Thursday, February 25, 2010

Addendum: A Beginner's Introduction To Frank Zappa

That wonderful (anonymous) comment from the last post made a good point. I'm one who celebrates his entire discography, although there are some real clunkers on his lesser albums.

Anyway, this revised list is for the people who might run away screaming from their stereo systems the moment they hear Uncle Meat. I need to keep in mind, what I consider Zappa's masterpieces just aren't for everyone.

Let's do round two, in which FZ's more accessible material is the focus:

10. Freak Out! (1966)
The last twenty minutes of this hour-long double album notwithstanding, this is a good, healthy blast of the mid-60's LA scene along with some finely-written pop songs...and a greasy doo-wop number that firmly established that often-repeated phrase from the LP's gatefold, "No Commercial Potential."

Oh, how we beg to differ.

Key tracks: "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," "Who Are The Brain Police?," "Motherly Love," "Wowie Zowie," "Trouble Every Day"

09. Joe's Garage (1979)
One of the best fusions of orchestral sensibilities with rock and roll instruments, this album has some of Zappa's most memorable (and quotable) moments. Peppered throughout are some amazing guitar solos, proof that Ike Willis is the most underrated singer in rock and roll, and some of Zappa's most beautiful (and haunting) melodies.

The only caveat is there's plenty of crude humor that might throw off an average listener with tales mocking religion, depictions of sex in German (later described in English - may want to brace yourself for that one), and incredibly unsubtle mentions of, uh...prison romance. Don't play this for your girlfriend if she's Catholic.

Definitely play this for your girlfriend if she's a lapsed Catholic.

Key tracks: "Catholic Girls," "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?," "Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up," "A Token Of My Extreme," "Watermelon In Easter Hay"

08. The Grand Wazoo (1972)
I was a bit reluctant to have two jazz records on here, but this one is too damn good to pass up. Featuring a true big band, rather than the usual shit-ton of overdubbage from someone like Ian Underwood or Sal Marquez (although Marquez is very much on this record, in full trumpeting force), the album's title track wouldn't be out of place in some sort of historical epic. And George Duke's hot-shit keyboard solo on "Eat That Question" and its lead-in to one of Zappa's funkiest grooves is not to be missed.

The only thing that might throw off the "average" listener (whoever that might be) is the absence of lyrics. There really is sort of a demand, as Zappa pointed out with typical cynicism, that songs have words in the present day. Regardless, this is a great introduction for the jazz-head.

Key tracks: "The Grand Wazoo," "For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitchhikers)," "Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus," "Eat That Question," "Blessed Relief" (The whole album is five tracks...they're all great.)

07. Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
No libretto, no maniacal sonic experiments, no stage antics, just rock and roll - Zappa style, of course. This is the album for the "classic rock" fan. Terry Bozzio's vocal adventures, Adrian Belew's Dylan imitation (by the way, Adrian Belew is on this album), and the seamless dubbing of studio material onto live backing tracks make for one Hell of a trip.

The only real hang-up here is the song that caused some trouble for FZ back then: "Jewish Princess." Justify it all you want, give them the great Zappa quote of "Unlike the unicorn, the Jewish Princess does indeed exist in our society," explain that he wasn't a misogynist, and you might still have a very indignant reaction.

Don't play this album for your rabbi.

Key tracks: "Flakes," "Tryin' To Grow A Chin," "City Of Tiny Lites," "Dancin' Fool," "Wild Love"

06. Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
The debut of The Mothers mark III, this is a compact run of pop/rock/jazz numbers that shows off the incredible talents of Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke, and Ruth Underwood. The real star here, though, is Frank, having lead vocals on nearly all of the songs (with MVP going to in-and-out-of-Zappa's-band-because-of-alcohol vocalist Ricky Lancelotti for his two madcap performances) and providing a great guitar solo - short or long - on EVERY tune.

The only snag? "Dinah-Moe Humm" plays like a porno. You can't hide behind hoping the listener will focus only on the music; the song is mixed in such a way that the vocals are pretty front-and-center.

