Posts tagged ‘music’

Frank Zappa: The Läther Years

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

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.

The Ring of the Nibelung, ranked act by act (Part 4 of 4)

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

Previously: ranks 6 through 4

3. Götterdämmerung, Act Two. Once we’ve finally gotten Act One out of the way, Götterdämmerung is awesome. Here we start with a superbly creepy Alberich/Hagen duet, then the music expands gloriously as the day breaks, Hagen’s super-powerful menacing hoi-hos summon, what’s this, an honest-to-goodness chorus, who intone the beautifully simple wedding music, then Brünnhilde (understandably) loses her mind in front of everyone, and just in case anyone thought this act was too boring we finish it all off with a revenge trio. Growing up I had inherited from my composer grandfather recordings of all the operas but this one, and when I finally heard it it was a revelation.

2. Das Rheingold, Prelude and Scene One. This gets perhaps undeserved bonus points for familiarity because I’ve listened to it more than any part; as a kid I would generally start here, then fall asleep midway through Scene Two. But even so, you have the proto-Minimalist prelude, one of the most important passages in the history of music; a bunch of great tunes, including all-too-rare-in-the-Ring three-part harmony from the Rhinemaidens; and perhaps most importantly, a fast-moving and gripping plot.

1. Götterdämmerung, Act Three. Talk about going out on a high note; this last act of the whole cycle kicks ass from beginning to end. First the Rhinemaidens finally reappear, with even prettier music than the last time. Then Siegfried regains his memory and gives his recap of the last opera, delivered with such innocent sweetness that I actually feel sorry for him (he has not been particularly sympathetic up until now). Then comes his death, and the incredibly powerful funeral march, and as if that weren’t enough, everything wraps up with the epic immolation scene. It was worth the wait!

The Ring of the Nibelung, ranked act by act (Part 3 of 4)

Friday, August 28th, 2009

Previously: ranks 9 through 7

6. Siegfried, Act One. Probably the act for which my opinion most greatly exceeds the general consensus. Maybe people aren’t big fans because the hero, Siegfried himself, is kind of a fratboy asshole, and Mime is perceived as a nasty Jewish stereotype. Leaving aside the question of how intentional either of those is on Wagner’s part, the music is excellent, and both characters have lots of great things to sing. Going through these operas again, I find that one of the things that really makes an act for me is the overall structure of it. This feels like a symphony – Scene 1 being the opening allegro, Scene 2 an intermediate slow movement (and I love that Wanderer chord sequence enough that I actually like the trademark Boring Wotan Recap in this opera), and Scene 3 the triumphant finale, which even includes an honest-to-god catchy song (sing along, you know you want to) in Siegfried’s forging scene.

5. Siegfried, Act Three. This act has a reputation for being nothing but Siegfried and Brünnhilde bellowing their love at each other, but there’s really a lot of great stuff in here before we even get to that point. The introductory music is kick-ass; you can practically hear Wagner being psyched to pick up the project again. Even Erda’s scene is pretty interesting, and the tension gets heart-poundingly ratcheted way up as Wotan confronts Siegfried (this of course is another one of the climactic moments of the Ring, as the gods give way to man). Finally Siegfried discovers Brünnhilde, and the heart-stoppingly expansive music as she wakes is one of the most beautiful passages in the whole cycle. Finally, yes, they do bellow their love at each other for a bit too long, but I can cut them some slack, they’re in love.

4. Die Walküre, Act One. A great arc from beginning to end with no real weak spots — the storm and Siegmund’s arrival, the smoldering glances between him and Sieglinde, Hunding’s swagger, Siegmund’s tale (usually when someone sings his backstory in a 10 minute monologue, it’s bad news, but not here), the sword, all culminating in a glorious lyrical love duet. It’s not surprising that this is the one act of the whole Ring most likely to show up being performed by itself, and if you made this list by taking a poll of fans, this would probably end up in the #1 spot.

Next: ranks 3 through 1!

