Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Mothers Of Invention - One Size Fits All (1975)

With this being the final studio album released by The Mothers - whether they knew it or not - leader/songwriter Frank Zappa pulled out all the stops to make not only one of the best albums of his enormous catalog (55 by the time he passed away in 1993; his posthumous releases thrown in makes it 84 and counting...), but one of the best albums of the 1970's.

In spite of his prowess as a composer, performer, and singer, oddly enough Zappa was never able to sing and play guitar at the same time. As this album features what I consider to be his breakout as a guitar hero*, he is reliant largely on keyboardist George Duke and sax/flute man Napoleon Murphy Brock - with a cameo by Zappa's idol, Johnny "Guitar" Watson on two tracks - to handle the vocal duties. George and Napoleon have great, distinct voices, both of them setting the precedent of Frank featuring African-American musicians in his band in prominent roles.** (This may sound like something Michael Scott on The Office would point out, but it really was rare in the 1970's that a band would be integrated. It still sort of is.)

This lineup of the band - known as "The Roxy Band" due to their outstanding performance(s) on the live Roxy & Elsewhere double LP from 1974 - fit together perfectly as a tight sextet of Frank on guitar, Duke, Brock, Tom Fowler on bass, Chester Thompson (later of Genesis) on drums, and the incomparable Ruth Underwood on percussion. I love Roxy, but having a band with two drummers, trumpet, trombone, an extra synth player, and a second-string guitarist - shades of the bloating of the original Mothers' lineup - is too much to take on the road without bleeding money.

Frank did his best to showcase the talent of these musicians, all from conservatory and/or jazz backgrounds, often writing compositions of extraordinary difficulty in rhythmic or melodic structure just to see if they can do it. In the best of these examples - "T'Mershi Duween," "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing"*** - Zappa and company pound out a gorgeous melody and make it seem pretty damn easy to play. At worst - "Kung Fu" off The Lost Episodes immediately comes to mind - it's well-performed, but tricky to get into. You can't whistle it.

Zappa checks that material in at the door, and while there are some intricate passages here and there, this is a very accessible, catchy, and solid album. At times rocking, at times beautiful. However, Zappa's band lineup changed with (almost) every single album he put out. By the time the album was ready (Zappa's liner notes in the original LP are dated "Easter 1975"), he was on tour with The Mothers once again, but with Ruth gone, Chester replaced with a young Terry Bozzio (his most manic, aggressive drummer), and he'd reunited with his on-again, off-again friend Captain Beefheart. By the time the album came out, that tour was already over.

Each of Zappa's albums, I could argue moreso than any other artist, represent a specific point in time. The band you hear on Freak Out! (1966) is added to and subtracted from by the time of Absolutely Free (1967), giving each album its own distinct flavor. For me, this appeal (and his endurance) is what makes the music of Frank Zappa so great. Didn't like this album? Fine, here's another! Didn't like those - more of a classical fan? Jazz? It's all there.

Few other albums capture such a great, specific point in time as deftly as One Size Fits All. This is a band that loved a challenge, under the watchful eye (and mustache) of a man who loved to challenge his musicians.

01. Inca Roads [11]
This is iconic Zappa. The band is operating on all cylinders with one of his best album-opening tracks (again, given the breadth of his catalog, this is a distinct honor). Maybe now would be a good time to point out that lyrics aren't always as important in FZ's songs as, say, his political stuff or his critiques on society. George Duke, who by his own admission was not a singer before he joined The Mothers, gives a great performance, even if the lyrics are about aliens visiting the Incas. Whatever - it sounds fantastic. Great guitar solo. The audio you hear on the record is from the above-linked video, except for the solo, which was extracted from another live performance from Helsinki. (Yes, they were that tight that they could nail the same song at the same tempo, night after night.) I'm so glad this video exists, otherwise you'd be led to believe both Chester and Ruth - especially Ruth - had eight arms each. One of Zappa's greatest songs, and certainly one of his defining tunes from the 1970's.

02. Can't Afford No Shoes [9]
A rollicking number, with tight harmonies between Frank, Duke, and Brock. It's way too short for my liking - there is some beauty bubbling underneath the surface in those harmonies on the chorus. Great guitar solo, as well.

03. Sofa #1 [10]
A beautiful waltzing instrumental, with some neat effected bass by Tom. Duke uses an otherwordly synth voice to provide an ethereal atmosphere. There's some good drum runs by Chester near the end as the song climaxes. This song will return again at the end of the album, though the sung melody on that one can be heard here on the piano. It says something that Frank did this song on the In New York album, saying in the liner notes that no one bought the original record and wanted to give it another go. That's Zappa's way of saying he really liked it.

04. Po-Jama People [6]
There is something about this one that I've just never liked. Zappa unveils what would become a staple of his later records, where he sings really close into the microphone - you can almost hear the spit - but it's not that I don't like. I have always thought the lyrics were a little dumb, breaking down society into different types of pajamas. Given his previous assertion on Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970) that "Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, and don't kid yourself," it's a bit daft for him to say everyone else is a po-jama person, who are in turn boring him to pieces. The solo is great, though.

05. Florentine Pogen [10]
Opening side B, this is Napoleon's moment in the spotlight on vocals. For all of George's soul, Napoleon has an equally unique, slightly gravelly, slightly smooth voice. He had ripped it up on "Cheepnis" off Roxy the year before, and he does just as great of a job here. It's slower, but the decreased tempo gives the song a chance to be heavier. Chester's fills throughout are spot on, as are those insanely fast bits Ruth plays on her assorted instruments. Seeing it on video, I was amazed to see that the sound at 0:47 is not a flute but in fact Napoleon's own voice. I'm also pleased to report that while he isn't singing he is dancing his ass off, without once ever sounding out of breath. When it was originally recorded, "Florentine Pogen" went on for another four minutes - it can be seen/heard on The Dub Room Special! DVD/CD, thankfully.

