Zappa family came through with the 2013 Zappa/Universal remaster. It uses the original 1972 analog mix, and sounds wonderful.

Next week: Over-Nite Sensation.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

New Column: The Patient English

I'll admit it, I'm pretty proud of that title. This week's column is about growing up and calming down, a common topic around my house as I careen towards 40. Both Billy  Bragg (above), one of the original angry young men, and his disciple Frank Turner have been going through the same thing, and on their new albums, they both exhibit a newfound serenity, a perspective that only age can bring. Both albums are terrific, by the way. You can read all about them at the main site here, and come back here to leave me a comment.