Monday, July 29, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #26: Sheik Yerbouti

While Warner Bros. was in the middle of grudgingly releasing the dense, difficult Lather material, Zappa was busy setting up his own independent label, Zappa Records. And what’s the first thing he releases on that label? An album Warner’s would have killed to call their own, one that has gone on to be Zappa’s best-selling record around the world.

Sheik Yerbouti is the apex of Zappa’s ‘70s sleaze-rock style, the culmination of every sex-obsessed, guitar-heavy thread he’s woven since Fillmore East – June 1971. It’s a huge double record, running to 72 minutes, and it is entirely comprised of humorous rock tunes and guitar jams. The late ‘70s band is here in full force, including Adrian Belew on guitars, Patrick O’Hearn on bass, Terry Bozzio on drums and Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf on keyboards. The sound is slick and radio-ready, the songs catchy and fun, the playing tight and joyous.

It is, in essence, the hit record Warner Bros. wanted from Zappa, and he cannily saved it for himself. This is the album on which Zappa’s social consciousness goes completely to sleep, the one on which he completes his transformation into a smirking jackass. But it’s so much fun that its frat-boy antics and sense of self-satisfaction can largely be forgiven. This record just wants to rock out, and it does so convincingly. Even its title works to that end – Sheik Yerbouti is pronounced “shake your booty.”

Most of the basic tracks for this album were recorded live, in a variety of venues in 1977 and 1978. It’s not a true live album, since all of this material was overdubbed and punched up in the studio, but it retains that on-stage energy for its whole running time. Zappa, Belew, Bozzio and O’Hearn make for a crushing rock combo, especially on pummeling numbers like “I’m So Cute” and “Trying to Grow a Chin.” Belew sings lead on the driving “City of Tiny Lites,” while Bozzio and O’Hearn get a spotlight piece to themselves – “Rubber Shirt” melds a bass solo and a drum improv, recorded separately.

Zappa made extensive use of his cut-and-paste technique on Sheik Yerbouti as well, placing live recordings in new contexts to create something completely other. “Rat Tomago” is a guitar solo plucked from a February 1978 performance of “The Torture Never Stops,” while “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango” is a jam spliced out of a rendition of “The Little House I Used to Live In,” from the same concert. The 12-minute closer “Yo Mama” was assembled in the studio – the vocal sections were recorded live on Feb. 28, 1978, while the extended guitar solo was recorded three days earlier, with parts of the backing track laid to tape a month before. It all sounds seamless on the record.

But none of those musical achievements explain the album’s popularity. Sheik Yerbouti’s calling card, its raison d’etre, is its sniggering locker room humor. The album begins with “I Have Been In You,” a sexually driven parody of Peter Frampton’s “I’m In You” that contains the line “There ain’t no time to wash your stinky hand, go ahead and roll over, I’m going in you again.” It sets the tone. “Broken Hearts are for Assholes” starts off as an inspirational number, but ends with Zappa repeating, “Don’t fool yourself, girl, it’s going right up your poop chute.” “Jones Crusher” is exactly what it sounds like – a song about a woman who “can push, she can shove ‘till it’s just a nub.”

Most of this is harmless, stupid fun. “Dancin’ Fool” is one of Zappa’s biggest hits – it was even nominated for a Grammy for best male vocal, though it didn't win. A semi-sequel to “Disco Boy,” this catchy number is about disco fans who cannot help but dance, despite their lack of ability. (“One of my legs is shorter than the other and both of my feet’s too long,” Zappa sings, referencing his recovery from being pushed off the stage in 1971.) “Baby Snakes” is about penises, of course, but it’s so obvious that it’s actually funny. And “Wild Love,” the record’s most complex composition, is another in a long line of observational pieces casting a jaded eye on youthful relationships.

But Zappa does cross the line of good taste twice on this album, and your ability to roll with these lyrics will determine your feelings about Sheik Yerbouti. The first is, ironically, the album’s biggest hit around the world. In “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” Zappa details the sexual escapades of an all-American kid (“I got a cheerleader here wants to help with my paper, let her do all the work and maybe later I’ll rape her”) who runs afoul of “women’s liberation” when he has sex with a “dyke by the name of Freddie.” This encounter pushes Bobby into sadomasochism (“I can take about an hour on the tower of power, so long as I gets a little golden shower”), and he ends up a “sexual spastic.” “Oh God, I am the American dream, with a spindle up my butt ‘till it makes me scream…”

The song’s music draws on Zappa’s love of ‘50s balladry, with some synth cheese ladled on, and his point is the same as it’s been since Absolutely Free – beneath the veneer of respectability lies depravity. But he’s never made that point with less artfulness than he does here.

