Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #31: Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar

Frank Zappa is routinely considered one of the finest guitar players to have ever lived. He ranked #22 on Rolling Stone’s 2011 list of 100 greatest guitarists. Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines have done dozens of cover features on Zappa, with the former devoting an entire issue to him after his death. Revered players like Steve Vai bow down at Zappa’s feet, and Frank’s son Dweezil had to, in his words, re-learn how to play guitar before taking his father’s music out on the road with Zappa Plays Zappa.

And yet, an argument can be made that Zappa is actually underrated as a guitarist.

Certainly that was the case in May of 1981, when Zappa’s own Barking Pumpkin Records issued three albums designed to showcase his guitar solos. They were blessed with particularly Zappa-esque names: Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More and Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. Each ran to about 35 minutes, and all three were only obtainable through mail order.

But what should have remained niche records, interesting only to a select few, became the ultimate expression of Zappa the guitar player. It was on these albums that the uninitiated could finally hear just how good the man was. His playing runs the gamut from fierce and dirty to sublimely beautiful, but the element of his work that is most on display here is his unpredictability. Zappa rarely played anything the way one would expect a guitarist to play it. His spontaneous guitar sculptures are continuously surprising, even for people who don’t play the instrument.

It’s a style that takes some getting used to. Zappa could hear complex polyrhythms in his head, and would often play to those, as opposed to blending in with the work of his backing musicians. This leads to accents falling on the “wrong” notes, or some notes holding longer than you would expect, and if you are used to the Eddie Van Halen school of rock guitar playing, this may sound wrong to your ears at first. But after repeated listens, it becomes clear that Zappa is effectively rewriting the rulebook for guitar solos.

These three albums are comprised almost entirely of live guitar solos, taken from extended renditions of other songs. The seven tracks on the first album, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, were mostly recorded on the 1979-1980 tour, which means the phenomenal rhythm section of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Arthur Barrow is in full effect here. Half the fun of listening to this album is hearing what these two players are doing behind Zappa’s blistering lead work – they’re following, making decisions based on the lead playing, but they’re creating their own kind of musical alchemy as well.

Shut Up begins with some of Zappa’s fiercest playing, on the complex “Five-Five-FIVE” and the downright nasty “Hog Heaven.” The title track, taken from a February 1979 performance of “Inca Roads,” is Zappa’s first chance to stretch out here – the solo runs for 5:38, and never drags, Zappa making endlessly fascinating choices and the band switching gears behind him, totally in sync. The solo is surprisingly melodic, swooping back and forth over the two-note “Inca Roads” vamp.

Zappa unveils a clean guitar tone for “While You Were Out,” one of the few studio tracks in the three-album collection. The drums were recorded in early 1979, the two guitars (Zappa and Warren Cucurullo) improvised over them in late 1979. And yet, if you didn’t know it, you’d swear you were listening to another live jam session. Zappa’s peaceful tone offers an oasis between the louder live tracks, and showcase another, more placid side to his playing.

“Treacherous Cretins” and “Heavy Duty Judy” are their own distinct songs. The former finds Zappa soloing over a slow, repeated keyboard line and some unbelievable drumming from Coliauta, the latter is an explosion of guitar notes over a slinky horn figure. (This song will be resurrected for the 1988 tour, with even more trumpets and saxophones.) The album ends with a seven-minute blues jam called “Soup ‘n Old Clothes,” taken from a December 1980 performance of “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” As has been seen previously, Zappa played the blues fluently, and at the same time, like no one else.

If guitar solos do not excite you, this should not be your first Zappa purchase. But give this first volume a listen – it’s only 35 minutes – and it could redefine your idea of rock guitar playing. Zappa was just that good.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: The three Shut Up albums have been packaged together on CD since 1986, when they were first issued as a 2-CD set. The 1995 edition restored the three-LPs-in-a-box feel by separating each album onto its own disc, but this made the entire endeavor more expensive. Your best and most economical bet is the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster, which sounds better than any other edition, and reverts to the 2-CD format.

Next week: Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #30: Tinseltown Rebellion

After unleashing five albums (two of them doubles) in 1979, Frank Zappa took all of 1980 off as a recording artist. He continued to tour relentlessly, and he funneled much of his Sheik Yerbouti and Joe’s Garage money into his new home studio, which he ironically called the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, after the dead-end job Joe took in “A Little Green Rosetta.”

