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Frank Zappa • The Hot Rats Sessions [6CD Box Set]

Out of all the FRANK ZAPPA albums a newbie could start with, Hot Rats might not be the best choice. “It’s jazz,” I hear you cough. [Careful!] “Ick.” That’s what I thought the first time I heard it, anyway, back in the late ’70s after discovering Joe’s Garage and then The Mothers’ Fillmore East–June 1971. Besides one song with then-unknown-to-me Captain Beefheart kinda narrating, it was all instrumental and fairly difficult for my 16 year old music brain to comprehend. No humor – which does belong in music – no lyrics or singing, no obvious hooks for me to catch. Fast forward nearly forty years and 50-something year old me is, like, “This is a damn good album!” And now, at the landmark album’s 50th anniversary, there’s way more to get into than the original six cuts that made up Frank’s first proper solo album. The Hot Rats Sessions is a major box set, comprising six CDs, a nice book with lots of photos and notes about the sessions, a set of guitar picks and even a board game. Hot rats, indeed!

Hot Rats was the first non-Mothers of Invention record from Zappa – though a few Mothers played on it – if you don’t count Lumpy Gravy, which he wrote but didn’t play on, and the first time the guitarist/bandleader put something out generally lacking words. It was also, though, the first time his guitar soloing was given such a front seat, and that is something guitarists all over the world can dig, even if they can’t quite fathom the semi-jazz chord patterns or the soloing by violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris. (I’m not huge on that part, myself, though I am a fan of Harris’ early work as part of Don & Dewey.) Though Zappa is credited with the bulk of the playing on Hot Rats, Mother Ian Underwood played piano, organ, sax, clarinet and flute, and others played here and there on the sessions (Ron Selico, John Guerin, Jimmy Carl Black, Art Tripp III and Paul Humphrey on drums; John Balkin, Max Bennett, Roy Estrada and Shuggie Otis on bass; Bunk Gardner on sax; Harris on violin). Those sessions took place over a couple weeks in July 1969 with the finished LP released in October. With catchy (for jazz!) tunes like the tasty “Peaches En Regalia,” “Willie the Pimp” (which The Mothers did on Fillmore East), the sweet “Little Umbrellas” and others, it was yet another Zappa classic at the time – but who really knew what to make of it?

Well, now it’s available in super long form for all of us to figure out, and since many of us have so much time on our hands right now, there’s never been a better time to give it a try. The Hot Rats Sessions comes in a 12″ x 12″-ish box housing the six CDs in a gatefold LP-style folder, a 28-page book with notes from Underwood and Matt Groening (he did not play on these sessions!), and the aforementioned game, Zappa Land, which has a 12″ x 24″ board and many colorful game pieces. Needless to say you may want to make color copies of those so as not to destroy the value of this super deluxe box set! In all, there’s much to recommend this baby. Sure, some of the lengthy jamming may get tedious after awhile (though the 32-minute “Big Legs” is scintillating throughout*), and let’s face it: no matter how good a box set is, you’re only likely to dive into the deep end on rare occasions anyway. But if you really like your Rats Hot, you must partake. Find it on sale somewhere and dig in while the diggin’s good.
* “Big Legs” in severely edited form is “The Gumbo Variations” on the final released album.

4/5 (Zappa Records ZR20032, 2019)

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Frank Zappa • Joe’s Garage (Acts 1, 2 & 3) [3LP set] – Part II

Part II, in which I wrap up the story of Joe’s Garage – Frank Zappa’s 1979 3LP masterpiece.

zappa_joesgarage2_400pxJoe’s Garage, Acts 2 & 3

Act 1 of Joe’s Garage showed FRANK ZAPPA at his most adolescent. (See the first part of this review.)Dirty words and all, this one record release was basically a showcase for the more casual listener. It has lots of funny bits, real solid hooks and catchy songs that you couldn’t help but want to sing along with, though you might wince at singing something like “Catholic girls / with the tiny little moustache… With a tongue like a cow / she could make you go ‘wow’!” The subject matter – young Joe and his induction to the world of rock ’n’ roll – could be one of those After School Specials from the ’70s if it weren’t for the salty language and references to venereal diseases and the like.

