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Brilliant But Cancelled: Your Older Brother – Frank Zappa

July 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Actually “brilliant” is a long stretch but it does kind of remind me of my watching and loving Johnny Staccato.  This was the only entry in the abortive first version of the Schlager Lager – “Your Older Brother.”  (I’m actually fairly proud of the name; I still think it would work for someone somewhere.)  It was an attempt to see if my then-restaurant-writing self could still hack the music shit.  (The short answer was that I needed more seasoning, or maybe just a narrower focus on songs and a few hundred more records.)  I’ll go back and retro in some music links later but here’s the text.  I haven’t changed anything for posterity’s sake, except that you should know that a great many Zappa original mixes are now coming out directly from the Zappa family (including Ruben, Freak Out, and hopefully soon, Hot Rats).

  • your older brother

    Never had an older brother, cool cousin, or shady musician friend to hip you to cool music? Now you do.

    Thursday, August 31, 2006

    Frank Zappa

    One of the most notoriously difficult classic rock catalogs to navigate is Frank Zappa’s.  Over the course of a near-thirty-year career, the man (and his sometime group, the Mothers of Invention) released an astonishing number of records, live shows, and modern classical pieces.

    I’m here to tell you that most of it can be skipped.  In fact, unless you become a total Zappa nut (and watch out – the hardcore Zappa fans are just as scary as Deadheads and probably smarter and less stoned), you can ignore nearly all of his post-1976 output.  Have I heard all of it?  No way.  Am I making generalizations?  Sure.  Are there very likely nuggets of genius that I’m missing out on?  Probably.  Should you care?  Not unless you get through everything I’m recommending here.

    First:  The Mothers of Invention – Freak Out! (1966)
    Rock catalogs are not always best started at the beginning, but you can safely do that here.  Unlike a lot of Zappa albums, the songs are concise, immediately catchy, and reasonably across the board in terms of stylistic influences.  If it can be believed, Zappa’s primary musical interests were doo-wop and Stravinsky and 20th century classical.  So you’ve got a genius-level composer who slums it because he wants to, and you end up with things like “Wowie Zowie” which humorously play on the little clichés that defined doo-wop and close harmony groups (the single voice spoken-sung asides and what he calls the “high weaselings” – the falsetto harmony singer who freelances with the rhythm a bit) while using chords that The Coasters never would have dreamed of.  Skip the entire “Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet,” though.

    Alternate entry point: Frank Zappa – Apostrophe (‘) (1974)
    If you don’t like 60’s pop at all, or would rather start your Zappa experience with something a little more modern-sounding or “out,” this is the place to do it.  Half of the album is a suite dealing with a cast of characters ranging from Nanook the Inuit to a priest, and while the “story” doesn’t really go anywhere special, the music is consistently interesting and the lyrics are at least humorous.  The sex obsession so prevalent in his post-60’s work is toned down a bit, too.

    Second:  The Mothers of Invention – Overnite Sensation (1973)
    Escatological, cynical, and brilliant, Overnite Sensation shows the artist indulging his inner 12-year old’s obsession with sex, but using a very adult vocabulary and wordplay.  The music sounds like a little bit less square Steely Dan, with jazz-influenced licks and a really tight band playing some catchy charts.  Just be careful where you listen to “Dinah-Moe Humm,” because if you turn it up too loud at work or, god forbid, sing along, you’ll probably get fired or slapped.  Satire doesn’t seem to be a valid defense these days.

    At this point, you should know what you like and dislike about Zappa, more or less. There are a few more great albums to investigate, though, depending on how far you’re willing to follow him down certain paths.

    60’s Cynicism:  The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)
    The definitive indictment of American society in the 60s mostly because it was the only one intelligent enough to not fall into the “us versus them” mentality.  Zappa believed himself to be a true counterculturist and was disappointed by the self-proclaimed “hippies” being more interested in getting stoned than effecting any real and lasting change (see “Who Needs The Peace Corps?” and its characterization of hippies as mostly phony, shallow kids).  So, what’s changed?
    NOTE: Early versions of this CD feature a remix/re-record from the 80’s.  Spring for the latest edition.

    60’s Cynicism, junior:  The Mothers of Invention – Absolutely Free (1967)
    Comprised of two suites (one on each side of the original record), it was the precursor to We’re Only In It For The Money’s out and out despair.  The “America Drinks and Goes Home” side was probably the best attack on frattish culture until the Dead Kennedys’ “Terminal Preppie” nearly 15 years later.  If you get the CD, skip the “Big Leg Emma” and “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right” tracks, as they are actually bonus tracks that were strangely placed between the two sides – they have more in common with later Zappa than Absolutely Free.