 The first project he intended to assemble at UMRK was a triple live album called Warts and All, which soon collapsed under its own weight. It became Crush All Boxes, a combination live/studio album, and that slowly morphed into Tinseltown Rebellion (although material intended for the aborted projects would appear on the next few Zappa releases). In fact, the cover of Tinseltown Rebellion is the same one intended for Crush All Boxes, and you can still make out the original title behind the new one.

Released in May of 1981, Tinseltown captures Zappa’s early-‘80s band on their 1979-1980 U.S. tour. This band is Zappa’s most reliant on synthesizers, with three keyboard players – Tommy Mars, Peter Wolf and Bob Harris – trading off here. It also, significantly, features the debut of guitarist Steve Vai, a Zappa disciple who would stay through 1984, and then would go on to a solo career that mainly serves as a tribute to Frank. Vai is an extraordinary player and composer in his own right, but his time with Zappa forever colored what he does.

This tour was also the last for drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who plays on all but two of the songs on Tinseltown. Coliauta is one of the finest drummers Zappa ever employed, although his talents are more evident on Joe’s Garage and the Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar series. The band also includes longtime Zappa collaborator Ray White, singer Ike Willis, guitarists Warren Cuccurullo and Denny Walley, bassist Arthur Barrow and percussionist Ed Mann.

Tinseltown begins with two studio-enhanced tracks, “Fine Girl” and the nine-minute “Easy Meat,” which introduce new drummer David Logeman. It is in the instrumental midsection of “Easy Meat” where the newfound emphasis on synthesizers truly becomes apparent, with Tommy Mars overdubbing blatting keyboard horns atop one another. The effect is intricate, but dated, though Zappa’s guitar solo saves things.

The following 13 tracks are entirely live, with no overdubs, and they offer a strong glimpse of Zappa’s sound and material during this period. The music is slightly more plastic, befitting the era to come, and the songs performed with a wink. The album contains a healthy mix of new songs and reinvented old tunes, including “Love of My Life,” “I Ain’t Got No Heart” and a raucous run through “Tell Me You Love Me.” Hearing the thick synthesizers crash through songs from Freak Out and Cruising With Ruben and the Jets is fascinating, even if it feels a little disrespectful, as is the keyboard-heavy take on “Peaches in Regalia” that closes the album.

The new songs continue Zappa’s obsession with sexual and romantic foibles, and your enjoyment of this album will likely depend on your reaction to the lyrics. Zappa has not quite entered his bitter old man phase, but he can see it from here, and his words are becoming even more sarcastic and sneering. Opener “Fine Girl” emphasizes its subject’s willingness to do the dishes and laundry, before she “go down in the evening, all the way down.” “Easy Meat” is about a sexual predator, who “saw her tiny titties through her see-through blouse, I just had to take the girl to my house,” where she “rub my head and beat me off with a copy of Rolling Stone,” before he ditches her: “I told her I was late, I had another date…”

“Bamboozled By Love” is perhaps the most problematic. It is a parody of blues-style done-me-wrong songs, in which Willis’ character threatens to kill the object of his affection: “I ain’t the type for begging, I ain’t the type to plead, if she don’t change those evil ways I’m gonna make her bleed, she can scream and she can holler, bang her head along the wall, if she don’t give me what I want, she ain’t gonna have no head at all…”

More successful, though no less smirking, is the title track, an evisceration of the then-current music scene. It follows a new wave band through their first record contract through the selling-out process: “They used to play all kinds of stuff and some of it was nice, some of it was musical but then they took some guy’s advice, to get a record deal, he said, they would have to be more punk, forget their chops and play real dumb or else they would be sunk…” The band “sells their ass, their cock and balls” to “those record company pricks who come to skim the cream from the cesspools of excitement where Jim Morrison once stood.” The music is filled with clever references, and aside from some vague homophobia (“…leather groups and plastic groups and groups that look real queer…”), this song is on target.

“The Blue Light” contains the first released instance of a vocal technique Zappa would use more frequently in the 1980s. He called it “breakdown” – it is similar to improvised scat singing, but with far less tunefulness. In later years, Vai would be enlisted to transcribe improvised breakdown singing and play it on the guitar along with live recordings.