“Jewish Princess,” the other problematic number, suffers from the same lack of subtlety. It is what it sounds like – a song detailing every heinous cultural stereotype of Jewish women (and inventing a few more), with a smirk and a smack on the ass. Zappa’s dream princess has “overworked gums, and squeaks when she comes,” she “don’t know shit about cooking and is arrogant looking,” has a “pre-moistened dumper,” “titanic tits and sandblasted zits,” and a “garlic aroma that could level Tacoma.” She can even be poor, he says, “so long as she does it with four on the floor.”

It’s an impossible song to defend. (Is there any excuse for the line “I just want a Yemenite hole”?) The Anti-Defamation League criticized Zappa for this song, and he refused them an apology, saying, “Unlike the unicorn, such creatures do exist, and deserve to be commemorated with their own special opus.” There’s no question Zappa has the right to pen a song like this. The question should be whether the listener wants to spend time in the company of someone who would pen a song like this.

This will not be the last time Zappa pushes this particular envelope. Sheik Yerbouti is one of his most cynical records, aimed at the funny bones of frat boys and primed to expand on the radio success of Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (‘). In that light, the album’s success is a fait accompli, but it spurred him to continue down this path on albums like Joe’s Garage. Those who are here for the brilliant accomplishments of one of America’s most prolific composers may find this lyrical trend troubling, and perhaps detrimental to their appreciation of the musical bounty on offer.

After all that, it seems odd to say that Sheik Yerbouti is one of Zappa’s very best rock records, but it is. For a double album, it is remarkably fluid, and its energy never flags. The band’s playing is remarkable, especially considering the live setting, and Zappa’s guitar solos are as striking as ever, particularly the extended one in “Yo Mama.” This album creates a further division between Zappa’s rock and compositional sides, mainly by being just about the absolute pinnacle of the former. If Zappa has been a somewhat hesitant rock god in the past, this is the album on which he jumps in with both of his too-long feet.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: Hands down, the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster. The previous version on Ryko was awful – compressed, thin, full of audio mistakes. This new version reverts to the vinyl master, meaning it also restores two full minutes of “I’m So Cute,” and the sound quality is magnificent.

Next week: Orchestral Favorites.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyers Guide #25: Sleep Dirt

Released in January of 1979, Sleep Dirt is the third of the albums reconfigured from the Lather material, and the second released without Zappa’s participation. It is here that the question of whether to experience these songs as part of the intended whole or as they appear here truly rears its head. Because Sleep Dirt is one of the strangest and most off-kilter albums in Zappa’s vast catalogue, and is the only one of these Lather products that feels incomplete on its own.

If all of the complex epics landed on Studio Tan, then all of the chamber-rock experiments and guitar pieces ended up on Sleep Dirt. As originally released, this was Zappa’s first all-instrumental record. Zappa intended to call this Hot Rats III, following up on Hot Rats and Waka/Jawaka, but Warner Bros. changed the title, a further violation of their contract with him. Five of these seven songs were intended for Lather, with “Time is Money” and “Sleep Dirt” arising from the same sessions.

And what strange sessions they were. The album is evenly divided between the guitar workouts that bookend it and the chamber-rock pieces in the middle, and even those don’t sit very comfortably next to each other. Three of the chamber pieces – “Flambay,” “Spider of Destiny” and “Time is Money” – have their origins in an utterly bizarre musical called Hunchentoot, about an evil queen and her giant spider and their plans to invade Earth. (Seriously, he wrote the whole musical, for 22-piece orchestra and 10-piece choir. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was never staged.)

These three pieces have full lyrics, but appear here in instrumental versions. “Flambay” has a lounge feel to it, accented by Ruth Underwood’s always-marvelous mallet percussion, while the others possess a winking rock-operatic bombast. This is only heightened by the presence of “Regyptian Strut,” the full-on mock anthem at track four. This song led off Lather, setting the tone nicely – it impressively balances its sense of its own cheesiness with a go-for-broke horn arrangement that genuinely feels inspiring.

If the Hunchentoot songs sound incomplete, though, it’s because they are. When preparing Sleep Dirt for its CD reissue in 1991, Zappa attempted to rectify this. He enlisted then-current band member Chad Wackerman to replace all the drum tracks, and hired full-throated singer Thana Harris to flesh out these songs with their original lyrics. Here, then, were the cosmic tales of spider sex and world conquest, slotting in nicely over the instrumental takes many had been familiar with for more than 10 years.

