Wednesday, October 9, 2013
"Uncle Meat" by Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention (April, 1969)
I can agree that Zappa was a genius. I can really enjoy his music in the right mood and the right dosage. But I must admit I've been dreading listening to four sides at once. So now I'll just let it play, for better or for worse.
From the first moment, Zappa's instrumentation gets me. A little weird, which I can enjoy, inventive, creative, stand-up comedy with a keyboard. The arrangement is interesting and unusual, a little reminiscent of Brian Wilson or Van Dyke Parks in 1967. This is not your typical pop or rock or jazz music. This isn't what you put on the hi-fi for your teenage dance party, or to bandage your aching heart. It turns the conventions of popular music on their ear, obliterates all of the usual rules about what makes a song, and creates something completely new and different. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is up to each listener. To me, it's pretty mixed. There are moments that blow me away. There are moments that make me want to get on to the next thing and see if I like it more. There are moments when I want to stick sharp objects in my ears but Zappa beats me to it. I think that's what he was going for, though.
It's the "height" of 1960s experimentation, of trying new sounds and forms, of mixing strangeness, rock, and jazz with something that's none of the above, none of whatever "above" you might think of. I can appreciate that. I don't always like it, though.
This isn't an easy album to listen to, but I don't think it's supposed to be. Call it avant garde, musique concrete, or whatever. Zappa and the Mothers are making fun of music, and of themselves, while moving into new territory. The are tracks I like, usually those that are more commercial sounding, like "Dog Breath, The Year of the Plague," which sounds like a funky R&B song until it starts to go in directions that make fun of the genre, while paying homage at the same time. He does the same thing with doo-wop on the infectious "Electric Aunt Jemima," one of my favorite tracks on this album. Or his other bit of doo-wop humor, "The Air."
Zappa is flipping off convention and rules, and having a good time doing it. And at times we can share their fun. Spike Jones meets rock and roll meets your best friend's drunken mom's hippie boyfriend and his dancing bear.
The centerpiece is the King Kong suite, which tears jazz apart and brings it into the age of the hippie. And isn't particularly easy to listen to. It's an interesting work, but by the time you get there, it's not hard to be Zappa'd out.
During my youth, Zappa was renowned for his cosmic creative craziness. It would have been interesting to sit down with the critics when they first put this on their turntable in 1969, when they wondered if this was all a big put-on.
It's often self-indulgent ego music, experimentation for the sake of geeky hipness. It takes itself too seriously while demanding that we don't take it seriously. And sometimes it works. Sometimes it's frustrating, or scary, or annoying, or funny, or brilliant, or maddening. It's exhausting and heavy and thick. But that's Zappa for you.
This will never be my favorite album. I'm not likely to put it on very often. I can't say I was sorry to see it end. But it's not like anything else, and sometimes that makes something a classic bit of art, and sometimes it makes something incomprehensible. With this album, either response is justified.
Frank Zappa is an animal. This dude is like a hyena who learned that banging on instruments can make noise. And once he discovered that he could make sounds, he taught his little hyena self to hit the record button. Then, he never stopped. For two whole hours. This album is the definition of "cacophony."
It wasn't until track 5 ("Dog Breath: The Year of the Plague") (which was 10 minutes into the album) that actual music started to play through the speakers. Up until that point, it was just sounds layered on top of a million other sounds.
"Electric Aunt Jemima" (track 12) is the first song that I could actually say I legitimately enjoyed. It's sounds like a Buddy Holly song being covered by Frank Zappa. It was interesting and fun. I don't know if it's actually any good though, to be honest. It's like this.... If this album was a wild river and I was careening down it panicking, looking for something to grab onto, this song would be the first tree branch that I could finally grab hold of to feel like I was somewhat safe. But then, by golly, not even two minutes go by before the tree branch snaps and I go right back under the water. Dammit!
"Mr. Green Genes" contains the lyrics: "Eat your shoes. Don't forget the strings and socks. Even eat the box you bought them in." Can you sense my eyes rolling right now? That song did make me chuckle a little bit though. I'll give it that. It was yet again, another tree branch, but I grabbed onto it just because it looked like a penis and I thought that was funny. I knew it wouldn't save me, but my sense of humor is still intact, even while struggling to breathe in a crazy river.
After two solid hours, I got out of the river alive. It sucked though. Really bad. And I am cold and wet and all banged up. I probably have a concussion. But at least I made it out alive, and I can move on with my life. At least I have a story to tell...
Thank goodness Led Zeppelin is next. I need Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to nurse me back to health.
Cacophony. That is all there really is to say about this album.