* Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (Concentus Musicus Wien/Harnoncourt) (Telefunken 2LP)
* Buxtehude: Sonatas, Op.1 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2SACD)
* Count Basie: Basie Big Band (Pablo LP)
* John Coltrane: Live at Birdland (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane: Newport ’63 (Impulse!/GRP CD)
* John Coltrane: Crescent (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (Impulse! SACD)
* John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition) (d.2) (Impulse! 2CD)
* Sun Ra: College Tour Vol.1: The Complete Nothing Is… (ESP-Disk’ 2CD)
* Anthony Braxton Falling River Quartet: Marta-Museum, Herford, Germany 11-22-08 (AUD CDR)
* David S. Ware Quartets: Live in the World (Thirsty Ear 3CD)
* Mat Maneri featuring Joe McPhee: Sustain (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Grateful Dead: Five Seasons Center, Cedar Rapids, IA 7-04-84 (d.1-2) (SBD 3CDR)
* Frank Zappa: Apostrophe (’) (DiscReet LP)
* Frank Zappa/Mothers: Roxy & Elsewhere (DiscReet 2LP)
* Frank Zappa/The Mothers: One Size Fits All (DiscReet LP)
* Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart/The Mothers: Bongo Fury (DiscReet LP)
* U2: The Unforgettable Fire (Deluxe Edition) (Island 2CD)†/‡
* U2: The Joshua Tree (Deluxe Edition) (Island 2CD)†/‡
* New Order: Power, Corruption and Lies (Deluxe Edition) (d.1)(Factory/Rhino 2CD)†/‡
* The Smiths: The Sound of The Smiths (Sire 2CD)
* Beck: Sea Change (DGC/Mobile Fidelity 2LP)
* Robert Pollard: The Crawling Distance (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses On a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)†/‡
This past spring, I embarked on a project to listen to all of my Frank Zappa LPs in chronological order and I wrote about my long, complicated relationship with Zappa’s music back in April. But by July, I had to stop and take a break, having reached Over-Nite Sensation (1973), an album I found uproariously funny as a teenager, but now find to be pretty much totally embarrassing. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. Well, this past week, I decided to pick up where I left off. I guess I was in a more receptive frame of mind, as I quite enjoyed listening to these albums again after many years. Maybe it’s just the new amplifier that made ‘em sound so good (indeed, these are great sounding records regardless of the musical content).
Apostrophe(‘) (1974) yielded an unlikely hit single with “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” which is really just the introduction to a side-long suite of songs that loosely tell a story about Nanook The Eskimo, parish priest, Father O’Blivion, pancake breakfasts, and the rejection of easy metaphysics. Or something like that. For the most part, Frank keeps the potty humor in check (or at least cloaks it in clever, euphemistic wordplay) and the musicianship is, of course, superb. Side one is quintessential Zappa. The second side is a bit more problematic: it opens strong with a quick ditty (“Excentrifugal Forz”) which seems to pick up where the other side left off, but the following track is a rather pointless jam with Cream bassist, Jack Bruce (“Apostrophe(')”). Then there’s the discomfiting “Uncle Remus.” The music and the sentiments are about as straightforward and sincere as Frank ever got, expressing a lament for the victims of a racist society. And yet the lyrics, with their exaggerated dialect, wrapped up in Zappa’s outrageously salacious voice—well, it will make even (especially?) right-thinking liberals squirm. Which is the point, I guess. “Stink Foot” is as stupid as it sounds and thereby nullifies any big ideas raised in the previous song. Oh well, this is an almost-great record.