The Ring of the Nibelung, ranked act by act (Part 2 of 4)

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Previously: ranks 13 through 10

9. Die Walküre, Act Two. I know, it’s the emotional center of the entire cycle. And I actually like Wotan’s monologue fine. But it’s just too long to enjoy (as you may have noticed, this is a recurring issue with me). By the time Wotan has dictated his instructions to Brünnhilde, been relentlessly henpecked by Fricka, and then taken an entire new scene telling Brünnhilde he’s taking it all back, I’m too exhausted to deal with the only action of the whole act when Siegmund and Sieglinde finally show up. Then, when you finally think it’s payoff time, the climactic battle with Hunding that we’ve been waiting for the whole time lasts around 30 seconds.

8. Das Rheingold, Scene Four. Despite it coming at the end of a few hours of continuous music, the final scene always keeps my interest. Alberich’s rant is gripping, the treasure-piling keeps the pace up, and the rainbow bridge sends things out on a high note. Only Erda’s attempt to throw a wet blanket on the proceedings slows things down.

7. Die Walküre, Act Three. I don’t care how much it’s overused, the Ride of the Valkyries is pretty excellent. And although it sounds like a recipe for tedium, Wotan’s long dressing-down of Brünnhilde works well enough to get you through to the rightfully famous Magic Fire music. I actually like the fact that this is basically an act-long epilogue; the important stuff all happened in the first two acts, and this is just cleaning up the fallout. And despite the lack of action, there are plenty of spine-tingling musical moments.

Next: ranks 6 through 4

The Ring of the Nibelung, ranked act by act (Part 1 of 4)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

I am a sucker for ranking things, especially artistic things. I know that it goes against everything art stands for, but as long as you don’t treat it as a search for objective truth, but rather as a tool to help collect your thoughts about a variety of works, it can be a lot of fun. And it’s great fun to read other people’s lists and say “You put what as #7?” As I recently made my nth journey through Wagner’s Ring cycle, it occurred to that it might be fun to rank its constituent parts.

The rules: each opera is broken up into acts, except for Das Rheingold, which is broken up into scenes, since that’s all it has. Prologues and interludes are considered part of the following act (or scene). Here, therefore, spread out over four nights in homage to the original, are the 13 parts of the Ring cycle, from worst to first:

13. Siegfried, Act Two. How can an act featuring a battle to the death with a dragon be boring? Somehow Wagner has managed it. First you get Alberich and Mime bickering for a while, then Siegfried finally shows up and (spoiler alert!) duly dispatches the dragon in a disappointingly brief scene, then we are subjected to an interminable “comic” scene as Mime repeatedly attempts to poison Siegfried despite the fact that Siegfried can read his thoughts by virtue of tasting the dragon’s blood. At least the Forest Bird scene provides a few moments of desperately needed relief. No wonder Wagner took a twelve-year break after composing this act before continuing.

12. Götterdämmerung, Prologue and Act One. There is plenty of good music here, but it is just too damn long. If I recall correctly Wagner even had second thoughts about the length afterward. I actually like the Norns’ scene and am generally happy to listen to any scene with Hagen in it, and the climax with Siegfried and Brünnhilde is great, but it takes so long to get there. I always think we’re really close to the end and then Waltraute shows up and I realize how far we still have to go, argh. At least you get to snicker at “Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt”. My advice when listening is to break it up into two or three chunks. Of course in a live performance you don’t get that luxury.

11. Das Rheingold, Scene Two. It’s surprising how undramatic this scene feels given that it consists almost solely of gods (and giants) yelling at each other. For one thing, none of them are particularly sympathetic (of course, this is an issue throughout the whole cycle). There are a few bright spots in the midst of the relentless exposition (the Valhalla theme emerging out of the mists as Wotan wakes, the giants’ heavy metal walk-on theme) but they’re the exception.

10. Das Rheingold, Scene Three. This edges ahead of Scene Two by virtue of the awesome intro 9/8 anvil music. Once we actually emerge into Nibelheim it’s not all that interesting, and the trick by which Wotan and Loge trick Alberich is eye-rollingly stupid, but at least it doesn’t last all that long, and the Tarnhelm theme is pretty cool.

Coming up next: ranks 9 through 7!