    Doo-Wop Extravaganza: The Mothers of Invention – Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (1968)
    Literally following one of his favorite idioms to its logical extreme, he and the original Mothers group recorded an entire album of doo-wop songs, including re-arrangements of four tracks from Freak Out!.  Having come out the same year as “We’re Only In It For The Money,” it is the total counterpoint to that album, with Zappa’s satiric instincts manifesting themselves in the arrangements rather than lyrically – while remaining note-perfect compositions, his “high weaselings” and hilariously dry asides differentiate this from real doo-wop, but not by much.
    NOTE: Not available on CD in its original form – Zappa had the drums and bass pointlessly re-recorded in the early 80’s, and that version has persisted through this day.  Bootlegs of the original album circulate, however.

    Pure jazz: Frank Zappa – Hot Rats and Waka/Jawaka (1969 and 1972, respectively)
    Still waiting for my needle drop of Hot Rats (the original mix is not on CD).  But Waka/Jawaka is a pretty fair entry into the instrumental jazz segment, with a country-fied jam thrown in on “It Just Might Be A One-Shot Deal.”

    Categories: Irony, Jazz, Rock

    Funky situations.

    July 8, 2011 Leave a comment

    I will buy almost any song that includes “funky” in the title (or “robot,” but that’s another post).  If I don’t get to audition the record before taking it home, it might end up being wishful thinking on the part of the artist (see the artist Country Funk for one example).   I bought the Ted Taylor without sampling based on my knowledge of the label – not every record on RONN I’ve ever heard is brilliant, though, so there wasn’t a slam dunk guarantee of success.  Indeed, I was worried at first that I’d wrangled a bum steer.  The vocal melody in the first verse is a little strange, the riff in the background notwithstanding.   Thankfully, right around 35 seconds in, it gets sublime – funky in a Bobby Womack vein, with Swamp-Dogg-ish guitar licks in the background.

    Contrast this with Wilson Pickett’s “Funk Factory,” Pickett’s last big hit for Atlantic before jumping to RCA.  “Funk Factory” is indeed funk in the standard sense, with a thudding bass, female background vocals, horn riffs, and even a fuzz guitar over the top.  There is no mystery at the beginning about its funky character.  However, it feels contrived and stiff compared to the Ted Taylor cut – surprising given that Pickett is usually one of my favorites.

    I’ll let you, the enlightened reader, decide which approach you personally prefer.  Obviously my opinion is already clear!

    Taylor:

    download

    Pickett:

    download

    Categories: Funky

    Mister Chand meets Invictus

    July 6, 2011 Leave a comment

    I’ve already posted the best and most famous Krystal Generation track – now it’s time to delve more deeply into their catalog, to their subsequent Mister Chand single entitled “Ain’t No Way To Live.”  Less obviously Chandler-y (at least according to the criteria I set out in the last post), the song sounds almost like it could have come out as a Freda Payne title on Invictus.  That’s good, because I like the early 70’s H-D-H sound, and the Krystals’ voices present an intriguing counterpoint to the more traditional Freda.

    Starting out with what seems like a symphonic middle movement, “Ain’t No Way” slides quickly into a bass and vocal vamp with horn and string flourishes.  Particularly H-D-H-like are the “slowly going down”/”that’s how I lost the race” parts in each respective verse, and I think those are my favorite bits of the song.  I actually think the part where they sing “ain’t no way” in the chorus is the weak spot in the song, with a slightly ugly melody and vocal blend – so if that’s supposed to be the hook, I understand why it wasn’t a hit.

    N.B. for record nerds only – I have a mono/stereo promo of this – I have posted the stereo track because most of the time the mono side of post-1970 m/s promos are fold-downs and not true mono mixes (done so that the equipment at the AM radio station wouldn’t have to do the folding itself and risk phase problems).

    N.B. for record nerds only, part 2 – I cannot confirm that there is a stock version of this, so if you’re like me and prefer releases with different songs for b-sides, you might be out of luck.  As for pricing, eBay vendors have the promo as seen here for 15USD on buy it now, but I wouldn’t spend more than 5 bucks as I think it’s scarce but not necessarily in demand.  Definitely spend money on “Wanted” before this one.

    download

    Categories: Funky, Gene Chandler

    All aboard!