On the other hand, Roxy & Elsewhere (1974) has always been one of my favorites, ever since I was a teenage kid with my first hi-fi. Recorded (mostly) live for a never-released film/TV project, this is about as charming and friendly as Frank Zappa ever got. The band is stocked with early-fusion hotshots like George Duke on keyboards, Tom Fowler on bass, Chester Thompson on drums, and the virtuoso percussionist, Ruth Underwood. But it is Tom’s brother, Bruce, who really shines here, both as a soloist and ensemble player, on the otherwise unwieldy trombone. While there is a fair share of comedic nonsense, the music is so compelling, it hardly matters how dumb the subject matter. Zappa is at the height of his powers here. Side two is perfect: opening with a remarkably warm and un-ironic paean to Zappa’s hometown in rural California (“Village of the Sun”). The band then executes a sequence of instrumental pieces which demonstrate Zappa’s command of his quirky, immediately identifiable compositional language, combining a highly chromatic harmonic sensibility with insane rhythmic complexity which culminates in ecstatic releases of rock energy and jazzy soloing (“Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?”). Side three follows up with an endearing send-up of cheesy monster movies (“Cheepnis”) and some pointed political commentary (“Son of Orange County,” about the disgraced Richard Nixon; and “More Trouble Every Day,” a song from Freak Out (1966) about the Watts Riots). Side four concludes with “Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen’s Church)” another ridiculously complicated modern-classical-style composition followed by an equally absurd audience participation segment that goes on for far too long but at least provides us with the classic Zappa quip: “Jazz is not dead; it just smells funny.”
One Size Fits All (1975) is another almost-great album, starting out as it does with “Inca Roads,” probably Zappa’s finest moment. Ostensibly about the crash landing of an alien spaceship, the song begins with an ingratiating yet odd-metered groove and soulful yet quasi-atonal singing by George Duke. Imminently catchy yet severely off-kilter, it draws you in and makes you want to listen, even though it sounds like no other music ever made. Layers of intricately layered instrumental and vocal textures are built up before finally unleashing a towering guitar solo from Frank. Interestingly, the guitar solo is taken from a live recording which is seamlessly spliced into the track. Zappa taped everything and insisted on exact tuning and tempos in live performances, enabling him to utilize a collage approach to musical construction in the studio. The song climaxes with an elaborately asymmetrical coda that doesn’t so much end as segue immediately into the satirical blues, “Can’t Afford No Shoes.” And so it goes with this record: brilliant music, banal lyrics. Thankfully, Frank isn’t going out of his way to be offensive and the songs are wryly humorous, if inconsequential. Ultimately, the rest of the album doesn’t live up to the promise of “Inca Roads,” although that might not be humanly possible, even for Frank Zappa.
Bongo Fury (1975) is a mixed bag, but will be of particular interest to fans of Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), who is featured prominently on this (mostly) live recording. Beefheart’s stories and harangues are amusing, but the band sounds a little unsure of themselves, which is disconcerting given their pedigree. Nevertheless, this album represents an uncharacteristic act of generosity towards Zappa’s childhood friend, whose overt freakiness challenged even his own. (Van Vliet went on to a successful career as a painter.) There are moments that make the experiment worthwhile, but side two is the most satisfying with Frank playing guitar hero on the eleven-minute “Advance Romance” and on the concluding “Muffin Man.” This album gets overlooked by most Zappa-philes, including myself, and while it is somewhat claustrophobic and schizophrenic, there is enough interesting stuff here to warrant multiple listens.
Zappa’s DiscReet label would collapse under the weight of acrimonious lawsuit against his manager, Herb Cohen, and a later dispute with the corporate parent, Warner Bros., over the release of a proposed four-LP box set, to be entitled, Läther. (That material was instead released piecemeal without Zappa’s authorization before the DiscReet label was finally dissolved.) The resulting bitterness is audible in Zappa’s subsequent music, manifesting itself in a palpable contempt for just about everybody, including his listeners. The searing cynicism of his later albums make his mid-‘Seventies works seem lighthearted and sweet by comparison. The Mothers were unceremoniously disbanded and Zappa continued his own way with various musicians who would bend to his iron will—or be sacked. Although there was still interesting music to come, things would never be quite the same.