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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Frank Zappa – Weasels Ripped My Flesh

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 11


If one were to make the assumption that the purpose of Burnt Weeny Sandwich was to present Frank Zappa and the Mothers' ability of creating beauty on stage (even if a large part of that beauty came from varying forms of dissonance), than the purpose of Weasels Ripped My Flesh must be to show their ability at making the most hideous noises possible (not always on stage, though, as a good chunk of the material here are studio outtakes). Saying that, and given the grade I give this album, you probably think I'm totally off my rocker, but hear my out. This isn't just ordinary ugly noise for the sake of itself; rather, this is very creative noise, obviously drawing from free jazz and other avant-garde genres, yet you also see a return of the group's patented humour back with a vengeance after the semi-serious nature of its predecessor. And for good measure, there are still a few tracks, or moments of some uglier tracks, that recall the complex jazz-fusion beauty of Zappa and the Mothers' first archival release of the year.

That being said, there are a few tracks I'm not sold on, but they don't do enough to really ruin my overall impression of it. "Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue", as the title suggests, is named after Eric Dolphy, the avant-garde jazz saxophonist, and is most probably in his style (I wouldn't know), but there's not much that distinguishes it from the other avant-garde jazz tracks on the album in a particularly outstanding way, so its seven minutes just pass me by. And the closing title track is two minutes of feedback, white noise and cluttering percussion à la "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny", so it's pretty much the definition of filler, although I suppose in truncated form it would make for a tolerable coda to the track that precedes it.

The rest is quite good, though, and most of the good non-highlights have pretty accurate titles, too. "Get a Little" is like porno background music as played by an avant-garde band, with fuzzy wah-wah chords and leads, a slow, creeping rhythm and an intro where Jimmy Carl Black mumbles about taking a girl's pants down and "getting a little". Then there's "Toads of the Short Forest", which has three sections: one lightweight and marshy with those liquidy quasi-acoustic speedy guitars that characterizes Zappa's poppier jazz fusion ventures, another is a bit heavier, with a coarser, wah-wah-esque guitar chord pattern like a toad croaking backed by pummelling drums, and a final one combining the two, with the rhythm of the second section layered in a noodling jazzy sax part.

As for "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask", it's another avant-garde jazz piece like the Eric Dolphy tribute, but it's much more interesting, because a) there are lewd wordless noises that sound like teenage boys imitating sex noises and/or deranged laughter from laughing gas (which spreads to the audience at the start of one laugh-heavy interlude), b) there's a prominent section where the instruments are playing in a variety of rhythms that Zappa cleverly explains to the audience, culminating in the funniest comment of the alto sax player "blowing his nose" and c) there's a middle eighth with a pretty harpsichord-imitating piano part and a "solo" of snorting sounds introduced by Zappa as his "son's" harmonica solo, mocking standards of beauty in music or something to that effect. And finally, the only way the final decent non-highlight "Dwarf Nebula Procession March & Dwarf Nebula" is accurately titled – aside from the fact that it has one of the coolest titles I have ever seen – is that it sounds like the title of a video game soundtrack, and lo and behold, it sounds like such a song, with its twinkling, difficultly identifiable keyboards (they fall somewhere in between piano, clavinet and harpsichord to my ears), twanging guitars and clarinet melody followed by some weird white noise, percussion and backwards noises.

The five highlights, meanwhile, are among the best Mothers' material, and the three studio tracks among them could have easily been fine additions to a studio album, especially Uncle Meat, which has more similar material to them than the albums they might have been outtakes for. My favourite is by far "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama", which predicts Zappa's 1970s sleaze rock. It's essentially a simple, brass-based rocker, with a set of terrific, pseudo-dark horn riffs backed by pulsing electric piano staccato backing and some hilarious lyrics about Zappa not being able to fool around with his girl because of her interfering parents (especially her mother), which is captured perfectly by the speedy, somewhat aggressive melody. There's also a brief, contextually irrelevant solo that's more in line with his poppier jazz-fusion style, but it interrupts the main song quite neatly – there's no way you can spot the seams despite the rhythm differences – and offers some great interlocking saxes and clarinets, so the entire track gets a thumbs up by me, even though it wouldn't fully pass an art for art's sake test fans of his most complex material might demand.