Whatever else can be said about Tinseltown Rebellion, it showcases a band that can play “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” live, and that alone deserves respect. It is a transitional release, one that showcases the musicians who would play with Zappa throughout the early 1980s, and its new material points forward to the likes of You Are What You Is and Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. It’s a perfectly fine, if inessential, live document that heralds a new era in Zappa’s output.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to buy: The 1990s Ryko CD master introduced several errors – cross-fades, drop-outs – to the mix, and though Ryko did issue a much-improved version in 1998, it is nearly impossible to tell which version you have before buying it. However, the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster returns to the original vinyl mix, and it sounds impeccable. This is the definitive Tinseltown Rebellion on CD.

Next week: Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #29: Joe's Garage Acts II and III

Released a mere two months after Act I, the double album Joe’s Garage Acts II and III completed the tragic story of Joe, as told by the Central Scrutinizer. While Act I was mainly harmless fun, Act II is not for the squeamish, and Act III contains some of Zappa’s angriest and most beautiful work, sitting side by side. Again, the songs were written before the story, but it’s the unfolding concept that gives this material its genuine emotional weight, something very few Zappa albums aspire to.

Of course, it’s all wrapped up in a silly cautionary tale, still being narrated by the whispering Central Scrutinizer, voice of a world in which music has been outlawed. When last we left Joe, he had contracted a venereal disease from a woman named Lucille, and had fallen in with L. Ron Hoover’s First Church of Appliantology, an obvious swipe at Scientology. In Act II, Joe gets deeper into the world of machine sex, finds a willing robot named Sy Borg, and has very rough sex with him (introducing a new Zappa word, "plook"), to the point where Sy is irreparably damaged. Joe cannot pay for the robot, and is sent to jail with all the former music industry executives, who rape him repeatedly.

He is set free at the end of Act II, and in Act III, he wanders the music-less landscape aimlessly, hearing imaginary guitar solos in his head. He imagines a whole world for himself, one in which he achieved his dream of music stardom, but in the end realizes that it’s all an illusion. He imagines one final guitar solo, then puts away his dreams and takes a job frosting muffins. Though the story ends there, one imagines that Joe dies unfulfilled, and the possible scofflaws watching the Central Scrutinizer’s story are sufficiently frightened away from the world of music.

It’s a bleak story, but the bright and shiny music that accompanies it is consistently enjoyable. While Act I mainly contented itself with relatively simple rock songs, Acts II and III show off the phenomenal skill of Zappa’s late-‘70s band. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta in particular shines on complex numbers like “Stick It Out” and “Keep It Greasey,” and Arthur Barrow’s bass work is impeccable. Zappa saves the spotlight for himself more often on these two records, particularly on Act III, and uses Joe’s Garage as his final proof of concept for xenochrony – most of the lengthy guitar solos were lifted from live performances of other songs, and the new studio tracks constructed around them.

While Joe’s Garage is remarkably cohesive, Act II begins with two tracks that betray the fact that the songs came first. “A Token of My Extreme” had been around in instrumental form since 1974, and featured often in concerts by the Roxy and Elsewhere band, and “Stick It Out” hails from as early as 1970, when it was part of the Flo and Eddie band’s “Sofa” routine. In their new forms, these songs detail Joe’s association with L. Ron Hoover and his realization that he is a latent appliance fetishist, coming around to the idea that “sexual gratification can only be achieved through the use of machines.” This is Zappa’s wry commentary on sex toys, similar to “Penguin in Bondage,” and his slap across the face to L. Ron Hubbard.

It could certainly be argued that the Central Scrutinizer would want to show Joe’s descent into sexual deviancy in the greatest detail, to dissuade the tender souls watching his cautionary film. Whether that in-story device excuses the content of Act II is up to the individual listener. It is the most sexually explicit set of songs in Zappa’s catalog to date, beginning with “Stick It Out,” a rhythmically complex song in which Joe propositions a robot named Sy Borg: “Fuck me, you ugly son of a bitch,” “stick out your hot curly weenie,” “make it go fast, in and out, magical pig, till it squirts, squirts.” Later he warns Sy not to “get no jizz on that sofa.” (Note the monologue from “Jewish Princess” near the end, delivered in Sy’s robotic monotone.)

“Sy Borg” is a nine-minute slow-jam reggae number that follows Joe and Sy back to Joe’s apartment. “I never plooked a tiny chrome-plated machine that looks like a magical pig with marital aids stuck all over it, such as yourself before,” Ike Willis sings, as ever throwing himself into the character of Joe. “Gimme that blow job,” he pleads, and later Sy requests he “plook me now, you savage rascal.” The song treads the line between ridiculous and uncomfortable for its entire running time. (Special mention should be made of Peter Wolf’s synthesizer solo, which is terrific.)