Fast forward only a couple of months from early September ’79 and Zappa releases Joe’s Garage, Acts II & III, a 2-record set that continues where Act I left off. Instead of featuring songs that advanced the plot of Joe’s Garage, this lengthy, melancholy set focused on extended excursions into FZ’s guitar soloing. Which is to say, this is the one for those who are primarily interested in how Frank could develop a solo, from a possibly stark beginning to a meaty middle and on to its satisfying conclusion. “Watermelon in Easter Hay” is a great example, a 9-minute instrumental that displays one of the man’s greatest gifts. There are songs you can sing along to, like “Stick It Out,” but the man and the band’s musicality is what’s mostly to be enjoyed here. The plot is secondary, and though you do get to find out what happens to Joe, it is best explained in the libretto that expands on the themes of free will, free speech, the drawbacks of big government and the evils of Big Brother that the author dared explore.

zappa_wbsucks_300pxIt must have been daunting to the execs at Zappa’s new record label (they gave him his own imprint, called Zappa Records, at PolyGram earlier that year): did they really want to put out a three-record set that could very well lose money as the artist’s first release on their dollar? Well, I’m not sure how it originally went down when Zappa presented the work to the label suits, but we do know that the album was split into two releases (keeping it greasy so it’d go down easy?). The first record served as a good beginning and the second, 2LP set wrapped up the story. Sadly, the Acts II & III release suffered on its own (if you didn’t buy the first one you were highly unlikely to buy this – and you certainly would have no idea WTF was going on), but when, in 1987, the three records were first put together in one set, the whole shebang made a lot more sense. Thematically, musically, plotwise, it turned out that Joe’s Garage wasn’t nearly as indecipherable as The Who’s Tommy after all. (It actually took a poke at Tommy with the line “see the chrome, feel the chrome, touch the chrome, heal the chrome” [from “Stick It Out”]!)

Joe’s Garage, Acts 1, 2 & 3, finally, puts all of what made Frank Zappa so amazing (his guitar playing, witty lyric writing, clever song arranging) into one enormous but approachable package. The sound of the records is gorgeous, the songs on the records are among FZ’s finest and the physical format, in all its double-gatefold glory, is like the icing on a very tasty cock… err, CAKE!

4.5/5 (Zappa Records ZR3861-1, 2016)

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Frank Zappa • Joe’s Garage (Acts 1, 2 & 3) [3LP set] – Part I

As this was originally released in 1979 in two parts, I will be reviewing the late 2016 vinyl reissue in a similar fashion…

zappa_joesgarage1_400pxJoe’s Garage, Act I
First of all, let’s just say that if you’re one of those who “don’t know where to start” when trying to “get into” FRANK ZAPPA, then Joe’s Garage is a great place to start – if you’re not easily offended by puerile, pimply-faced humor. If, on the other hand, even the mention of things such as “ninnies,” “wet t-shirt nights” or (especially) “cock” have you immediately in the car headed for church, then steer clear of this one. In fact, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by staying away from Frank Zappa entirely. That’s not to say that everything he does mentions naughty bits or contains vulgar language, but it’s easier for me to issue a blanket danger! then to try and detail what’s safe for you and what’s not. Now then…

Joe’s Garage, Act I was released in September 1979. I was 16 and had recently moved to Seattle with my sister and parents from Southern California and was entering 11th grade. I had a general idea who Zappa was but didn’t know any of his music and knew no one who had any to check out. (This was waaaaaayyy pre-internet, kids.) All I knew is he was a great guitarist and he once had a band called The Mothers. (Back then, for you youngsters who don’t know, mother was short for the slang term motherfucker.) Well, I met a guy at my new high school who was really into Frank so we were both excited to plunk down the bucks for Joe’s Garage and plop that baby onto the record player. We had no idea what we were in for! We were just kids, fer cryin’ out loud!