This was a controversial decision, and one of its lasting effects is to render one unable to hear the instrumental versions without filling in the lyrics in one’s head. The Zappa Family has returned to the original wordless version of Sleep Dirt for the new remasters, making the vocal versions of these songs more of a curiosity than anything. But the question remains whether Zappa intended these to stand as instrumental pieces, or if he considered the vocal takes the “finished” ones.

That simply adds to the convoluted nature of this beast. Much more simple are the guitar pieces at its edges, all three of which offer straightforward pleasures. While Chester Thompson provides stately drum work on the chamber pieces, Terry Bozzio steps back in for the six-string monsters. The album opens with “Filthy Habits,” a loping, repetitive number in 10/8 over which Zappa slathers his ugliest, most abrasive guitar tone for seven and a half minutes. It’s wicked, but wonderful.

The final tracks find Zappa in acoustic mode. The title song is a delicate duet with James “Bird Legs” Youngman, both musicians on acoustic guitar, and Zappa keeps in the studio chatter between the two for a looser feel. The finale, the 13-minute “The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution,” finds Frank soloing on electric over a thunderous jam between himself on acoustic, Bozzio on drums and Patrick O’Hearn on bass. Zappa’s unpredictable playing here is a marvel to behold, and he keeps the energy high and his bandmates on their toes. It’s a fabulous piece of work, midway between composition and improvisation. This song is about five minutes longer on Sleep Dirt than it is on Lather, if you needed another reason to be conflicted over which to buy.

Despite that, Sleep Dirt as a whole doesn’t seem to work as well as it could. It’s the only one of these Lather albums that is clearly derived from a larger body of work, and it feels more like a bridge between more substantial pieces. (The songs on Sleep Dirt served that function on Lather as well, save for the two longer guitar epics.) It’s an impressive album, musically speaking, but it doesn’t stand tall on its own. Completists will want both this and Lather, but Sleep Dirt is the only one of the reconfigured albums that doesn’t plead its case quite strongly enough.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to buy: Hoo boy. The 1991 CD release, as mentioned earlier, contains new drum and vocal tracks on the Hunchentoot songs, and once you hear those, the instrumental versions on the original release will sound incomplete to your ears. The 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster reverts to the instrumental analog mix from 1979, and it sounds fantastic. But both versions are worth hearing. Sleep Dirt is the only place to get the title song and the extended “The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution,” both of which appear on both CD versions. It comes down to whether you are a purist, or whether multiple visions of the same song will work for you.

Next week: Sheik Yerbouti.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #24: Studio Tan

With the proposed four-record set Lather off the table, Frank Zappa reluctantly cut the nearly three hours of new material into four separate records, adding additional pieces as he went. Those records are Zappa in New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites, with a couple Lather songs making their way onto Sheik Yerbouti as well. And while Zappa certainly compiled these albums, he had nothing to do with the latter three’s design or release, having washed his hands of the whole mess after Warner Bros. edited Zappa in New York without his consent.

So here we have three albums created under duress, counter to the composer’s wishes, with minimal liner notes and unapproved artwork. Why should anyone buy these when Lather exists in all its 3-CD glory, more closely reflecting the intentions of its author? Surely for the casual listener, simply purchasing Lather is enough – it contains the lion’s share of this material, and all of the essential tracks.

That is certainly a fair argument, but casual listeners should not start with the Lather sessions anyway. This is music for the fully initiated, complex and difficult stuff that assumes a familiarity with Zappa’s influences and style. And if you possess that familiarity, you know that recombination and re-contextualization are vital parts of Zappa’s aesthetic. Given the choice, Zappa himself opted to re-release these albums in 1991, rather than simply put out Lather as he originally intended. Hearing these songs in different edits and different orders changes their meaning, alters their impact.

The way Zappa grouped the songs together on these three albums makes sense. Studio Tan contains the large-scale complex rock-orchestra pieces, Sleep Dirt the smaller chamber-rock tunes, and Orchestral Favorites the works for string and horn ensembles. It’s also indicative of a shift in Zappa’s mindset. Lather is the last all-inclusive Zappa album – future releases would stick to a theme or style throughout, be it guitar rock, orchestral scores or Synclavier compositions. The thrill of Lather is that all these things sit next to one another. The reality of the re-cut albums is that Zappa’s music will from this point on be placed into clearly labeled boxes.

