Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #32: Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar Some More

The second of three albums of guitar solos Frank Zappa released in May of 1981 offers seven further examples of his gut-level, visceral playing style. Zappa was a master of the instrument, able to play technically demanding works that other accomplished guitarists would balk at. But when it came time to solo, Zappa put a lot of that technique aside, and played with a full-blooded vigor.

Zappa front-loaded Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More with textbook examples of his off-script, anything-can-happen sensibility. The humorously titled “Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression” is actually part of a solo from a December 1980 performance of “City of Tiny Lights,” and Zappa breathes fire all over the jaunty backing track. His tone is vicious here, and the relatively straightforward “Gee, I Like Your Pants” (two minutes of a February 1979 performance of “Inca Roads”) doesn’t let up. Zappa engages in some rare lightning-fast finger-tapping here, and even that is played with verve.

But it’s on “Canarsie,” a bizarre live/studio hybrid, that he really wades out into more dissonant waters. The basic track for this tune was recorded live in London in February 1979, with the always-astonishing Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Patrick O’Hearn on bass and Warren Cuccurullo on sitar. The jam is strange enough, but Zappa’s solo, recorded in the spring of 1979 in the studio, is a marvel of atonal insanity. At no point in this six-minute affair does Zappa play a single note you would expect him to. He’s everywhere at once.

He follows that up with the striking “Ship Ahoy,” originally played as the coda to the first known performance of “Zoot Allures” in Osaka, Japan in February 1976. But it’s strong enough to stand on its own. With minimal backing from drummer Terry Bozzio and bassist Roy Estrada, Zappa puts his guitar through a keyboard voltage control filter, creating a unique sample-and-sound-cancel effect. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard on a guitar before, and over five and a half minutes, he constantly finds new ways to use it, new sounds to coax from it.

The second side of the album is more straight-ahead. It includes the premiere of “The Deathless Horsie,” a solo spot Zappa would resurrect in later shows – this performance is from February of 1979, and it finds Colaiuta vamping around a simple keyboard line while Zappa plays. The solo here is somewhat restrained, but still engaging, and things get messier as the song progresses. The title track is, as before, a solo from a performance of “Inca Roads,” this one also from February 1979, and it features some of the most languid and melodic playing on offer here.

The album ends with a full performance of “Black Napkins” (here titled “Pink Napkins” because of the gorgeous, sentimental, clean guitar tone Zappa uses) from February 1977, with the Zoot Allures band. The roots of Zappa’s beautiful 1988 tour guitar tone are here – it sounds like water drops, bringing a new dimension to one of the composer’s signature pieces. It ends things on a particularly pretty note.

Again, if guitar solos are not high on your list, you may not get a lot out of the Shut Up series. But approach them with an open mind, and they may change your notions of what an album of guitar solos can sound like. On this volume, “Canarsie,” “Ship Ahoy” and “Pink Napkins” defy expectations the most, and are worth hearing whether you’re a guitar player or not.

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: Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar

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