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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Frank Zappa – Chunga's Revenge

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 11


I don't know what halted Zappa's plans of releasing live archival recordings and studio outtakes made during the Mothers of Invention's original run – since, as future archive releases and posthumous albums would show, there was plenty more where that came from – but I guess it was only natural for a creator like him to feel the need to get back into the studio and create something new. As it often happens with Zappa, this isn't a pro-forma release. Rather than reunite with the original Mothers line-up (or the last configuration of it, since the "original" line-up gradually evolved over the course of their three to four-year run), he brought back Ian Underwood, recruited Don Ellis Orchestra alumnus George Duke on keyboards (a mainstay of Zappa's recording and touring unit from here on out), Aynsley Dunbar – a guy with quite the pedigree, from auditioning for the Jimi Hendrix Experience and losing on a coin flip, to playing with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Jeff Beck Group, to having his own short-lived group and nearly joining King Crimson – on drums, Jeff Simmons, a musician on Zappa's label, on bass, and Mark Volman (aka Phlorescent Leech, or Flo) and Howard Kaylan (aka Eddie) of Turtles(!) fame on vocals.

While I've never heard many objections to Duke, Dunbar or Simmons, Flo & Eddie remain controversial picks. How Zappa came to recruit them, I'm not quite sure: the Turtles' own music showed them to be good vocalists, and later on showed them to have a penchant for parody (their Battle of the Bands LP was a series of genre pastiches under a number of pseudonyms, after all), but I fail to see the necessity of recruiting them for their sense of humour, which isn't that notable here, but on the next couple of albums is front and centre. I imagine some Zappa fans are incensed at them upstaging Zappa's own comedic abilities, but for most others, it's probably because their comedy doesn't rise above that of a 12-year old's (and not in a clever way the way Frank would do it). But as I said, they're not that present aside from vocals, and even then, over half of the album is instrumental in nature, so they're basically relegated to 20-25 minutes of being centre-stage.

As a whole, this album represents a slight "decomplexifying" (is that even a word?) of the Frank Zappa sound, and the aforementioned instrumentals that take up a huge portion of the album's running length are especially indicative of that. Yes, there are elements of jazz fusion and progressive rock, but there's also a lot more hard rock-like jamming. Not that there's anything bad about that. For instance, the opening "Transylvania Boogie", while not quite a "boogie" in the traditional sense of the term, is a fantastic heavy, bluesy rocker in which the band shows their skills at more accessible jamming: the opening guitar melody has Zappa playing some Eastern-sounding lines (or Transylvanian-sounding; it's not like I'd know how Romanian music sounds), but overall he goes through a number of moods, from the aggressive opening lines, to more expressive, melodic ones to chord-based riffage, all in a fantastic wah-wah tone that sounds like he's strangling the notes out of it, almost as if the guitar was dying. The backing is great as well, although not spectacular. Still, the tight rhythm section and watery organ blasts don't exactly detract from the song, which remains a strong (and the only) major highlight of the instrumental category.

The next instrumental, "Twenty Small Cigars", is more on the softer side of things. Melodically, it's sort of a simplification of the kind of thing you would hear on Hot Rats' second side. Carrying the softer, jazzier melodic sound is an ideal combination of light, fluid wah-wah – which Zappa makes coo rather than squawk as he did on the LP opener – harpsichord that plays chords caught somewhere in between Mozart and lounge jazz, and the occasional piano, not to mention the expected backing of shuffled drums and muted standup bass. Other than memorability, this one is a step-up from its Hot Rats predecessors because the title matches perfectly. Doesn't the loungy jazz vibe of the tune make you picture yourself in a smoke-filled room with a bunch of rich folk sipping on their cocktails while hashing out business deals? No, that's just me? Oh well.

The other instrumentals are a bit closer to the complexity of yore, albeit with a stronger dose of parody. "The Nancy and Mary Music" – I don't much get the title, but I do know that the music itself is extracted from live jam(s) of the "King Kong" piece – has the instrumentalists all take a turn to show off their skills, and while the solos don't capture my attention the way the Uncle Meat versions of "King Kong" did, they still show them to be great players: Underwood's sax is as fluttery and dissonant as ever, Duke's rhythmic, thumping on the electric piano is sonically every bit as appealing as Don Preston's, and Zappa's piercing wah-wah rocks the house down. The main interest in the track, or so the intention seems, anyways, are the drums, which interrupt (or are meant to transition) each solo, and even have a solo of their own. But Dunbar doesn't have a pure drum solo, in which he can bash away on his own. To make it more interesting, the two new vocalists add a bit of spice to the proceedings, with one of them screaming in a high-pitch to emulate a cymbal (or occasionally adding chimp sounds) and the two of them making rhythmic, pre-beatbox sounds to imitate a drummer thrashing and bashing. While overall I've heard better jams from Zappa and the Mothers, the self-parodic nature (as opposed to parodying others as is the norm in his non-instrumentals) is a benefit.