Frank Zappa: The Prog Years

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Well, that’s what I’m calling them, anyway, although it’s kind of fruitless to try to pin down the style of even one record here. This is the last group that Zappa called the Mothers (and the last group that he named after anything other than himself) and it shows; you get the feeling this is a real group of musicians creating music together and not just a bunch of session players. It’s a lot of fans’ favorite lineup and so far (I’ve actually listened through 1981) I agree.

With Over-Nite Sensation (1973), Zappa discarded the big-band jazz style of his previous two records and made pretty much straight-ahead rock music. The “pretty much” hides the fact that even in the most straightforward tunes here there is often some surprising stuff going on in the background or the breaks. When I first heard it I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t more out there but it’s grown on me a lot (you will hear this sentence again in the future).

Apostrophe (‘) (1974) is a bit more interesting, with more of the prog tendencies that I named this period after. These two albums were his biggest sellers to date, and I like them fine; a few more wrinkles would be nice, but they are really well done.

The wrinkles come out in full force with Roxy & Elsewhere (1974), a double live album with lots of overdubs (a format Zappa used a lot). Even the regular rock tunes have a bunch of twists, and there are some really interesting instrumentals; side 2, which is mostly sophisticated instrumentals, is my favorite side of his since the second side of Absolutely Free. It manages to be superbly virtuosic while still being sweaty and down-to-earth, not bloodless at all. There are a few missteps (a swollen overweight remake of “Trouble Every Day” from Freak Out typifies everything I dislike about how music progressed from the 60s to the 70s) but there’s an amazing amount of good stuff here.

One Size Fits All (1975) just about rounds out this period. It’s lots of people’s favorite Zappa album, and I can understand that. There’s a great mix of rock, funk, and prog, capped off with two versions of a winkingly pompous anthem. I certainly wouldn’t mind if he had managed to make a few more albums in this vein.

Bongo Fury (1975) was made with Captain Beefheart and is pretty much the last gasp of this ensemble. I love Beefheart, and the first track, “Debra Kadabra”, really got my hopes up for some gonzo greatness, but in general it feels like Zappa and Beefheart compromised on some common ground rather than going all-out weird. In my opinion they both made better records on their own.

Some of the musicians in this group (Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, Ruth Underwood, Bruce and Tom Fowler, Chester Thompson) made guest appearances later (and given Zappa’s penchant for using old material for new albums, more music from this period would show up), but his next album was made almost solo, and after that he picked up a new bunch of musicians and the overall style changed again…

Frank Zappa: The Big Band Years

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

First an update on my previous survey: after a couple more listens, I am really digging 200 Motels. It casts the widest net of any of the albums so far, ranging from very simple rock to atonal orchestral pieces (if you have any doubts that Zappa had real classical compositional chops, find The Frank Zappa Songbook and check out the orchestral manuscript excerpts there), which makes it tough to get a handle on. But I kind of look at it (this goes for a lot of Zappa albums) like an interesting topographical landscape that is mostly underwater. At first you just see a few islands; these are the easily identifiable musical elements that come along a few times per side and are all you can really orient yourself by at first. Over repeated listens, the waters recede bit by bit, and you can identify more and more elements of the musical landscape that were opaque at first. Eventually the whole work becomes familiar, and you can begin to understand it as a whole.

This is the way I approach a lot of modern classical music; a few years back I spent a month listening to Elliott Carter’s first string quartet once every day in the background, and by the end of it I certainly did recognize a decent fraction of it. Of course Zappa is easier to process this way because those initial landmarks are pop riffs rather than odd intervallic collections, but the principle is the same and in some ways it can be more rewarding because there’s more to hang on to.

Anyway, on to the big band years, which is really just one year, 1972. These two records are mostly instrumental and have big horn sections, and revisit some of the jazz elements he started exploring in Hot Rats back in 1969.

Waka/Jawaka (1972) is less successful for me. Side one is completely occupied by a single piece, “Big Swifty”, which starts with a very promising multi-metric theme (or “head”, I guess), and then wastes it by settling into a jam for most of its 17 minutes. The two vocal pieces that follow seem to be generally regarded as space-fillers, though the second one, the country-tinged “It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal”, is actually my favorite thing on the album, then things are finished off with the title track, 11 minutes long with again too much of it occupied by solos.