This record is a true concept album, detailing the story of a young American male succumbing to the horrors and overall nastiness of a career in music. Joe, our hero, forms a band, gets signed to a record deal, meets groupies, contacts venereal disease (look it up, kids), and eventually – as detailed in the then forthcoming but not-yet-announced second volume – finds himself being “reprogrammed” by some crazed religious zealots (think Scientology). Musically, Joe’s Garage is a great intro to Zappa and his world because it contains everything that made up the man’s musical DNA: great guitar playing, humor, a love for doo wop, and an intricate yet (often) approachable sense to what makes good music. The band on this record was well-suited to the material, including Ike Willis on vocals (now, that mother could sing!), Warren Cuccurullo ozappa_bob_400pxn guitar, Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars on keys, and various others on the rest. Zappa himself plays guitar, does some of the singing, and plays the role of narrator in the character of The Central Scrutinizer. It’s a role uniquely suited to FZ, as he later became the rock world’s mouthpiece and champion of free speech in the ’80s. (You may remember he testified in front of Congress during the days of Tipper Gore’s PMRC and their modern day witch hunt to persecute and prosecute musicians whose art used “bad language” that was surely going to mess up the minds of our impressionable youths.) Somehow ol’ Frank knew where America was headed and tried to head us off at the pass with his tale of how IT’S NOT THE GOVERNMENT’S BUSINESS TO DECIDE WHAT IT THINKS IS “BAD” FOR ITS CONSTITUENTS.

Errr, uhhh…… anyway, well, one of Frank’s greatest strengths was his ability to delegate. If he felt someone was better suited to sing a particular song, for instance, he’d have that someone sing it. Ike Willis is a monster on this record, singing a majority of the leads with soulful, expressive tone that really comes to the fore on “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up,” a slow R&B-slash-reggae groove that closes out Act I. He also grabs you by the nuts on “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”, a painful look at what VD can do to a fella. Yikes! I don’t EVER want my balls to feel like a pair of maracas!

Ummm, where was I? Oh yeah. The Zappa Records reissue on vinyl is well worth the money, putting all three records together in one deluxe, double-gatefold package that includes a booklet libretto. The records were remastered from the original analog master tape safety copy by mastering great Bernie Grundman and pressed on 180-gram vinyl at Pallas in Germany. Though I don’t have the original vinyl or first CD pressing anymore, I can tell you with confidence that this vinyl reissue is miles better than those and even better than the very good sounding 2012 CD reissue. I’ll wrap up the story of Joe in Part II. (Click here for the conclusion!)

4.5/5 (Zappa Records ZR3861-1, 2016)

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Screamin’ Jay Hawkins • Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids? The Complete Bizarre Sessions 1990-1994 [CD]

Uhhhhh… where to start with this one?! I’ll bet you know who SCREAMIN’ JAY HAWKINS is. He’s the guy from the ’50s who wrote “I Put a Spell on You,” an oft-covered minor key R&B slowburner. The guy with a bone through his nose. Well, he really only ever had that one minor hit, which was kept alive via covers by Creedence Clearwater Revival and others, and he moved from record label to record label over the years trying to rekindle that flame. By the time he landed at Bizarre Records – a suitable home, at least ’cause of its name – his number was about up. And yet, the old man still had some spunk in him. [I hear you Brits laughing.]

Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids? compiles all of the recordings he did for the label, at one point home to Frank Zappa, and it’s a whopper of a 2CD set. By whopper I mean, there’s so much here you’ll have to go through it in multiple sittings. Naturally, there’s a remake of his big hit, but this time he’s backed by a 1990 hip hop drum beat and even has a rapper doing some bits in it. Hey, if it worked for Aerosmith… and yet, no, it doesn’t really work for Jay. The band employed across all 44 tracks includes guitarist Mike Keneally (a Zappa vet) in a combo that sounds very of-its-time. The arrangements are clearly semi-rehearsed and semi-ad-libbed according to wherever Screamin’ Jay was going. And the man was going fuckin’ nuts! The songs range from some pretty cool remakes, like “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” (originally done by Louis Jordan) and Jay’s own “Strange,” to odes to current hotties like “Sherilyn Fenn” and “Amy Fisher,” which itself is reprised twice (though mercifully short). There are even a few Tom Waits covers. If you’re a fan of Hawkins’ comedic rants and, let’s say unique (old school? sexist?) viewpoints on women, there’s plenty to keep you entertained. Does the collective joke wear thin? Yes. But trust me: you don’t wanna go through this in one sitting anyway. It’ll take a few rounds to audition both discs, so you’ll have a chance to recharge your “man, this guy was crazy” batteries in between sessions.

