Monday, August 19, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #28: Joe's Garage Act I

1979 was a banner year for Frank Zappa fans. Not only did Warner Bros. release the final two Lather records, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites, but Frank himself issued a double album (Sheik Yerbouti) and this, a triple-album rock opera. Act I of Joe’s Garage was released in September 1979, with the double-disc Acts II and III following in November.

That’s a lot of material, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that there would be some dip in quality towards the end. But Joe’s Garage is one of Zappa’s most extraordinary recordings. It's two hours long, tells a (mostly) coherent story, makes some fierce political points, introduces several musicians who would be with the composer throughout the early ‘80s, offers yet more proof that Zappa was one of the best guitarists who ever lived, and even packs an emotional wallop. Joe’s Garage is confident and consistent, balancing Zappa’s cranky-old-man anger with snarky fun. 

Joe’s Garage is a story about a world in which music has been outlawed. Ever the reactionary, Zappa saw this as a definite possibility, as detailed in his liner notes. The world of Joe’s Garage lives under a system of total criminalization, an attempt to make everyone the same in the eyes of the law. With the understanding that most people are too lazy to commit real crimes, the lawmakers of this world have banned music as a way of tricking people into becoming criminals.

It’s convoluted, but regardless of the logical hoops, the result is a world without music. The album, then, takes the form of one of those cheesy educational filmstrips, the ones that attempted to keep kids from drinking and doing drugs by showing cautionary tales. It’s narrated by the Central Scrutinizer, a shadowy, whispering figure (who quite resembles the voice threatening to erase all of the Zappa masters on We’re Only In It for the Money), and it traces the story of Joe, a wannabe musician who picks up a guitar and, very quickly, descends into a life of sexual depravity.

For once, Zappa has a conceptual framework on which to hang his own fascination with sex in all its forms. Joe’s Garage is filthy – it includes songs about sex with machines, venereal diseases, prison rape, and of course, groupies. And though it’s clear that the songs came first, and the concept stitching them together was written later, the notion that the Central Scrutinizer would want to show these acts in as much finger-wagging detail as possible helps to excuse Zappa’s excesses this time. It still can get a bit much, particularly on songs like “Stick It Out” and “Sy Borg,” but it makes sense for the story.

Musically, Joe’s Garage is the slickest rock album Zappa had ever produced. Everything here sounds mixed for radio, even songs like “Crew Slut,” which could not possibly have been radio hits. Zappa’s late-‘70s band is in the midst of morphing into his early-‘80s band, with guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, keyboardist Peter Wolf, bassist Arthur Barrow and phenomenal drummer Vinnie Colaiuta all making their debuts.

But perhaps the most important debut belongs to singer Ike Willis, Zappa’s new partner in crime. Willis has a tremendous, soulful voice, and a sense of humor that matches Zappa’s – he threw himself into every crazy, perverse idea Zappa threw at him, and by the time of 1984’s Thing-Fish, he was a full collaborator, urging Zappa to push things further. Willis adds immeasurably to Joe’s Garage, starting with its title track, but truly shining on the mournful “Outside Now,” which closes Act II.

But listeners in September 1979 had no idea what awaited them two months hence. In Act I, Joe barely leaves his garage. The Scrutinizer begins Joe’s tale with his first musical infraction – creating a band and jamming with them. “Joe’s Garage” is a determinedly simple affair, based around a typical three-chord rock progression symbolizing the uncomplicated joy of music. The signature two-note guitar line appears here in a joyous rendition, as Joe and his band attract the attention of the girls in the neighborhood, and one angry mother. Then the SWAT team moves in.

“Naturally, we went easy on him,” the Scrutinizer says, and Joe is let off with a warning. He moves into “church-oriented social activities,” and here we get “Catholic Girls,” Zappa’s rejoinder to the Anti-Defamation League for criticizing “Jewish Princess” earlier in the year. Here Zappa delivers a stream of clichés and stereotypes about suburban Catholics, which hewed much closer to his own demographic, as a way of showing that everyone should laugh at themselves. (Listen for the “Jewish Princess” riff near the end, driving the point home.)

