Friday, January 25, 2013

DVD Review-Zappa Plays Zappa

Zappa Plays Zappa
No one on this planet is composing music like this anymore. It's intricate, heartfelt, melodic, humorous, and takes talented musicians to play it. Too many people have closed their minds to Zappa's music just because of his lyrics, and that's too bad, because the music speaks for itself, and for me, lyrics are secondary.

Dweezil assembled a smoking hot band, hit the road, and now we have a document of some of these shows. This DVD has performances from two, maybe three, shows. The set list is phenomenal, although not one song from "Joe's Garage" or "You Are What You Is" (two of my favorite Zappa albums) is included. The audio mixes, stereo and DD 5.1, sound great. The video is clear and the editing is good, but there are plenty of spilt-screen shots, and the camera angle from the guitar headstock looking down on the strings, when used, doesn't show much. The video is presented in a widescreen format. Disc one is 1 hour 54 minutes long; disc two is 1 hour 34 minutes and has a ten-minute interview with Dweezil and "Cheepnis" as bonus features.

The only thing missing from this performance, that was routine at Frank's show, is the audience participation and general weirdness that was played out on-stage. And that's ok by me. I've had the pleasure to see Frank about a dozen times in concert and some of these theatrics were too much and I wished they had focused more on the music. You can only throw around an inflatable doll so many times before it gets boring. One gig I remember Frank did nothing but sit down in a chair facing the audience, smoke cigarettes, and conduct the band. I felt a bit ripped off that he didn't play his guitar or sing. But all I feel when watching this DVD is amazement and pleasure. This is such a killer DVD, the music is timeless, and hopefully Dweezil has sparked some interest for this music to a younger generation. Highest recommendation!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

DVD Review-The freak out list

The freak out list
The freak out list

The idea behind this video is to explore the 66 names that appeared in a list inside the gatefold cover of the MOI's "FREAK OUT" LP.These people supposedly had an inspiring effect on FZ. The problem is the producers concentrate on only a handful of those listed--Varese, Miles Davis, The Cadillacs etc.

The ensuing discussion plays out like a web-based college course. The discussion is intelligent, deep and well researched. You will find out more than you thought you knew about these people and how they influenced FZ-positively or negatively.
The videos and picture sources are nothing new-they use alot of the SNL and the BBC performances that have been floating around for years-so don't purchase this to see Frank or the MOI in concert.I was disappointed as I would have loved to find out why people like 20 Mule Team Borax spokesperson Rosemary DeCamp or DJ B. Mitchell Reed deserved a shout out.

This is dull but it is educational. I wished they would have covered more individuals with less detail than the few they single out here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Understanding America

Understanding America

Billed as an artistic statement, this is really just a compilation of unrelated Zappa tracks that are far better in their original contexts. If you're new to Zappa and want an introduction to his music, you might as well buy "Strictly Commercial" instead. But you're better off starting with an album like "One Size Fits All" or "Apostrophe." If, on the other hand, you are already a fan, you'll find "Understanding America" to be a complete waste of your time and money. It's full of excellent but seemingly randomly-chosen music that appears to have nothing at all to do with understanding America, or any other coherent theme. Billed as an artistic statement, this is really just a compilation of unrelated Zappa tracks that are far better in their original contexts. If you're new to Zappa and want an introduction to his music, you might as well buy "Strictly Commercial" instead. But you're better off starting with an album like "One Size Fits All" or "Apostrophe." If, on the other hand, you are already a fan, you'll find "Understanding America" to be a complete waste of your time and money. It's full of excellent but seemingly randomly-chosen music that appears to have nothing at all to do with understanding America, or any other coherent theme.

Monday, January 14, 2013

DVD Review-Baby Snakes

Baby Snakes
Touted as "a movie about people who do stuff that is not normal," Frank Zappa's Baby Snakes chronicles a late-'70s Halloween stand in New York City (a zany enough proceeding in its own right) with digressions throughout the first half for backstage antics, band interviews, and some outlandish clay animation from Bruce Bickford, with whose work Zappa was obviously smitten. Onstage, Zappa is a live wire, the audience is appropriately rambunctious, and the band--an especially potent incarnation of the famous Mothers of Invention--is tight as could be. The film amounts to a three-hour musical carnival whose participants lack any trace of artistic or personal inhibition. Zappa, who died in 1993, always worked with consummate musicians, and Baby Snakes showcases the cream of the crop: Terry Bozzio (one of the greatest drummers ever to command a kit), bassist Patrick O'Hearn, keyboard wizard Tommy Mars, and even pop chameleon Adrian Belew.

The DVD packaging, with its deluxe miniature dossier on Zappa and the film, is fabulous, and the sound and picture seem about as good as they could be, under the influence--that is, the circumstances. Undeniable are Zappa's intelligence and charisma, which flicker and blaze every second he's on screen. The progressive-leaning rock and jazz music is frequently interrupted for meandering spoken interludes and is certainly not for all tastes. But Frank Zappa was a force to behold, and Baby Snakes offers a unique cultural education for anyone bold enough to give it a spin. "Without deviation," Zappa wrote, "progress is not possible." Baby Snakes is one of Frank's most fervent contributions to progress.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Finer Moments

Finer Moments
it's become apparent that these tracks are mostly live performances by The Mothers of Invention, but I still have no idea from what year or years they were taken. I've now found one online review that claims they're from '67-'72, so I'll take their word for it, but that does mean this album spans two totally different lineups.*

What's important, however, is the music, and this release of instrumental jams, without a doubt, represents the band(s) at their improvisational best. The highlights for me are the live tracks, such as the epic, horn-laden tripped-out mindblowers "The Old Curiosity Shoppe" and "Uncle Rhebus," as well as "Sleazette," which packs two or three songs worth of insane guitar soloing into it's three and a half minutes, taking me on a pretty nice headphone journey that seemed a lot longer, in a good way.