(There are a lot of contradictory elements in Zappa’s work, but to me one of the oddest is the character of his solos. Most of his music, even when it’s dumb, is pretty complicated, sometimes deceptively so, but when it comes to solos he’s happy to sit on a couple of chords for five minutes wanking away. Maybe there’s more there I’m not seeing yet, but so far they’re not grabbing me.)

The Grand Wazoo (1972) is a big improvement. The whole thing just feels tighter and more directed, and side two in particular has a nice arc from beginning to end. There are practically no vocals at all on this record, probably a plus for a lot of people.

After a short tour presenting this music, Zappa assembled yet one more version of the Mothers of Invention and returned to rock with sort of a prog flavor. Stay tuned,

Frank Zappa: The Flo and Eddie Years

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Continuing my chronological tour through Frank Zappa’s albums (I’m in no danger of stopping yet)… As I said last time, this group of albums is generally not regarded in very high esteem by Zappa fans. This incarnation of the band features the tandem vocals of Flo (who’s a guy, by the way) and Eddie, both formerly of the Turtles (the song you probably know is “Happy Together”). The music here takes a weird turn towards juvenile vaudeville, with leering and often offensive lyrics that are usually sexual and when they’re not still tend to be pretty gross.

And you know what, I like it a lot more than I thought I would. Part of it is reveling in the sheer musicianship of the band; the high points of the albums are live 20+ minute suites that even though they contain a fair amount of vamping still have an incredible amount of music that needs to be performed precisely, and listening to everyone nail their cues the whole way through is kind of exhilarating. They make it sound easy, and as someone who has had to memorize hours of complicated ensemble music, I know it’s not. It’s kind of a shame that the lyrics are often stupid, but after you hear them a few times, the words stop being so in the foreground. Yeah, that is about the most positive thing I can find to say about the lyrics.

Chunga’s Revenge (1970) is my least favorite album of this period, an unfocused grab-bag of leftovers from old sessions and new songs with Flo and Eddie.

Fillmore East — June 1971 (1971) is a live album featuring the infamous “groupie routine”, one of the aforementioned suites. The highlight for me, though, is the last track, “Tears Began To Fall”, a glorious soul song with, unbelievably, no trace of sarcasm (which maybe is why Zappa unfortunately never performed it again).

200 Motels (1971) is a double-album soundtrack to the movie featuring the band (and MCed, mystifyingly, by Theodore Bikel), and as you can tell from the clips on YouTube, the movie is a total mess and so is a lot of the music. I like big messes, but even I needed a few listens to get into it. Equal parts stupid rock and mostly-atonal orchestral pieces, with very little in between.

Just Another Band From L.A. (1972) is probably my favorite album of this era. Side one is occupied entirely by another suite, “Billy the Mountain”, which is a lot of fun and for once more silly than offensive. (That gets evened out by the second side, whose centerpiece song is a cringe-inducingly gleeful celebration of incestuous urges.)

Four albums of this is about all I can take, but “luckily” someone threw Zappa off the stage during the tour documented in Just Another Band From L.A. and he disbanded this group and spent the next six months in a wheelchair convalescing and composing. Stay tuned for Frank Zappa: The Big Band Years!

Frank Zappa: The Early Years

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

I promised a couple of weeks ago to investigate Frank Zappa. Being the completist I am, I started at the beginning, and holy crap. Freak Out! and Absolutely Free are both complete masterpieces, and everything else so far is at least super interesting. Here, very briefly, are my initial impressions of Zappa’s early oeuvre.

Freak Out! (1966): I can’t believe this came out two months before Revolver. It completely deconstructs rock music at a time that most people were still trying to construct it. It’s a 2-LP set (one CD). The first two sides are filled with mostly conventional (but still twisted) pop songs. Then things start falling apart. Side 3 starts with “Trouble Every Day”, a 6-minute electric-Dylan-ish rant, then eventually devolves completely into an assemblage of noise that makes “Revolution 9” look tame. I don’t know if I’d enjoy the end of the album by itself much, but as the culmination of the whole record it’s stunning.