As for the package itself, Are YOU One of Jay’s Kids? has a decent booklet inside a triple panel digipack cover, but it’s hard to discern when and where the sessions were cut or even which songs come from which albums. Basically, this compilation encompasses 1991’s Black Music for White People (what a great title!), Stone Crazy (1993) and Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On (1994). Without wading too far into the liner notes or on Discogs, this has got to have all the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins ever recorded at Bizarre’s behest. This compilation’s worth a shot if you’re in an ornery mood.

2.5/3 (Manifesto MFO 42202, 2018)

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John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band* • Sometime in New York City [album]

“Boy, he sure does cover a lot of Beatles-related stuff in this blog.” – Yes, I Do

JOHN & YOKO got together in the late ’60s when they were still John Lennon, one of The Beatles, and Yoko Ono, fairly obscure avant garde artist. The kindred spirits not only made love together, but art and music, too. At the time they made 1972’s Sometime in New York City with their Plastic Ono Band the music and other aural delicacies they’d created were quite often looked upon as liberal rubbish. Sometime, though, was the first time they put out a record of actual songs and music under both of their names – so they were really laying it out on the line. Of course Lennon didn’t have a lot to lose; he was, after all, still considered a Beatle. Yoko, as we all know, willingly lured Lennon into a life of aural degradation (ahem) and broke-up her husband’s band, so she also had little to worry about as she was already the lowest of the low! Forty-five years ago today he and his wife committed this double album to wax (and 8-track tape) and let the dice fall where they may.

To call Sometime in New York City a political album would be putting it mildly. Nine of the ten songs that make up record one (the second is comprised of live cuts) are political in one way or another, whether it’s “John Sinclair” or “Angela” (about Sinclair and Davis, both who had been jailed [separately] for very minor offenses), or the main, lead off track, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.” The fact that Lennon & Ono chose it as the album’s only single shows that they must have been ready to tackle all comers and (naturally, considering the title) go to lengths to defend its title and what it was actually about. And, not surprisingly given its name, the single pretty much tanked. (Released on 45 in the US, it made it only to number 57.) Not a bad song at all, “Woman…” catalogs some of the many crappy ways women are treated (“we make her paint her face and dance…/We insult her every day on TV and wonder why she has no guts or confidence”) and is one of Lennon’s most fully realized political messages. You might argue that its title is over the top, and by today’s standards it’s definitely politically incorrect, but you can’t argue that the song’s point isn’t clear. Other songs on the LP tackle “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “The Luck of the Irish” (both concerning then current events in Ireland), “Attica State” (about a prison riot and how the authorities poorly handled it) and a few other topics. Only “New York City” lets up on the polemics, coming at the end of side one and a nice 12-bar blues breather before getting back to business on the other side of the record.

As noted above, Sometime features both John and Yoko songs, and indeed, Ms. Ono sings lead on half of the studio tracks. This may be the one time before 1980’s Double Fantasy that Yoko’s singing isn’t difficult listening. In fact, her songs here are as pop as she ever got, even considering “Kiss Kiss Kiss” or 1981’s “Walking on Thin Ice.” Seriously, if you think all she was capable of was caterwauling you’re wrong. I’m not saying that her vocalizing isn’t an acquired taste to most of us, just that if ever there was an argument against the standard that ain’t singing, that’s noise line, this album is it.

Hampered somewhat by its mixes, the Lennon and Phil Spector-produced studio part of the album is a fairly murky presentation of John & Yoko’s latest. The second record, internally called Live Jam, sounds much better. It was recorded in concert in London, 1969 and at NYC’s Fillmore East in ’71 on a bill with Frank Zappa & The Mothers (that set resulting in The Mothers’ acclaimed Fillmore East – June 1971). A few of the songs here are of Lennon & Co. and Zappa & Co. together jamming (as we used to call it) on some blues and other concoctions.** In 2005 Yoko Ono oversaw a remix of the studio cuts and most of the live tracks for a single CD reissue, ending up with a much clearer, more palatable mix of the album. (She had all of Lennon’s albums remixed in that decade and they’re worth checking out if you don’t find the exercise completely sacrilegious.) While its not necessarily how Lennon would have wanted us to hear it, this version of Sometime in New York City does give new life to his and his wife’s early Seventies co-billed creation.