The two opening tracks are pretty great too as the band indulge in jamming power: "Didja Get Any Onya?" (get what, exactly? There's some sort of innuendo here, I'm sure of it) is the finest free jazz on the album, with some of the dirtiest, sloppiest, noisiest sax playing, and a cluttering organ/percussion-based rhythm that are vaguely Latin-esque, interrupted by some of the same laughing/pseudo-sex noises that peppered "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask" as well as similar noises, a speech in a mock-German accent seemingly about the Gestapo suspecting Frank of conspiracy interrupted by pseudo-operatic wailing, a quote of the theme Captain Beefheart borrowed for his "Mousetrapreplica", and a whole bunch of other free jazz sections that may or may not be rhythmically similar to the other sections. On paper and on screen, this might sound absolutely ridiculous, but the free flowing of ideas both humorous and musically serious make this one colourful piece of avant-garde weirdness from the experts of avant-garde weirdness.

"Directly from My Heart to You" couldn't be more different, since it's a Little Richard-penned number presented as a slow blues (I haven't the slightest recollection how it was performed originally, but my guess is a more traditionally doo-wop-like arrangement). What makes it a non-generic blues is what makes it great, and that's the return of Don "Sugarcane" Harris on violin, and his debut and only vocal performance with the Mothers. The vocals aren't something especially worth getting excited about – although his soulful performance is hardly different from Mothers regular Ray Collins – but as was the case on "Willie the Pimp" and "The Little House I Lived In", his violin playing is truly outstanding, with it filling in for the roles of both the harmonica and the guitar as they would be on a regular slow blues; indeed, his violin fills during the vocal parts could have easily been substituted by a Sonny Boy Williamson, and his speedy, fluid leads are every bit as rocking as your average great guitar solo. Heck, you don't even need a steady rhythm section to make it rock (although they sure do help); the violin could have been unaccompanied and it still would have been unique in a good way.

The two tracks that basically segue into each other after "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" were both standard features of the Mothers' live set at the time (and can be heard on the Ahead of Their Time archive release), and while one's a studio rendition with vocals not usually present in live performances, both are worth listening to. "Oh No" is a clever pop song in the Absolutely Free vein, with the same kind of melody that's complex yet accessible and that features a solid Ray Collins vocal that makes it almost resonant, and the more fusion-esque backing of cooing horns, soft guitars and twinkling piano and vibraphones are quite lovely too. And "The Orange County Lumber Truck", that starts off slow with some tense horns and searing guitar leads, before picking up the pace and sounding quite like the title might suggest, a large vehicle speeding down the road, with a pouncing rhythm, single organ chord swaying like a string section, a menacing, spinning horn riff and some fine wah-wah soloing that goes from carefully calculated to aggressively improvised, which as I said early, benefits from being followed by the title track (but only for a fraction of its time) as if the titular truck crashed into a wall or something.

So, while I quite like this album, it's certainly not one of Zappa's best. There is a handful of great material that anyone willing to get to know Zappa's music should acquire, and even the lesser stuff is pretty decent, even if there are two tracks I'm not very fond of, though not to the point of considering them lowlights. Regardless, it still works as a decent conclusion to the first chapter in Zappa's career, and is far from the weakest album in his first five years (that would easily be either version of Lumpy Gravy or Cruising with Ruben & the Jets) even though Burnt Weeny Sandwich would have been a better one, or a double album mixing their material in a clever enough manner. I would probably recommend it last of the early Mothers albums rating over 10, but I certainly would put this high on a priority list overall if one wants to get acquainted with Zappa's more experimental jazz side, and would serve as a good introduction to that side of his sound to fans of his humorous material, whether they like the satire of the early days or the perversion of the mid-1970s and onward.

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