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Frank Zappa: The Läther Years

This is an interesting transitional period. The last incarnation of the Mothers of Invention (profiled in my last post) had faded away, and Zappa had just fired his manager and entered a long legal battle with him, moving to Warner Brothers in the process.

Zoot Allures (1976) was made largely solo, and is very straightforward compared to the complicated music of the preceding few years (although straightforward for Zappa is still pretty weird for anyone else). In this respect it points ahead a bit to the more conventional rock songs of his later career. It feels to me like he was still trying to figure out what exactly to do next.

What came next was pretty complicated: Läther (1977 1996) is a four-record set summing up pretty much everything he had done in the 70s, consisting of recordings going all the way back to 1972. It spans a whiplash-inducing variety of styles, from dumb rock to atonal orchestral compositions. Warner Brothers balked at releasing a 4-LP set, more lawsuits followed, and the label ended up taking most of the material that was going to be in the set and releasing it as four rather more coherent albums: Zappa in New York (1978) (live, rock, lots of offensive songs), Studio Tan (1978) (through-composed prog including the side-long “Adventures of Greggery Peccary”), Sleep Dirt (1979) (more instrumentals and a bunch of rejects from the earlier aborted musical Hunchentoot), and Orchestral Favorites (1979) (symphonic music, tonal and not).

Eventually, in 1996, after Zappa’s death, Läther as originally conceived was finally released. The whole situation posed a question for my completist/authenticty-seeking self (augmented by the fact that some of the Warner Brothers records were further modified by Zappa when they came out in CD). I ended up buying Läther but none of the others (yet), so that’s what I’ll review here.

It is a pretty crazy collection, even more schizophrenic than Zappa’s usual releases. In a way it’s nice; I can handle the songs like “The Legend Of The Illinois Enema Bandit” and “Titties ‘n Beer” easier when they’re an occasional change of pace rather than the main focus of the record (as they seem to be on Zappa in New York). The proggish stuff is outstanding, and “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” is a highlight of Zappa’s career — I would say that it’s hurt a bit by the silly storyline and sped-up vocals if not for the fact that trying to excise the silliness from Zappa’s oeuvre is as pointless as making a similar attempt for, say, Pynchon. If you’re going to make one exploratory Zappa purchase, you could do worse than buying this and then deciding which aspects of his music you actually like before deciding what to explore next.

After this debacle, Zappa successfully extricated himself from his relationship with Warner Brothers and went indie. Next up, the 80s rock years.

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