Monday, September 30, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 555: Frank Zappa

After a disappointing Dolphins loss, I suppose a disappointing music review is only fitting.

Disc 555 is…. Weasels Ripped My Flesh
Artist: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

Year of Release: 1970

What’s up with the Cover?  This cover reminds us that no matter how poor a shave you get with an electric razor, the answer should never be to attach a weasel to it.  I know it is hard to believe, since “attach a weasel to it” does solve so many household challenges, but for shaving I recommend an old fashioned safety razor if your electric is on the fritz.

How I Came To Know It:  I’ve been meaning to get into Frank Zappa for a while, but the combination of his daunting discography and his reputation for inaccessibility kept me from pulling the trigger.  Knowing I was interested in getting some, Sheila bought me this one as a Christmas gift.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Frank Zappa albums, but “Joe’s Garage” is so new that I haven’t even listened to it.  I am going to go out on a limb and say it is better than “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” putting the latter at number two.

Rating:  1 star

The opening song on “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” is “Didja Get Any Onja.” It is a seven minute song opening and closing with some bizarre and directionless fusion jazz.  In the middle it features someone braying like a donkey, and a man with a German accent telling a story about standing on a street corner as a child. It is every bit as horribly pointless as it sounds, and a perfect summary for what the rest of this album will sound like.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  The next song, “Directly From My Heart to You” is an almost straight up blues number.  It is played deliberately devoid of any blues sensibilities or feeling but through all the acid and disconnect I think it was (mostly) a blues song and (mostly) good.

The other (mostly) good song on the album is “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” which in places is even better than mostly good, and even downright funky.  “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” is a genuinely enjoyable song – so much so that I decided after my first three listens to this album that I’d keep it just for that song.  Now that I’ve listened to the record for a fourth (and final) time, I am overturning that decision.  This album has to go.

Being inventive is laudable – expected even from a band called The Mothers of Invention – but that if that invention is music it still has to be listenable at the end of it, and most of “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” feels like a chore to get through.

The song titles are strange and affected throughout, although I will admit knowing the name of one song was “Prelude To the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask” made the song make slightly more sense.  Of course, that was before it went from directionless jazz outtakes and descended into the laughter of lunatics and then later a piano solo played over the sounds of pigs grunting, or possibly the sounds of men mimicking the sound of grunting pigs.

And while people not familiar with this record will think I am exaggerating for dramatic effect, I can assure you this is exactly what these songs feature.  Some albums are so strange there is no need to stretch the truth.

Not content to torture the ears with a variety of patchwork sounds and musical experiments – some of which maddeningly almost work – Zappa feels the need to describe just what he is doing.  In “Toad of the Short Forest” he literally describes it on the track as follows:

“At this very moment on stage we have drummer A playing in 7/8, drummer B playing in 3/4, the bass playing in 3/4, the organ playing in 5/8, the tambourine playing in 3/4 and the alto sax blowing its nose.”

Even if you could do this (and these guys manage it) why in the nine hells would you bother?

By track six, “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue” I was desperate for more clues to understanding.  I broke down and looked up “Eric Dolphy” on Google, learning that he was a mid-century jazz musician of some repute.

This explained the aimless jazz noodling that is ever-present on the record, and armed with this knowledge and by continuing to pay close attention to song titles like “Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula” I was able to come close to a semblance of meaning.  However, this didn’t make it any more fun to listen to.

When you’re at a poetry night and the guy on stage feels the need to explain what his poem is about, this is not usually a good sign.  He should be able to let the art speak for itself, but often he’s throwing in explanations because without them the art just doesn’t stand up.  This is how I felt about “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.”  Without a speech on time signatures, or allusions to a jazz musician I might have never known what the hell was going on.  The pig snorting and donkey braying underscores that there isn’t much going on anyway.

Zappa is well-loved by many musically people, but if “Joe’s Garage” isn’t a damn sight better than “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” my genuine attempt to grok him is going to be at a quick end.  I don’t care how clever or talented you are, at the end of the day, listening to music shouldn’t be this unrewarding.

Best tracks:   My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama

No comments: