Frank Zappa on CD (and LP), Part I-III Page 2

Overnite Sensation:
This has proven one of Zappa's most popular releases, for reasons the ironies of which are certainly not lost on him. Musically one of the least interesting, Sensation sports a very slick band including George Duke, the Fowler brothers, Ruth Underwood, and Jean Luc Ponty. The songs are, shall we say, accessible, the lyrics---about dental floss, kinky poodles, and the vacuity of TV---trivial. By this time ('73), however, Zappa's impeccable production values were in full swing, and the band, which sounds like the studio band of the gods, is wonderfully recorded.

Compression was always a particular problem in recording Zappa's rococo, ornamentalist approach to composition and arranging, and his audiophile approach to sound: he attempted to pack so much in the grooves (sections of '68's Uncle Meat have as many as 40 tracks laid in) that much was lost, even with the best of mastering. The CD transfer takes nothing away here, but reveals much in terms of instrumental lines I'd never even heard before, let alone heard well. The mix just seems to go on forever, layer after layer of arabesque and detail, particularly in "Camarillo Brillo" (the fadeout horns) and "Dinah-Moe-Hum" (background vocals and foreground mutterings).

Apostrophe':
On the same CD, from the following year, this collection of studio takes with pick-up bands is considerably more interesting. The horn arrangements on the opening suite of narrations, breaks, and ensembles (from which the "Yellow Snow" single was excerpted) are fast, furious, and complex, well served by the silver disc, while "Stinkfoot" contains one of the more palatable instances of feeding a guitar directly into the board. The CD is particularly gracious to the title cut, an instrumental power trio featuring Jack Bruce on bass. Even the generous spread of vinyl allotted on the initial LP release proved incapable of preventing breakup on this very loud jam; for the first time, I'm hearing only the distortion of Zappa's and Bruce's amps, and not my cartridge.

Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar:
Any frequenter of Zappa concerts knows that his best solo and group improvisations seldom make it to even his live releases. Well, here they are in spades, including the quieter, more reflective studies Zappa seldom seems to have the nerve to release---his answer to all those guitar mavens who just want to hear him beat his axe. Of particular interest here are the guitar/drum interplay on "While You Were Out," the reggae-ish "Treacherous Cretins," the Miles Davis/Jack Johnson-styled "Canarsie," and---for those who loved the wah-wah break on "Little House I Used To Live In" (Burnt Weeny Sandwich), there's 5 1/2 minutes of it here on "Ship Ahoy." Disc 2 is even better: the heroic "Deathless Horsie," and the moony, mysterious "Pink Napkins," with Patrick O'Hearn's melting bass. The best is saved for last, however: at 10" each, the serene "Stucco Homes," for two acoustic guitars and drums, and the eerie "Canard du Jour," with FZ on bouzouki (!) and Jean-Luc Ponty on baritone violin (?), are listening time well spent.

The CD sound is particularly complimentary to these last two, recorded sometime in '71 or '72 ("recording date unknown," say the notes, but I remember Zappa mentioning the date in a radio interview at the time). The digital remastering, in this case, enhances the sound considerably over my first-edition LPs. The signal is higher, and the increased spaciousness is palpable. In fact, all of the advantages possessed by the LP version of Them Or Us (see below) are here retained by the CD. The last two cuts alone make Shut Up worth the admission price, but there's lots more here. Highly recommended. By the way, transcriptions of all solos are available from Zappa's marketing company, Barfko-Swill (818-PUMPKIN).

The London Symphony Orchestra:
This has proven to be one of FZ's most rewarding, challenging releases. The large-scale orchestral works recorded here, while often episodic and lacking in overall structure, are nevertheless endlessly fascinating listening. Zappa achieves orchestral colors that I've never heard before, and his refusal to subscribe to any one school of composition, contemporary or historical, lends a freshness and humor to his work that, sadly, are seldom heard in modern conservatory music.

The sheer statistical density of the composition is mind-boggling. These difficult pieces (and, Zappa promises, at least another hour's worth) were more or less sight-read and recorded in three days; the LSO and conductor Nagano labor mightily, and Zappa made hundreds of edits, but there are still a few rough spots, and quite a bit of chair-squeaking and page-rustling. For some reason, FZ decided to delete the LP's "Pedro's Dowry" and "Envelopes" from the CD, substituting the long (24:31) "Bogus Pomp," an expanded version of the suite found on the now-deleted Orchestral Favorites LP, itself an expanded version of "Strictly Genteel" and other incidental pieces from 200 Motels.

The sound is rich, luscious, larger than life. Audiophiles take note: some comments made by Zappa in Digital Audio (October '84) are revealing of a modern, studio-wise orchestral composer's views re. soundstaging and recording: "I conceive the mix before I write the music, because the mix is part of the composition....If a composer has access to all the tools of production all the way down the line, he can optimize the sound for that particular piece. No longer is the composer stuck with one performance in one room....A mixing console is just like a musical instrument." Anathema? Hardly. The LSO is simply an instance of the recording of traditionally orchestrated music in which---because of strict compliance with the composer's wishes---the usual rules, conventions, or mere habits of audiophile orchestral recording simply do not apply. (By the way, when JA auditioned this disc, his two-word comment was, "Good sound." This is also the only full-orchestra recording I've ever seen which not only lists each member of the orchestra, but the make and date of their instruments as well. Even the orchestra administrators are named.)