    July 6, 2011 Leave a comment

    This blog somewhat specializes in no-hit wonders, clearly.  But what about no-hit, one-single-released-in-a-career wonders?  Jason & Pam, to the best of my researching capabilities (e.g. Google) only released one single, the cleverly titled cash-in “Soul Train.”  Not having anything to do with the eponymous TV show seems not to have bothered anyone involved here, though I’m not sure how much the release ended up raising anyone’s profile – including the producer Ron Carson and arranger H.B. Barnum, who are plenty known for work with other artists anyway.  Indeed, the label’s only other known releases were the soundtrack for the movie BLACK FIST and two singles taken from it.

    I’m not the first one to discover the simple pleasures of this track – it has also appeared in an F16 mix as well as the La Colmena De Humo blog, which google has happily translated so that I can discover that my analysis is roughly the same as the proprietor’s.  Sorry, not adding much to the discourse on this one (I will say I crack up when “Pam” says “Soul Train” right at the beginning in a 12 year old boy voice).  Nichtsdestotrotz, it’s a fun track!

    download

    Categories: Funky

    Memphis Boys get funky!

    July 5, 2011 Leave a comment

    A billion thanks to Red Kelly at the A/B Side and Soul Detective blogs.  It’s owing to people like him, Kevin at So Many Records, Larry at F16, etc posting their exceptional nuggets that I have such a well-curated record collection despite living a billion light years from the nearest funkytown.

    I’ve been having a breakbeat kind of day today – The Beginning Of The End’s “Funky Nassau” ended up in my box on the last trip; having only today for the first time listened to it all the way through, I was socked in the jaw by its magnificence.  I later tweeted that The Fame Gang’s “Grits And Gravy,” straight from Red’s blog empire, had similarly tickled my fancy.  However, the break on this track gives them a run for their money, and it’s played by what probably is the most versatile band in history: The American Group, AKA The Memphis Boys.

    My interest in this particular group of musicians’ output is deep, but perhaps not as broad as with some of the other label-affiliated bands (e.g. Stax and whomever was kicking ass at Alston) – that’s because they were less bound by genre and thus necessarily have played on some songs I’d rather never hear again (“Holly Holy,” here’s looking at you!).  But mostly they’re fantastic.  They backed everyone from Elvis (“Suspicious Minds”) and Neil Diamond (“Sweet Caroline”) to Dusty Springfield (yes, “Son Of A Preacher Man”) and Wilson Pickett (“I’m In Love”).  Brilliant musicians and extremely versatile (they ended up playing on a lot of country stuff in the early 80’s!) – but sadly forgotten compared to, say, Stax’s house band (The Blues Brothers strike again!).  I would recommend the recent book Memphis Boys by Roben Jones, which provides a lot of inside scoop on the comings and goings at American Studios, where the Boys were based.  (Unfortunately with the hefty private press price tag on the hardcover and kindle editions, I’d perhaps also recommend you wait for a paperback edition before grabbing it.)

    “Stay Off The Grass” was the B-side of one of the several singles the group released under the “American Group” name, on the studio’s own AGP imprint.  (Naturally, they didn’t sell a lick so they’re a tough find – I guess the record-buying public didn’t need another version of Aquarius?)  “Stay Off The Grass” has a break that sounds like it’s straight off one of the Dusty Fingers volumes – an eccentric soul guitar/drum segment that’s totally unique.  I don’t even mind that the A-side is a cover of a song from the musical theater – “Stay Off The Grass” is more than great enough to make up for it.

    download

    Categories: Funky

    The Guyanese Dominators

    July 5, 2011 Leave a comment

    Don’t know much about the Dominators except that they are from Guyana and are somewhat barely google-researchable.  Therefore I think “I Want To Build” (I don’t know what “N.S.” is) is a bit of a rarity, although I’m not sure it’s in demand enough to really qualify for that.

    Version 1, presented here, is a very bass-driven track, and it’s funky, although not in a funky drummer kind of manner.  In fact the drums are incidental to the point. It’s sort of a more fluid version of ska, maybe?  It does remind me of the Skatalites’ “Guns Of Navarone” a bit.

    Version 2 is a more traditional reggae rhythm – not uninteresting but not a standout.

    I do love the fact that all of these fabulous Caribbean musicians came to Brooklyn to commit themselves to wax – truly Brooklyn is the best.

    download

    Categories: Calypso, Funky