Also, and this is my own hang-up, but I personally think "Montana" is one of his stupidest songs. Period.

Key tracks: "Camarillo Brillo," "I'm The Slime," "Dirty Love," "Fifty-Fifty," "Dinah-Moe Humm"

05. Hot Rats (1969)
Rykodisc nailed it when they referred to this album as "the album that people who don't even like Frank Zappa can enjoy" (or something to that effect). Possessing a distinctly rockier/bluesier edge than The Grand Wazoo, this really is one of the best all-around introductions to Zappa as a songwriter.

Key tracks: "Peaches En Regalia," "Willie The Pimp," "The Gumbo Variations"

04. Apostrophe (') (1974)
This is one of the easiest FZ albums to hunt down used on vinyl. It's just one of those mid-70's albums it seemed everyone owned, no doubt because of "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow." Unlike, say, "Valley Girl" and Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, it's not hard to picture buyers giving equal time to both sides of this record.

Key tracks: The "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" suite on Side A, "Cosmik Debris," "Apostrophe (')," "Uncle Remus" (I actually know two people who have done as the lyrics to this song describe: stealing lawn jockeys out of rich people's lawns. One I don't think knew fact, they took the jockey and shot it with a Mosin Nagant rifle...the other guy did it because of this song.)

03. We're Only In It For The Money (1968)
Quintessential Zappa, with what many consider his best band (if just on principle - and with said principle in mind, they kind of were) and an even smaller contingency feel is his only band worth a good God-damn. Plenty of humor, bold musical experiments, and even a dash of pathos here and there.

Not to be played for hippies.

Key tracks: "Who Needs The Peace Corps?," "Mom And Dad," "Flower Punk," "The Idiot Bastard Son," "Mother People"

02. You Are What You Is (1981)
There's some bias in this. I love this album, and I contend it is Zappa's most accessible album in the milieu of pop-rock. The lyrical topics were life-altering (side C's series of songs on religion said things I'd been thinking for years by age 15) and just plain funny, sending up the shallower side of American society. Great vocal performances throughout courtesy of Bob Harris, Ray White, Ike Willis, and even the Indian of the Group himself, Mr. Jimmy Carl Black.

Frank's sneering vocal line on "Dumb All Over" sounds like he's on the brink of spewing acid. Unforgettably awesome.

Might want to skip the song where the protagonist smacks his (whiny, obnoxious shrew of a) girlfriend, though.

Key tracks: "Teenage Wind," "Harder Than Your Husband," "Doreen," "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing," "Dumb All Over"

01. One Size Fits All (1975)
I reviewed this one back in the summer of 2009, so you can read all about it there. It is the album I consider the finest example of Zappa's "Zappaesque" sound, with goofy lyrics that conceal two or three different layers of meaning, mean guitar work, and musicianship that will make you wonder why you're even bothering with your garage band.

Key tracks: "Inca Roads," "Can't Afford No Shoes," "Sofa #1," "San Ber'dino," "Andy"


Anonymous said...

Thanks, but what about a list of 10 to 20 songs that are accessible.

Alex said...

Good thought. Here we go:
01. Brown Shoes Don't Make It
02. Who Needs The Peace Corps?
03. King Kong
04. Holiday In Berlin, Full-Blown
05. Strictly Genteel
06. Inca Roads
07. Dinah-Moe Humm
08. Bogus Pomp
09. Dumb All Over
10. Cheepnis
11. The Torture Never Stops
12. Drowning Witch
13. Dancin' Fool
14. Amnerika
15. G-Spot Tornado
16. Lumpy Gravy Part One
17. Filthy Habits
18. Watermelon In Easter Hay
19. Blessed Relief
20. Sharleena

Anonymous said...

Thanks man, this list really helped me out. Getting into Zappa was always something I avoided because of its sheer size and ever-changing sound

antmanbee said...

Florentine Pogen is a little chocolate biscuit. The Lost episodes go some interesting stuff