What that means is that there is precious little on Studio Tan to leaven the almost overwhelming complexity on display here. The true revelation of this material is that, at the same time Zappa was churning out his sleaziest and simplest rock music, he was also hard at work on synapse-overloading works of dazzling difficulty. Of the four tracks on Studio Tan, only “Lemme Take You to the Beach” offers a respite, and that’s as complex a surf-pop tune as you’d ever want to hear.

Studio Tan opens with “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary,” which occupied the closing slot on Lather. Those are really the only places a song like this could go – you have to start with it, or end with it. “Greggery Peccary” is a 20-minute programmatic piece that took 32 musicians to realize, an almost inhumanly difficult composition that blurs the lines between progressive rock, cartoon music and concertos. Zappa himself called it a masterpiece, and it’s difficult to argue.

It's also remarkably silly, which may have obscured its brilliance. “Greggery Peccary” tells the story of a “nocturnal gregarious wild swine” who works in an office inventing new trends. One day, he creates the calendar, grouping time into days, weeks and years, and allowing people to determine their own ages. (Hence the pun in his name, riffing on both Gregory Peck and Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced the Gregorian calendar.) This is frowned upon, and Greggery is attacked by a group of “hunchmen,” who chase him up the slope of Billy the Mountain, who last appeared on 1972’s Just Another Band from L.A.

After the Hunchmen hold a love-in and drop from exhaustion, Billy laughs out loud, causing clouds of dust to arise. Greggery is puzzled by these clouds, and rushes off to ask Quentin Robert DeNameland, the “greatest living philostopher known to mankind,” what they mean. Quentin notes that time is passing quickly, and the eons are closing, and then demands payment, which fails to satisfy Greggery. The end.

Zappa narrates this tale, electronically pitch-shifting his voice to play Greggery. It’s tempting to simply pay attention to the story, relegating the music to the background, but if you do that, you’ll miss out on some of the most dexterous composition and playing in Zappa’s catalog. “Greggery” is a semi-sequel to “Billy the Mountain,” but builds on that template, giving the large string and horn section a workout over an ever-changing bed of progressive orchestral rock that sounds for all the world like the soundtrack to a particularly demented Warner Bros. animation. 

This piece is also a motherlode of conceptual continuity. In addition to Billy the Mountain’s appearance, the company Greggery works for is called Big Swifty and Associates, and the music contains references to several prior Zappa works. There’s even another quick reference to “Louie Louie,” which has gone far beyond a running gag by this point and become a thematic signifier. Many of the musical motifs date back to the Grand Wazoo days, particularly the concluding “New Brown Clouds” section, parts of which appear in “For Calvin” off that album. This song contains so many references to the past because it literally took years to complete – recording began in 1972, and stretched until 1975.

That it all wraps together and doesn’t fly off into the ether is remarkable. In many ways, this is Zappa’s final thesis on the compatibility of rock and orchestral music – the precisely arranged horn charts dissolve into George Duke’s piano pounding, and the subtle yet powerful drumming keeps even the string-laden flights of fancy on track. It’s an absurdly accomplished piece of work, and also the last time Zappa would attempt anything that smashed together his chosen genres so effectively.

The remainder of Studio Tan can feel like bonus tracks after “Greggery Peccary,” but there’s plenty here to sink one’s teeth into. “Lemme Take You to the Beach” revisits and updates Zappa’s fondness for ‘50s rock, with Davey Moire on high-pitched vocals and enough alien-sounding synthesizers to move this from the realm of nostalgia. “Revised Music for Guitar and Low-Budget Orchestra” does what it says on the tin – it’s seven minutes of beautifully composed, endlessly renewing instrumental music, performed on clean-toned six-string and a small chamber ensemble. After a few minutes of constant motion, it settles into a two-chord vamp a la “Inca Roads,” over which Zappa solos, doubled by the horns.

Closing piece “RDNZL” is similar, but much more energetic. Zappa’s little big band tears through this eight-minute monstrosity, pausing in the middle for another “Inca Roads”-style solo before getting back to complex progressive rock. The album ends as it began – creating colorful movies for your ears, filled to the brim with some of the most deft and precise playing you’ll ever hear. You’ll get all four of these pieces whether you buy Lather or Studio Tan, but hearing them all together, one right after the other, is a stunning testament to Zappa’s undeniable skill as a composer. If you need convincing of that fact, these 40 minutes will undoubtedly do the trick.

Rating: Essential, unless you buy Lather.

Which version to buy: While the 1991 CD didn’t sound bad, the 2012 remaster sounds even better. It returns to the 1978 analog mix as its source, and brings out hidden dimensions in this layered work.

Next week: Sleep Dirt.