3/5 (Apple SVBB 3392 [2LP, 1972]; Capitol CDP 0946 3 40976 2 8 [CD, 2005])

* Full original credit: John and Yoko/Plastic Ono Band with Elephants Memory and Invisible Strings [sic].  ** Frank reissued these cuts in a more Zappa-centric mix on an early 1990s compilation called Playground Psychotics.

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The Turtles • All the Singles [2CD]

If you know THE TURTLES only by the sublime “Happy Together” you’re missing out on a lot of late ’60s rock ’n’ roll fun. All the Singles is a 2CD compilation of the group’s original White Whale 45s and it’s a wide ranging collection of sounds ’n’ styles these guys, known for their killer harmonies, put out during their original half decade of success.

turtles_allthesingles_400pxThis compilation, released on the band’s own FloEdCo imprint (via Manifesto), is a mainly mono affair, in keeping with the “singles” vibe the title conjures. What comes through loud and clear — besides the pristine melodies and harmonies singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo & Eddie) vocalized – is the driving, sometimes envelope pushing arrangements courtesy of their own rhythm section (bassist Jim Pons and drummer John Barbata, mainly) and the host of different producers they used. Starting with June 1965’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” and encompassing “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “Elenore,” “You Showed Me” and more, the 48 songs here go a long way to demonstrating that these L.A. teenagers (who started out as a surf group called The Crossfires) were more than the sum of their surf ’n’ folk roots. In fact, soon after their first single the guys were determined to move on from folk to something more poppy, hence their latter, aforementioned A-sides. Their B-sides were frequently penned by the band themselves and some of them were quite good – though some were inevitably forgettable. I cite “Buzz Saw,” “Come Over” and “Surfer Dan” among the memorable ones.

Another thing they did was an ingenious exercise called The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, an album in which they took on various then-current pop genres as if they were actually different groups. They went so far as to name the bands for each track (though it was always The Turtles); on this comp you get Nature’s Children (“You Showed Me”), Howie, Mark, Johnie, Jim & Al (“Elenore”), The Fabulous Dawgs and The Cross Fires, but the concept begs further investigation for sure. Later on (early 1970) The Turtles put out a single under the name The Dedications, and both the doo woppy A-side “Teardrops” and the garage/Jan & Deanie flipside “Gas Money” are here.

As for production, the singles herturtles_band_350pxe were helmed by a host of producers including the legendary Bones Howe, Joe Wissert, Chip Douglas and even The Kinks’ Ray Davies (yeah, kool!), who oversaw 1969’s Turtle Soup and its attendant singles “House on the Hill,” “You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain,” and the poignant, cheeky “Bachelor Mother.” Different producers didn’t really change the group’s sound much, though the Davies-produced cuts do have a slightly Kinky feel to them.

Have I mentioned “Can’t You Hear the Cows”? It’s a B-side (to the Nilsson-written “The Story of Rock and Roll”) and has my name written all over it. According to the copious liner notes it “might have had a deeper significance that is now lost to time.” Ahem: “Each and every day / Eatin’ all that hay / Moo baby, moo baby.” The Beach Boys never sounded this swell!

All the Singles represents yet another case – like me discovering The Blues Magoos – of me thinking, how the hell did I let The Turtles escape my complete immersion all of these years?! Sure, I knew the obvious singles. I knew that Flo & Eddie were later members of Frank Zappa’s amazing Mothers and sang on Fillmore East – June 1971 (“Mud sh-sh-shark!”) and even T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” yet somehow all I had until now was a 14-track cheapie CD comp. Good God, Gooch! What took you so damned long?!

5/5 (FloEdCo/Manifesto)

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