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.

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