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.

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