Frank Zappa on CD (and LP), Part I-III Page 3

Mystery Disk II: Side 1 is from the Festival Hall Show, London, 1968, with a rather well-recorded chamber orchestra. This is more 200 Motels music in yet another---and in some ways the cleanest---incarnation, three years before the film's release. In and around the sometimes sophisticated (often not) atonalities are thrown chunks of a loose skit about certain Mothers quitting the group to play "disciplined" music. Stirring, naturalistic lines like "We must overthrow the diatonic system!" abound; late-'60s cultural agitprop at its least subtle. But the whole side is fresh, fun, stimulating, and well worth hearing---much more so than Thing-Fish or Man From Utopia. Brass instruments are gorgeously recorded.

A grab-bag of studio and live cuts fills out side 2, some of them strange even by Zappa standards. "Agency Man," the winner, turns out to be nothing less than a prediction of the marketing of Ronald Reagan and his eventual presidency. Recorded in 1967, no less. "Wedding Dress/Handsome Cabin Boy" are, yes, those two old traditional English folk chestnuts, done up brown here in prime Uncle Meat electronic gamelan style, and more reminiscent of Pentangle than Zappa. Then there's the true story of Willie the Pimp, and "Black Beauty," a classic 6/8 Zappa minor-key double waltz reminiscent of "King Kong," with fine playing by FZ and bassist Roy Estrada; and "Chucha," more adolescent cholo posturing. This album has more sheer fun, in the old, original Mothers spirit, than anything he's released in years. I'm not sure it's worth $100 for the whole OM II box for just this one disc, but, I'm sorry to admit, I'd consider it.

The Old Masters, Box Three Waka/Jawaka & The Grand Wazoo (X-8): Scant months after Just Another Band from L.A. hit the bins in '72, Zappa released these two albums, both products of the same extended big-band studio sessions. After a tumultuous beginning, "Big Swifty," which takes up all of side 1 of Waka, settles into a thick, loping gumbo of an electric jam with long, languid brass and woodwind themes overlaying the guitar, bass, and drums (Zappa, "Erroneous" (?), and Dunbar). This remains some of Zappa's most thickly textured, satisfying electric music, repaying many hearings. The title cut is even more interesting, chorus after chorus of brass layered in chiming grandeur, with Sal Marquez's meticulously muted trumpet solo played simultaneously with solos by guitarists FZ and Denny Walley.

The original Waka was an engineer's nightmare, endless overdubs thickening the sound, the resultant mucho tape hiss flattening and leveling everything. Crispness? Highs? Articulation? Forget it. Boxy to the max. The hiss is pretty much gone on the OM LP, but the entire frequency range seems to have shifted up an octave or so, as if someone had just turned the treble knob all the way to 10. The mix's formerly dark mystery is history, side 1's bass is gone, side 2's vocals are hissy, and the cymbals are splashy and tizzy. I was struck once again by how much an emphasized high end can create the illusion of a quickened tempo. But the timpani on the fade-out of "Swifty" are now heard clearly for the first time, the title cut's brass choirs are clearly laid out for delectation, the bass clarinet part on the fade was new to me, and Don Preston's piano is given a much brighter spotlight on the OM. The Ryko CD's highs are even more brilliant than the new LP, but the latter is just that much more "believable" as a multi-mono'd studio facsimile of big-band sound. The CD does, however, restore the original's bass---and then some. "Erroneous" sounds better than ever.

The three issues of Wazoo remain the closest in sound of any of this welter of releases, the CD having just a bit more air than the original, and fuller bass. But even the CD sounds veiled and muddy compared to the new LP, which is the best of the three by a nose (not Zappa's), though it slightly lacks the bass of the other two.

Overnite Sensation (X-8): The CD and digitized LP are very close, the former a fraction of a degree better in air and spaciousness, without losing the original's depth to digital flatness. Yes, there's more clarity, but I miss the original's full, fat, punchy, if somewhat fuzzy bass. Kick-drum on the new versions is merely thick, not rounded; flat and fast, but not bulbous; background vocals on both new formats are shrill and harsh, without the depth of field (particularly on "Dyna-Moe Humm") of the original DiscReet release. Apostrophe (') (X-8): Repeated listening to this one since my Vol.10 No.8 review has tilted me back in the direction of the '74 DiscReet release, for the same ol' analogyous reasons that have become a refrain in this article: punchier bass, more believable highs. The LP highs sound real, whereas the CD sounds over-magnified, like looking at a mountain from 50 miles away without the intervening atmospheric haze which, though admittedly obscuring, does allow one to gauge the distance. In short, the haze renders space visible by, to a small degree, filling it. The paradox results in a greater illusion of space and distance. The CD is definitely the poor cousin here.

