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

Considering the antediluvian source material, the sound is much better than it has any right to be, and FZ's notes to the 1963(?) "Charva" are interesting: "FZ, vocals, piano, bass & drums. Studio Z [Zappa's Cucamonga storefront studio] had the world's only staggered 5 track recorder (designed by Paul Buff). While the big guys were wondering whether stereo was going to catch on, we were doing massive overdubs."

The Old Masters, Box Two Uncle Meat (XI-5): The OM LP has greater ambience, artificial or not---you can hear the recording booth, or whatever, in "Voice of Cheese." On the same track on the CD, the voice is much farther forward, Suzie Creamcheese's nose pressed flat against the sound window. Both are superior to the old Bizarre LP, in which whole worlds of HF information go missing. On the original, that same "Voice of Cheese" is far, far back, remote, boxy, and dead. The OM, of course, lacks the extra 45 minutes of dialog outtakes from Uncle Meat, The Movie. Thank God. Hot Rats (XI-5): More revisionism from Herr Zappa. The OM is exactly the same length as the original Bizarre LP, unlike the Ryko reissue, which reinstates four minutes of "The Gumbo Variations." But, but, but...for instance, in the intro to "Willie the Pimp," original and OM have a trio of bass, drums, and violin, while the CD is drums and fiddle only. Then the OM, unlike the CD, maintains the original proportions of instruments (Ian Underwood's piano is mixed way down again). I'm tempted to say that the CD's sound is far superior---more open, to the point of schematicizing the music, each organ laid bare, isolate---but what we really have here is three entirely different mixes. If you prefer the original, the OM is closer; get the CD for a rethinking---and reinstatement---of the original unreleased sessions.

Burnt Weeny Sandwich: Definitely one of FZ's finer instrumental forays with the original Mothers of Invention, this was the first "posthumous" release of in-the-can material recorded by the just-disbanded Mothers. I remember being struck by the fullness of sound---especially bass and drums in the live sections---way back in early 1970, when Weeny was first released. Zappa's music had simply never sounded so good. Sugarcane Harris's solo is probably the best electric violin blues solo ever recorded, superhumanly impassioned and as rigorously structured as Zappa's own more angular guitar outings. Ian Underwood's opening piano solo on "Little House I Used to Live In," Zappa's wah-wah, and Bunk Gardner's demented sax on both versions of "Holiday in Berlin," like a lounge lizard on acid, make this album a rich delight.

Impressively, the OM improves on all this. "WPLJ" 's inner voices come out clearer, fuller, deeper, with no loss in quantity or quality of that large, furry bass. "Igor's Boogie," Phases 1 & 2, is crisp and resonant; unlike the toy instruments of the original, these instruments have bite and body. And listen to the drums doing their pseudo-bolero bit in "Holiday in Berlin"---such crispness, detail, articulation! Makes the original sound fuzzy. You just hear so much more (still an LP, remember). A refreshing liquidness is revealed on (or added to) Ian Underwood's two unaccompanied piano solos.

The pastiche of live and studio tracks that make up "Little House" now actually sounds "live" all the way through (the giveaway is the amp buzz at the start of Sugarcane's solo). This rock band is laid out convincingly before your ears; possibly Zappa's most "natural" recording, very "live," with electric bass that has real pitch. The chamber-music section (harpsichord, flute, bassoon, trumpet, xylophone) has entire layers of scrim and veil removed---a delight.

Weasels Ripped My Flesh: Culled from the same mountain of tape as Burnt Weeny and released later the same year, Weasels is the second installment of the never-released 9-LP History & Collected Improvisations of the Mothers, some of which is undoubtedly being released piecemeal on the 12-CD You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series. There is genius here, particularly Sugarcane Harris's in "Directly from My Heart to You," and Zappa's in "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue." Though the album has even more of the feel of compilation to it than is usual with Zappa, full as it is of violent shifts of tempo, style, mood, venue, and sound quality, there's plenty to sink your teeth into: "Oh No," "The Orange County Lumber Truck," "Dwarf Nebula," and the original version of son Dweezil's recent hit, "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama."

Again, the bass is fuller, better defined, its pitch more audible on the OM. But the solo voices are not as fully rounded as the original's, sounding etched, cut out and pasted on the soundstage. Sibilants are too hissy. Overall, no great revelations: just a bit more clarity and extension in both ends, with somewhat flattened vocals (and great drums on "Dolphy"!). But "My Guitar...," with its massive overdubs, is much more powerful here, the horns cutting through sharply, louder than the original.