Absolutely Free (1967) has already shot into my short list of best albums of all time. Two suites full of complex yet gloriously sloppy music that ping-pongs back and forth between hard rock, faux-Broadway, faux-Pierrot Lunaire, faux-Vaudeville, you name it. There’s a giddy energy to the whole thing, as if they can hardly believe they’re getting away with recording it, that’s totally infectious. Amazing.

We’re Only In It for the Money (1968) is often recommended as the place to start with Zappa, and that seems reasonable. The cut-and-paste tactics of the previous album continue, made into a coherent whole by the album’s theme of contempt for hippies and fake counterculture in general. I’ve had this album for a long time, as opposed to the others, so maybe I’m too used to it by now, but it certainly is another masterpiece.

Lumpy Gravy (1968) is a total mess that is only really worth procuring if you are interested in Zappa’s history. It’s a bunch of orchestral pieces, largely atonal, that have been cut up and interspersed with old pop recordings and excerpts of seemingly high people rambling about random topics. Save it until you know you’re hooked.

Cruising With Ruben and the Jets (1968) is an album of nothing but doo-wop, including reworks of songs from earlier albums, which I have not gotten yet because apparently Zappa totally ruined it 20 years later during its CD release by overdubbing new bass and drum parts, and I’m holding out hope for a remaster of the old version.

Uncle Meat (1969) starts a new phase with lots of composed instrumental pieces in a modern classical vein mixed with jams, live outtakes, and random conversations. There are some really nice pieces here but you are pretty much guaranteed not to like all of it equally.

Hot Rats (1969) was Zappa’s first solo record (not with the Mothers of Invention) and stands apart from the rest of these; it’s mostly jazz-rock fusion (and one of the first examples of it). I can take or leave the long jams, but the shorter fully composed pieces on it are great.

Zappa then disbanded the Mothers of Invention and released a couple of archival recordings mixing lots of old studio and live performances, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (both 1970). I need to let these soak in a little more. There’s some great stuff but also some jams and live improv wackiness that don’t grab me yet. Still, the high points are really high.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten. So far I am mostly enthralled; a lot of this music completely surpasses my expectations after hearing a smattering of Zappa’s work. The guy was obviously a total genius, which helps me give him the benefit of the doubt when something doesn’t appeal to me at first. It seems I am about to enter a period of his career (the Flo and Eddie years) that is largely regarded as a relative low point, so it will be interesting to see if I agree.

If any of this sounds interesting, check out We’re Only In It for the Money or Freak Out! first. Absolutely Free is actually my favorite of all of these records, but I have a feeling the other two early records are better for dipping a toe in the water.

One recommendation I do have in general is to listen to these albums one side at a time. They were written to be listened to that way, of course, and they’re dense enough that listening to more than 20 minutes at a time is a good way to tire out your ears and your brain.

Another Spewer: Frank Zappa

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

To recap, Spewers are artists who are

  • incredibly prolific
  • awesome at their best
  • but with a nonexistent quality filter
  • largely intuitive in approach, as far as I can tell
  • even the best works are big messes (in a great way) rather than tightly constructed jewels
  • apparently wide-ranging in genre
  • but with enough tics that their work is instantly recognizable

So far the category has consisted of Jack Vance, Robert Pollard, and William Vollmann, and I just thought of another: Frank Zappa.

I’m very ambivalent about Zappa. He’s clearly a genius, but the juvenile humor and lack of quality control (e.g., long annoying spoken word interludes) are real strikes against him for me. I think We’re Only in It for the Money is 90% absolutely incredible and 10% repellent. Lumpy Gravy didn’t make much sense to me when I first heard it, but I tried again today and it held together better than I expected. The only other albums I have of his are a two-fer of Apostrophe and Over-Nite Sensation, which I recall finding okay but nothing special, although a bit more research today indicates that those records, while relative hits, aren’t really regarded as very high up in his creative output.

I’m going to explore Zappa a little more, starting with the early Mothers of Invention records, which seem most likely to be up my alley. Further findings will be posted here.

(By the way, this Crossfire episode with Zappa about music censorship is awesome. If you have 20 minutes to spare they will not be wasted if you spend them on this.)