Roxy & Elsewhere: One seldom associates the phrase "intimate club date" with Frank Zappa, but in late '73, LA's Roxy provided a cozy venue for this, probably the strongest line-up of musicians FZ ever assembled on stage. The 11-piece band consisted of FZ and Jeff Simmons on guitars, Tom Fowler on bass, George Duke and Don Preston on keyboards, Ruth Underwood on percussion, Ralph Humphries and Chester Thompson on drums, and Napoleon Murphy Brock and Bruce and Walt Fowler on horns. The album, with its successor One Size Fits All, is one of FZ's two prime examples of what can be accomplished by a tight, working rock/jazz band of rather eccentric proportions.

There's lots here, half of it instrumental. Highlights are "Echidna's Arf (Of You)," "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?," and the first part of "Be-Bop Tango." Not so much a bag of guitar solos, Roxy showcases live ensemble work of such density and rivet-tightness as to sometimes beggar belief. In "Wash That Thing," listen to Tom Fowler's bass parts, brother Mother Bruce's near-certifiable trombone solo (and an even better one on "Tango"), George Duke's strong, melancholy electric piano, and the percussion/horn unisons throughout the album---all taken at breakneck speeds. Underwood is a xylophonist of awesome technique, and Brock's vocals lend the whole affair a humanizing touch of soulful class that later FZ frontman Ike Willis has never been able to match. And again, on "Tango," Duke's simultaneous perverto-be-bop piano/vocal scatting, complete with quotes from "Straight, No Chaser," are a delight. The band's talent fairly leaps out of the grooves; their sheer exuberance at making music at the level demanded by Zappa is overwhelming.

Then, of course, there's "Cheepnis," one of the most-requested encores of middle-period Zappa. A 41/2-minute pastiche of every '50s grade-X sci-fi movie-music cliche in the book, it's probably the fastest, funniest, breath-stealingest song he ever wrote. And punchy? The band is wound up tighter than a slamdancer on PCP. But all is not perfect: "Trouble Every Day" 's political bite is blunted and trivialized by over-literal cartoon sound effects, and the improvised "Dummy Up" is less than inspired.

The original 1974 DiscReet release had a warm, rich roundness to the sound, and was excellent in most particulars (except for some badly miked timpani). It was certainly closer to the sound of the band in concert than the rather desiccated OM reissue, which lacks body and weight. Zappa's sonic tastes these days seem more austere than before, now emphasizing the revelation of detail---horn parts have a little more air, are more easily dissected in the digital remastering---over the general feel of those instruments as sounds in three dimensions. Again, we're given a schematic of the music, as speciously exact as a Xerox that, by dropping out the background texture of the original, only seems like an improvement.

One Size Fits All: This underrated 1975 release is probably FZ's best all-around hard rock album---the songs are clever, intricately structured, and flawlessly, impeccably rock-solid, full of irresistible hooks and power riffs---stuff any rocker can sink his teeth into, with many Holidays For Air Guitar.

The opening "Inca Roads" contains one of FZ's best guitar solos: stately, perfectly structured. "Can't Afford No Shoes," one of the funnier heavy-metal tunes you'll ever hear, manages to change key 18 times (I counted) in the chorus alone. "Sofa," another of FZ's gospelly Pomp & Circumstance processionals, has grandeur and mystical lyrics (in German: "Ich bin der Chrome Dinette," usw.). "Po-Jama People" has more tightly sprung rhythms from George Duke, Tom Fowler, and Chester Thompson (who went on to drum for Weather Report), and "San Ber'dino" and "Andy" feature Zappa's slide guitar and Bloodshot Rollin' Red (Capt. Beefheart) on harp. But students of formal structure should pay particular attention to "Florentine Pogen," a case-study in Zappian compositional technique: in short order he states half a dozen motifs (including the obligatory "Louie Louie" quote), then spends the rest of the song mixing, matching, rearranging, and reorchestrating them. The more I listen to this song, the more fascinating it becomes. The lyrics are impenetrable---the tune demands attention, then just sits there, a craggy, imposing monument to itself. All in all, a great rock album by any set of standards (except for sincere, vulnerable lyrics).

There has never been more satisfying bass on any FZ album, for musical and sonic reasons. On the Ryko CD, the bass is even more sumptuous: the articulation of bass guitar is both crystalline and deep, and there are bass- and kick-drum and low synthesizer notes I haven't heard before. (I kept thinking my fiancee was banging on her ceiling for me to turn down the volume to 9...but she wasn't home.) The OM LP is also a definite improvement over the original DiscReet release: highs are better defined, bass is more fluid and full, and the various soundstages, true or false, are deeper, more convincing. Plus, the disc mastering is a lot better---an "Inca Roads" passage my stylus always refused to track on the overmastered original is here sailed through effortlessly, with improved dynamics. Kick-drums are mixed a little more forward, Keith Moon-sized on "Florentine Pogen," and George Duke's synthesizer extravaganza becomes a tour de force of strange sounds in space. Duke's acoustic piano on "Po-Jama" sounds more natural here (though I miss the bright, percussive bite of the original). All in all, little difference between new LP and CD, though the latter has that extra soupcon of bass and drum articulation. Great remastering job, Bob Stone.

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