Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Joe's Camouflage

Joe;s Camouflage

Time for yet another entry in the "Joe's xxx" series of Zappa Family Trust albums which derive their moniker from Joe's Garage, the Zappa musical about a garage band in a dystopian society. That the Zappa family archivist responsible for compiling these releases is named Joe Travers adds another layer of meaning, I suppose. The series focuses on rehearsal tapes and the like, rather than "finished products" such as studio albums and live concerts. "Zappa behind the scenes" you might say. This particular release documents a lineup from 1975 that never actually performed or released a studio album together.

Stylistically the music is similar to its counterparts from the Roxy era, and many of Zappa's regular musicians from that time are featured: Roy Estrada on bass, Terry Bozzio on drums and Napoleon Murphy Brock on saxophone and lead vocals. We also hear Robert "Frog" Camarena and Denny Walley on guitar and vocals, and André Lewis on keyboards and vocals. Missing is Jean-Luc Ponty, who was a frequent collaborator in those days, and (presumably) in his stead we have Novi Novog, an LA studio violin/viola player making her only appearance in the Zappa discography. FZ always benefited from a female presence in his ensembles, and had this ensemble appeared in public, Novog would have joined Ruth Underwood in the small cadre of female instrumentalists to tour with FZ. Her speaking voice is heard in several tracks, and her playing is showcased in the Zappa standard Black Napkins, where she reveals herself as a flexible musician, capable of improvisation, but inferior to Ponty as a violinist and soloist.

These are rehearsal tapes, mainly four-track recordings of complete run-throughs of actual songs and tunes, with a few excerpts spliced in from a cassette recording made by Walley. The basic sound of the band comes across in pretty good audio quality, with decent instrumental balance but inconsistent capturing of vocalists (who weren't always near a live mike). You also get some studio banter and horseplay, but relatively little of the interesting Zappa rehearsal process that's conveyed in Joe's Domage.

Reeny Ra is a nice track to hear, with Brock on lead vocals, and a "funky" Zappa solo in the middle. Zappa never released this tune in his lifetime, and this is its first appearance in an official release. The musicians sound relaxed and familiar with the material, though I don't hear the kind of edge often present in live Zappa/Mothers performances from the 1970s. A bit of studio chatter follows, featuring a young girl's voice and some solo practicing ("Who Do You Think You Are"), and this is followed by a discussion of guitar tech between Zappa and one of the other guitarists ("Slack `Em All Down"). Next up is the well-known "Honey, Don't You Want a Man Like Me" played casually with Zappa delivering the lascivious lyrics well away from the mic. It sounds like Novog is taking the "role" of the woman toward the end.

Some other familiar songs are Any Downers?, The Illinois Enema Bandit (with a quintessential Brock delivery of the narration) and Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance (in its reggae format with Brock again on lead vocals). Along with Reeny Ra, Phyonix is major novelty of the album, an instruments-only improv vehicle heard in two separate takes, but not otherwise represented in the Zappa canon.

As I write this, Joe's Camouflage is a little on the expensive side for a new 47-minute CD, so the value proposition will depend on how much of a Zappa enthusiast or completest you are. I found it an enjoyable listen, though not astonishing, and I figure that two or three listens will suffice for most of us. If you can find it at a reasonable price, scoop it up. You'll fill in a small gap in the FZ chronology, hear a few new tracks, reacquaint yourself with some old standards, and hopefully feel grateful that new Zappa releases and discoveries are still coming our way.