“Catholic Girls” introduces Mary, the female lead of Joe’s Garage, voiced by Dale Bozzio, wife of Terry. Mary is one of those Catholic girls “learning to blow all the Catholic boys,” with “a tongue like a cow, she can make you go ‘wow’.” The action follows Mary from here, as she falls in with a band, then participates in a wet t-shirt contest to afford bus fare. Both of these songs – “Crew Slut” and “Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt” – are breezy yet sneering affairs, and Zappa’s turn as the host of the wet t-shirt contest is both creepy and hilarious. “Our prize tonight is fifty American dollars to the girl with the most exciting mammalian protuberances…”

Having made his point with Mary – that music leads to sexual excess – the Scrutinizer turns back to Joe, who has contracted a venereal disease from a local girl named Lucille. “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee” is a song only Zappa would write, full of mock drama and a dazzling orchestral interlude. Willis sings his heart out on this one, particularly at the end – the final refrain must be heard to be believed. The album ends on a cliffhanger. After a slow and slinky cover of Jeff Simmons’ “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up,” the Scrutinizer tells us that Joe, his mind in a fog, begins giving money to L. Ron Hoover and the First Church of Appliantology.

The story would pick up on Act II three months later. (Half of Act II is about robot sex, the other half about prison sex.) As a standalone album, Joe’s Garage Act I is naturally incomplete, but there’s enough here to satisfy fans of Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti material. The rip-snorting guitar-rock is toned down by many orders of magnitude here – if not for the sex-obsessed lyrics, much of this would fit nicely on classic rock radio. Zappa does take one extended solo, during “On the Bus,” but largely leaves the guitar heroics for Act III. This first act is a shined-up, glittering little record, with few hints of the depravity, anger and sadness that awaited in November. 

Rating: Essential. 

Which version to buy: Joe’s Garage is only available as a two-CD set merging all three acts. The 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster sounds crisper and clearer than previous versions, but this album has always sounded good. 

Next week: Joe’s Garage Acts II and III.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #27: Orchestral Favorites

And so we come to the final of the four Lather albums. This one, as the title indicates, includes the pieces Zappa wrote for a large ensemble – in this case, the 37-piece Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra. Separated from Lather and clumped together, these pieces make up Zappa’s second all-instrumental album, and third with an orchestra, after Lumpy Gravy and 200 Motels. It also sports the ugliest of Gary Panter’s unauthorized covers.

Orchestral Favorites contains three tracks intended for Lather, and two constructed from the themes of 200 Motels. Both the brief-yet-lovely “Naval Aviation in Art?” and the dark and dissonant “Pedro’s Dowry” are full-on orchestral scores. The other three represent Zappa’s last attempt to combine his rock club and concert hall sides, with Terry Bozzio on drums, Dave Parlato on bass, and a guitar solo in “Duke of Prunes” by the man himself.

This is significant, since Orchestral Favorites is genuinely – if unintentionally – the end of an era. Not only is it the last time that Zappa would combine these two different sides of his musical personality, but Lather, in its intended form, represents the last time Zappa’s low and high arts would share disc space. On Lather, the three orchestral pieces bump up next to guitar solos, live jazz jams and horn-driven rock anthems, and share the stage with the likes of “Titties and Beer” and “Punky’s Whips.” The inference is that this is all music to Zappa, with no boundaries between them.

But the mandate that he cut up this material into four themed releases seems to have had a ripple effect on the remainder of Zappa’s career. From this point on, the orchestral works would not incorporate any rock elements, and would appear on their own – the London Symphony Orchestra albums, The Perfect Stranger, The Yellow Shark. Zappa would begin composing this same kind of music on the Synclavier in the early ‘80s, and those pieces would also appear separate from his work with rock and jazz bands.

So as Zappa’s final statement on the merging of guitars, drums and strings, Orchestral Favorites is a fine record. “Strictly Genteel” is stately, stripped of its lyrics, while the first rendition of “Bogus Pomp” unveils the sweeping melodies behind the surreal tuna sandwich imagery of 200 Motels. Similarly, this take of “Duke of Prunes” captures the beauty of the tune, miles away from the insanity of Absolutely Free. Bozzio’s drumming sometimes plods, but he fits in well with the large ensemble, in a mix that favors him.

Still, for an artist who began his career bulldozing the barriers between musical forms, the themed releases from this point forward are somewhat disheartening. Zappa would go on to tremendous achievements as an orchestral composer, and fascinating explorations of the guitar in a rock setting. Enjoy this as a final, successful argument for Zappa’s unified field theory that brought both of those sides together. 

Rating: Worthy. 

Which version to buy: Doesn’t matter. Every CD edition, including the 2012 Zappa/Universal release, is the same, and they all sound fine.

Next week: Joe’s Garage Act I.