06. Evelyn, A Modified Dog [7.5]
Even at his silliest - as on this tune - Zappa still has something up his sleeve. The references to "pan-chromatic resonance" from the voices within a piano is a nod to his 1967/1968 avant-classical masterpiece, Lumpy Gravy, which featured an orchestra, some stray rock fragments, and dialog recorded from within the inside of a piano, with the sustain pedal anchored down. Otherwise, it's a build-up to a bit of Zappaesque absurdism, like a "shaggy dog story" (no pun intended), where all this description of a dog and its surroundings climaxes with...

"Arf, she said."

07. San Ber'dino [10]
The segue is perfect, as The Mothers rock and roll their way through a bit of autobiographical information - though with Zappa's sense of the bizarre, making it just off-kilter enough that the uninitiated^ won't get it - before an extended coda with the great Johnny "Guitar" Watson on what Frank credits as "Flambe Vocals." It would seem overlong if it weren't done so well. This was the one - and sadly only - song from this album to be included on Rykodisc's 1995 compilation Strictly Commercial. Normally, I'm not one for compilations, but in the case of someone whose discography stares at you like a ziggurat, it's almost necessary, especially growing up in a town where the five people who have actually heard of Zappa know him as little more than the writer of "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" or "Valley Girl." The harmonica is credited to one "Bloodshot Rollin' Red," a pseudonym for the man behind my favorite pseudonymous rockstar, Captain Beefheart. I would have loved to have seen the sessions for this number.

08. Andy [10]
Johnny features again, this time more prominently. A book came out a few years back by a groupie-turned-musician named Nigey Lennon. She and Frank had (by all other accounts) a brief fling, but her book stretched it out to span the first half of the 1970's. I'm not so sure about that, but I don't dismiss her claim. I also won't completely rule out that the lyrics - "Is there anything good inside of you? / If there is I really wanna know!" - are about her. Anyway, this song modulates and shifts as many times as The Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away" in less time, starting off as a funky march, a creepy sort of whispered segment, gutbucket R&B, a catchy chorus, an instrumental passage with some sci-fi organ, Duke singing over something that could pass as disco in some circuits, before building up to the final chorus (a different one), brought full circle by Watson. A fantastic musical tour de force.

09. Sofa #2 [10]
The cool late-night majesty of "Sofa #1" is revisited with lyrics, with Duke singing the verses, and Zappa (later with others) doing the response - in German. There is a history to this song, dating back to the second incarnation of The Mothers from 1970-1971. "Sofa" was part of a suite of several songs. This one and "Stick It Out" (off 1979's Joe's Garage Acts II And III) saw a reworking and proper release. The rest stayed in the can. I wasn't that fond of the suite when I heard it, but it's still really cool to know that Zappa could, at any given point, whip out a song several years old and have it be completely new for most of the audience. A good closer for a terrific album.

Subtotal: 92.78%

Replayability Factor: +3
Not every Zappa album is this palatable. In fact, I could say "Zappa" and "palatable" are words that don't belong together all that often. This makes for one well-crafted exception.

Consistency Factor: +3
One Size Fits All stands as one of a few Zappa albums I could recommend as a "first purchase" for a curious fan - and if you call yourself a fan and don't own this album you are not a fan! (It's one of those.)

External Factors: +2
The arrangements are great, George and Napoleon are such good singers - and J.G. Watson is a welcome surprise, and the band itself is tight. It isn't marred by the dreaded sounds of the 1980's that loomed ahead, it doesn't sound too thin or too thick, and the ability for Frank to use live pieces and make them sound like studio-quality recordings is no small feat, either.

FINAL SCORE: 100.8% A+

* For the Zappa geeks, yes, I acknowledge and adore Frank's earlier guitar work on "Stuff Up The Cracks," "Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich," "Holiday In Berlin, Full-Blown," "Willie The Pimp," "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama," etc. But what gives One Size Fits All the status as his "breakout" as a guitar man is that nearly every song allows for a solo from Frank.

** Though Don "Sugarcane" Harris enjoyed some spots with The Mothers and Frank's short-lived Hot Rats band, it really started with Duke and Brock, followed in the late 70's and throughout the 80's with Ray White and the ever-present Ike Willis.

*** In spite of the seemingly off-putting song title(s), bear in mind Zappa had a knack for giving his instrumental compositions silly or just plain crude names. See also: "I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth," "G-Spot Tornado," "Alien Orifice." All sublime tunes...just don't leave these albums out when the grandparents come over. (Voice of experience, people.)

^ I say "uninitiated" with a bit of contempt, having had more than my share of run-ins with people who have taken the Zappa class at IU or just pretend to be fans when all they've got is a best of and a fairly predictable handful. They'll like a song, but have no idea what it's about. There's no way around this without being a dick, but owning 10% of someone's recorded output isn't fandom. With Zappa, this is something to dive into. Head first.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

On your last comment - I agree. To be a true fan of Zappa does mean to have listened to a lot of his stuff - which is A LOT. I don't even know if I could really call myself a true Zappa fan because I know there is a lot of his music I haven't listened to.

Reading your review makes me want to listen to the album (or relisten to it). But then again, aren't your review supposed to do that?