Chunga's Revenge: This grab-bag of instrumentals, live jams, and four or five songs billed as "previews to 200 Motels" (Zappa's film and soundtrack album of the following year) served primarily as a warm-up exercise for FZ's then-new replacements for the original Mothers: Flo & Eddie (Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, formerly of the Turtles), Aynsley Dunbar (footnote 4), Jeff Simmons, and George Duke. It was also the first of five LPs dedicated to documenting the seamier side of the road-life of "a rock-oriented comedy group," as Zappa had Mark Volman put it. The results were mixed at best. Zappa turned here from biting social satire and dense, challenging music to sophomoric skits about bad PAs, piles of laundry by the hotel door, and exotic varieties of the clap, all set to relatively undistinguished (for FZ) riff-rock. But "Sharleena" is one of those great, greasy, neo-'50s ballads FZ can seemingly write in his sleep, "Twenty Small Cigars" (from the Hot Rats sessions) is chamber jazz of a type he's released all too seldom, and the title cut is an Ian Underwood electric-sax-through-wah-wah warpaganza. All in all, an uneven stopgap album, with muffled, boxy sound, Flo & Eddie sounding as if locked in a phone booth.

At least Zappa's weakest albums---this one and Zoot Allures---also have the worst sound. But from the first notes of "Transylvania Boogie" on the OM version, we hear a live band on a real stage, not the original's random instruments poking blunt snouts through the sonic murk. All levels are higher on the new LP, the highs to the point of harshness. Each kick-drum beat is audible, not a cottony mass of foofs and fumps. The ersatz soundstage on "The Clap"---Zappa overdubbing on all manner of percussion instruments---is deep, immersive: a vast improvement, all the various boo-bams and whimwhams delineated crystallinely. And in "Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink," Jeff Simmons's bass and Eddie's rhythm guitar are lively as never before. But most important, the band actually does sound like a real band, in studio or on stage. (It helps that this is one of Zappa's least-overdubbed albums.) The digitally remastered version is highly recommended.

Fillmore East---June 1971 Just Another Band from L.A.: Ah, the '71 band in all its raunchy glory. More revues about groupies, incest, cheap motels, double-knits, vacationing mountains named Billy (with his lovely wife Ethel, A Tree), and an X-rated James Brown send-up by Howard Kaylan. Not recommended for airplay; "Bwana Dik," "Latex Solar Beef," and "Dog Breath" are typical song titles. The humor? Well, sophomores, it helps to have been there (I was), and feminists beware, but still you'll hear some of the funniest all-out jazz/blues shameless grandstanding semi-operatic belting ever by anyone, as Flo & Eddie chew the scenery and spew it right back out; their sing-along version of "Happy Together" is worth the price of admission. And Zappa's wah-wah guitar solo on "Willie the Pimp" is worthy of Clapton at his naughtiest. The most exhilarating thing about this album is how clear it is that this band was having one hell of a good time, good taste be damned.

The sound of the original Fillmore was impressive for its time---lively, fresh, and bouncy---while L.A.'s dynamic range was sternly suppressed in favor of the vocals. On the latter, the effect was one of Flo & Eddie's crooning heads sticking above the water while standing on the shoulders of a submerged Mothers of Invention, who sounded appropriately dull, wooden, and waterlogged. This proportion is markedly improved on the OMs, the sense of a live band performing before an enthusiastic audience invitingly palpable. Sibilants are too hissy on L.A., and the bass is mono'd, but at least it's there this time, and accurately pitched (check out the intro to "Magdalena").

Both new LPs fill the entire soundstage more seamlessly, though kick-drum loses some impact. Frontmen Flo & Eddie seem much more in the Fillmore East and the Pauley Pavilion, rather than singing to them from the stage; this makes the sound even more live, with more audience noise. Edits are now revealed much more clearly on Fillmore, less so on L.A., but lead vocals are more full and fluid, pouring from the speakers effortlessly. Background vocals (and these are, if nothing else, vocal albums) come through definitely, rather than the hints they were, but highs are harsh and fatiguing, as on Chunga, the sound more metallic throughout. In "Lonesome Electric Turkey," however, every instrument can be heard distinctly, without trashing the mix (Don Preston's mini-moog is mixed much higher on L.A.'s "Eddie"). And on L.A., for some reason, FZ has switched his guitar solos (though not his vocals) from extreme stage left to extreme stage right.

Footnote 4: Whatever happened to Aynsley Dunbar? One of the great British drummers to emerge from the UK's '60s blues boom, I lost track of his career after his stint with the Mothers. Does anybody know? (Does anybody, apart from me, care?)---JA