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.

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