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.

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