At the end of “Sy Borg,” Joe kills his electronic paramour by “plooking too hard,” and he is taken to jail with “all the other criminals from the music business” who “take turns snorting detergent and plooking each other.” “Dong Work for Yuda” is the most tangentially related of these songs – it purports to give the listener an idea of prison life, but is really about John Smothers, Zappa’s bodyguard, who had a distinct pattern of speech. Terry Bozzio mimics it for this song: “This girl must be pracketing richcraft!” The song makes special mention of John’s “iron sausage,” which serves not only as a prison rape reference, but a conceptual continuity clue – the original title of “The Torture Never Stops” was “The Night of the Iron Sausage.”

“Yuda” is an interlude before the onslaught of the eight-minute “Keep It Greasey,” which is entirely about the aforementioned prison rape. “Keep it greasey so it’ll go down easy, roll it over and grease it down, I’ll drive you through the heart of town…” It’s one of the most complex pieces on the album, putting Coliauta and Barrow through their astonishing paces, and showcasing Zappa’s xenochrony technique – the band improvised on a tricky groove behind a long, previously recorded guitar solo. That technique is used again on “Outside Now,” the devastating closer to Act II, in which Joe dreams up his first imaginary guitar solo while waiting for release.

The imaginary solos make up the bulk of Act III, and they represent what the world has lost. Even the xenochrony technique adds to this theme – the solos are literally from the past, even as the band plays around them. Joe is let out of prison at the start of “He Used to Cut the Grass,” and spends the entire song walking around “in a semi-catatonic state,” thinking of guitar notes. Zappa weaves in the voice of the angry neighbor from “Joe’s Garage,” giving the song its title, and completes the running gag of the Central Scrutinizer’s loading zone announcements – “The white zone is for loading and unloading only.” None of this sounds like it would be emotionally affecting, but it is.

Zappa’s playing is remarkable here, lyrical in “Grass” and sharp and angry in “Packard Goose,” his 11-minute riposte to music reviewers. It’s another song that clearly did not originate with the Joe’s Garage concept, and it feels shoehorned in, but it allows Joe one last burst of anger. Coliauta and Barrow are superb here, improvising some insanely complex rhythms behind Zappa’s solo (taken from a performance of “Easy Meat” from March 1979).

The transcendent moment of “Packard Goose” arrives with the return of Mary, from Act I. Mary delivers a philosophical monologue that has gone on to be a Zappa calling card: “Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music. Music is the best.”

This leads into “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” arguably the most beautiful nine minutes Zappa ever committed to tape. The dream-like instrumental takes the form of Joe’s final imaginary guitar solo, his last escape from the real world, and Zappa’s tone and playing have never been more emotional. It’s sad, sure, but it’s also angry, reminding the listener of what the world would lose, should the dystopia of Joe’s Garage come to pass. The band keeps things simple (well, as simple as a song in 9/4 could be), and Zappa soars – “Watermelon” is the album’s only guitar solo played live in the studio. Zappa himself named it one of his signature pieces (alongside “Black Napkins” and “Zoot Allures”). It’s a highlight not only of this album, but of Zappa’s collection.

Unable to let things end on such a wistful note, Zappa concludes Joe’s Garage with “A Little Green Rosetta,” a song intended (in much shorter form) for Lather. The jokey number follows Joe as he hocks his imaginary guitar and gets a job at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, adorning muffins with green frosting. (“A little green rosetta, makes a muffin better…”) As the Central Scrutinizer puts down his megaphone, the closing-credits singalong becomes Zappa’s final admission that all of this is just a little stupid. In some ways, “A Little Green Rosetta” devalues the genuine feeling and incisive points made earlier in the record, but Zappa doesn’t care: “This is a stupid song, and that’s the way I like it,” he sings.

But look past the closing minutes, and the reliance on sexual imagery (which here more than ever act as a distraction from the musicianship and the intelligence on display), and Joe’s Garage is a masterpiece. In fact, even with those things, it stands as one of Zappa’s very best works, containing everything there is to admire and detest about the man’s music. If new listeners are ambitious, starting here would offer a fine summation of the wonder and frustration of being a Zappa fan.

One thing the album undoubtedly gets right, though: music is the best.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: The three acts of Joe’s Garage are not available separately on CD. The 2012 Zappa/Universal double album collecting Acts I, II and III is pristine. It’s only a slight improvement over the previous CD versions, but enough of one.

Next week: Tinseltown Rebellion.