The second half is taken up mostly by strange experimental tracks--some live, some studio sounding--that are hard for me to get into, but the album saves its best for last with "The Subcutaneous Peril," a live 20-minute freakout (with a four-minute drum solo in the middle) that's at least as impressive as anything that other jam-centric bands from the era--like The Dead, Allmans, King Crimson, or Quicksilver Messenger Service--could pull off at their peak. It's pretty much guaranteed to send any listener off to innerspace and, even with it's epic length, ends entirely too soon.

The sound-quality on 'Finer Moments' is extremely crisp for 40-plus year-old recordings. Every instrument--from the guitars, bass, drums, horns, violins, etc.--is very clear, with a little more "oomph" in the bass compared to other live Mothers' recordings from the era I've heard. I had no idea what to expect from this album going in, and I'm pretty much blown away at the quality here.

Absolutely essential for fans of Zappa and The Mothers. Here's hoping there's more where that came from.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

DVD Review-In the 60's

In the 60's
 So when I read about the release of this DVD, I had to get it immediately! The only thing disappointing about it (though it is not surprising) is that there are only snippets of the MOI onstage. (What I would give for a complete '67 Mothers performance at NY's Garrick Theatre!) But the good news is that those who tell the story of the original Mothers do a very good job, with the contributions of former Mothers Bunk Gardner, Jimmy Carl Black, Artie Tripp and Don Preston being particularly valuable (too bad they couldn't have gotten Roy Estrada, Ian Underwood, Billy Mundi or Ray Collins.) An in-depth analysis of the Mothers' mid to late-Sixties albums from "Freak Out" to "Uncle Meat" is very well done, with lots of newly revealed information and anecdotes.
One of the music critics states that this was the best group of musicians that Zappa ever assembled. Well J.C. Black was no Terry Bozzio and Don Preston was no George Duke or Tommy Mars, but, in spirit, maybe they were after all. To this day, I feel that Zappa's most memorable and
iconoclastic music was done with the original Mothers - one critic even suggests that Zappa's music since the late-Sixties was basically a recycling of the ideas he expressed on those great records. That may be going a bit too far, but those first five or six Mothers albums will always be the ones I go back to first. And the members of Frank's band were important components in making the albums and performaces so groundbreaking. These guys were real characters and added so much to the Mothers' output. Especially touching are the words of Jimmy Carl Black (particularly since he passed away recently.) Jimmy Carl clearly loved Frank Zappa and his creativity. But he also makes clear that Zappa was often very demanding and difficult to work with. And after some 35 years,
he is still very hurt that Frank broke up the band at a time when the members interviewed say that the band was peaking. But he also says that he is still buzzed about playing with the "best rock and roll band there ever was." And about that, he just might be correct. I would recommend this to all Zappa fans, especially the ones whose first exposure to Frank Zappa was "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" or "Dinah-Moe Humm." This DVD offers an excellent history lesson into the first years of a musical genius.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Real Frank Zappa Book

The Real Frank Zappa Book
This is not casual reading, summer reading, something you just pick up. It's an inside account for the fact- and tidbit-hungry FZ fan-atic, for those FZ-crazed psychos who have to know more than you do about one of rock's ultimate musical geniuses. This book is written for the Zappa fan by FZ himself, and as such it is an essential addition to an FZ fan's collection. If you've listened to your FZ albums to the point where you know the songs' lyrics, have heard/read some of the rumors and legends, and wish to expand "your mythology" and "conceptual continuity," you're ready.

FZ's music leads the way, as it should, and you'll either love it or hate it pretty quickly. Reading up on FZ before you start listening to his recordings isn't going to help you, and more likely would serve to confuse. This being said, this book is best for the FZ listener who has made the critical personal decision to become an FZ fan, and who wants to educate himself/herself a little bit more about the man who makes the noises come out of the speaker.

And this book is the best place to start. As an (assisted) autobiography, this is the real deal, the observations, memories, and facts directly from the source. FZ says himself in the introduction, "...I do not think of my life as amazing in any sense--however, the opportunity to say stuff in print about tangential subjects is appealing." The countless FZ web pages and fanzines contain all of the information contained in this book and then some, but this is the best place to start your FZ education. FZ's dedication of the book to "Gail, the kids, Stephen Hawking and Ko-Ko" (the 'talking' gorilla) provide the very first indication that the reader is in for a better glimpse of FZ than you can get from listening to the sonic eccentricity of "Billy The Mountain" or "Weasels Ripped My Flesh."

The format is essentially chronological, but wide open, free flowing, with quick jumps to new subjects as diverse as "Jazz: The Music of Unemployment" and "How To Raise Unbelievable Children." There are lists, poetry, instructions, lyrics, interview snippets, letters, transcripts of congressional testimony, tables, photos, and wonderful illustrations. The illustrations are fine, detailed and punctuating the text well, done by the mysterious hieroglyph-signature artist whose name escapes me. What is surprising is that FZ couldn't get longtime FZ album cover artist Cal Schenkel to contribute his talents to the book.

The book is a great investment, a fine addition to an eclectic library, and a wonderful repeat read.