Of all of these releases, The LSO comes most highly recommended, in terms of sound, performance, and composition. It will reward many listenings and re-listenings.

Them Or Us:
When he left WEA in 1978, Zappa pursued quality disc mastering and pressings with a vengeance. One result of this was LP sides that rarely exceeded 17 or 18 minutes in length, allowing for considerable cutter oscillation and LP pressings of digital recordings that rival the CD versions in dynamic range and in every other way. Them Or Us, a satisfying rock collection with many bows to the '50s, is a case in point: not only does the LP put out a considerably higher signal than the CD; throughout most of the recording, the LP's highs are livelier, bass punchier. The CD sound is recessed, as if heard through a scrim; added reverb (check the background vocals on "Sharleena") sounds a lot more artificial. All in all, the CD is tighter, stiffer, more constrained and skeletal, while the LP has a darker, deeper focus (although this reverses a bit on "Truck Driver Divorce" and "Stevie's Spanking"). When better, the CD is only slightly so; when worse, a definite notch below: get the LP.

Oh yes, the music: Zappa has always been the best riff-rocker around, and proves it again on "Stevie's Spanking"; "Be In My Video" is a very funny send-up of MTV, and the album ends with a straightforward, up-tempo version of the old Allman Bros. chestnut, "Whipping Post"; Zappa guitar gourmands can gorge on "Marqueson's Chicken" and "Truck Driver Divorce." "Sinister Footwear II," rumored to have been originally arranged for chamber orchestra, appears here in chamber-rock format.

Thing-Fish:
This set, originally released on three not-specially-priced LPs, seems even more of a rip-off when you realize that seven of the tunes (accounting for 35:15 of the 91:08 total) are recycled from previous albums ("No Not Now" reappears twice: once forward, once backward). Zappa justifies such cross-referencing in the spirit of his life-work's "conceptual continuity." But too often these blind-alley borrowings add up to less than the sum of their barely stitched-together parts.

In an album already padded out with endlessly unfunny Amos'n'Andy-style narration over tedious rhythm tracks, by Ike Willis as the Thing-Fish (get it?), this wears thin pretty fast. The bad taste is admittedly breathtaking, however; there's something to offend everyone here: blacks, gays, feminists, and lovers of Broadway musicals. But the few inspired moments---the Crab-Grass Baby's truly disturbing soliloquoy (some of it recycled from Lumpy Gravy), "He's So Gay," and the chain-gang-style vocals on the intro to "White Boy Troubles"---are hardly enough to justify purchase of this 3 LP/2 CD set. The sound is virtually identical in both formats; not hard to do when the LP sides are barely 15 minutes long.

Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention:
According to Zappa's note on the European version of Prevention, "The original version of this album contained political material which would not have been interesting to listeners outside the US. This special European edition contains three new songs..." The political material is a 12" Lumpy Gravyish montage of outtakes from that early album, music, snorks, sounds, and excerpts from the Record Label Hearings of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation---Tipper Gore's infamous "record-rating" campaign. The voices of Senators Danforth, Hollins, Trible, Hawkins, Exon, Gorton, Gore, and Tipper herself, can be heard here. Of the "three new songs"---one blues boogie with Johnny "Guitar" Watson on vocal, and two Zappa synclavier creations---only two were added to the CD release. "H.R. 2911" is still available only on the import, which seems a tawdry way to encourage hard-core Zappists to spend another $13 (as I did) for a single 3:35 cut.

The sound is a bit more lively on CD than the European LP; the US LP is even closer. For CD release, Zappa resequenced most of the songs, this time ending with the 12" "Porn Wars"---the album's political statement (Zappa, too, testified at the hearings) is all the stronger for it. "Yo Cats," a bitter indictment of padded recording sessions and musicians' union abuses, is delivered in appropriate lounge-lizard mode by Ike Willis. The rest is instrumental, mostly Zappa on the Synclavier DMS, and amply repays repeated listenings.

Jazz From Hell:
This, with The LSO and The Perfect Stranger, is one of FZ's three best releases of the last ten years. All but one of the eight compositions were composed and performed by FZ on the Synclavier DMS, built up from both sampled instruments and fully synthesized constructions. Zappa, from this release alone, will probably have to be considered the reigning virtuoso of the Synclavier. Pay particular attention to the album's centerpiece, "While You Were Art II," a meticulously structured exercise in shifting rhythm and fragmented voicings that defies description, let alone any known form of standardized rhythmic notation. The furious "G-Spot Tornado," full of marimba-like figurings, and the equally percussive "Massaggio Galore," are also highly recommended. It's a sad commentary on the times that, although "St. Etienne," a typical Zappa guitar jam and the only cut featuring real live musicians, is a relief after all the digital intensity, it's the least interesting musically.

The compositional medium and performing "ensemble" being wholly digital, the CD is the only choice here (the LP is no slouch itself, however). A must-have, and the best introduction for those unfamiliar with Zappa's forays into conservatory music. This brief CD (34:43) could have easily accommodated, however, the whole of Man From Utopia, or Ship Arriving Too Late....

More to come...
For the fall, Rykodisc promises re-releases of Freak Out!, Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, and Joe's Garage, plus You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, a CD-only twofer compilation of live material from the past 15 years; Barking Pumpkin will release The LSO, Vol. II. Meanwhile, I'm waiting for reissues of One Size Fits All, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites. Watch these pages for reviews.---RL

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