The title track – named after a kind of vacuum cleaner, but I always took it to be a reference to the "CHUNGA CHUNGA" chanting on Absolutely Free – is musically similar, albeit a bit more focused. After a few dirty, distorted, wah-wah drenched power chords backed by chaotic drums occasionally interrupted by moody sax and searing guitar leads, Underwood takes full control of the reigns and plays a fine sax solo filtered through a wah-wah or wah-wah-like-filter that gives it a weird, psychedelic sheen and almost makes you uncertain whether the lead instrument is being blown into or plucked. Zappa gets a solo too on here, but it's not nearly as impressive, although it fits the vaguely dark mood of the song (the "revenge" promised in the title?) and stands up well on its own from a melodic perspective. In a sense, the final instrumental, "The Clap" – no relation to the country-ish ditty from Yes, and plenty of relation, name-wise, to sexually transmitted diseases given Zappa's penchant for the dirty – is a conclusion to this one. Much as "The Nancy and Mary Music" concluded with a drum solo parody, as does this one, although Dunbar isn't the player here, Zappa is. He plays a swaying, hammering 4/4 drum beat covered in what sounds like 100 ping-pong balls rolling off a table, ending in a bit of actual drum soloing, although rhythmically not that different than the ping-pong ball sound. Again, it's nothing special as a parody, but it's good silly fun.

The vocal tracks, for the most part, are even more stylistically simple, although that's not so unusual when you consider the number of parodies Zappa had done and would continue to do. The first, "Road Ladies", is a blues about the "difficulties" in being a rock star: the endless nights, the boring road travel, and "nothing but groupies and promoters to love you while a pile of laundry lies outside the hotel room door", to quote the lyrics. When Zappa himself graces us with his baritone to deliver the lyrics in the first half, he does it with plenty of verve, interrupting the melody to almost speak the lines (and usually there's a punch line when he does it), just in case the words aren't enough to point out the parodic nature of the tune. When Flo & Eddie take over, the vocals are more straightforward, but they over-emote in a mock-soul-blues fashion, so it's just as useful and comedic as Zappa's vocal parts. The music is pretty great too, with thick, swirling organ chords that sound Hammond-esque (whether it's actually a Hammond organ or not, I'm not sure), plenty of bombastic drumming (more prominent when Zappa sings, to accompany the spoken parts in an equally erratic way) and some fine wah-wah-drenched blueswailing guitar where Zappa tries to upstage Flo & Eddie with all kinds of tricks and fills and whatnot.

The closing "Sharleena" – as the pseudo-generic 1950's girl name implies – has the new version of the Mothers step into the old version's familiar territory, doo-wop, although like "Road Ladies", there's a strong soul element added to it. Now I know what you're thinking: "isn't doo-wop essentially a lightweight predecessor to soul/R&B?" While I agree that's a valid thought, somehow the song manages to combine them quite successfully. The way lead and backup vocals kind of circle around each other, with a strong lead vocal emphasized by cooing falsettos, is doo-wop at its finest – with Howard Kaylan almost sounding eerily similar to Ray Collins, if Ray Collins tripled or quadrupled his daily cigarette intake, that is – while the more bottom-heavy music, with prominent drums, thick, busy bass, swirling organ, and a bit of wah-wah/Leslie-processed (not sure if just one or both) guitar to spice things up, takes a page from late '60s/early '70s soul acts. Occasionally, the vocals themselves follow the music's path into something more concurrent, like in the desperate first bridge with a clever melodic twist, or Frank's distant wailing "send my baby home to me" in the coda. For just a brief moment, they even rock out in a second bridge where Frank lays down some dirty wah-wah riffage and Volman or Kaylan makes these macho grunting sounds. I'm not quite sure what this has to do with the song, but it's not as cheesy as it sounds.

Surrounding the title track and its minute-long percussive follow-up are two songs in a similar style, one I could only call "carnival rock". Both "Would You Go All the Way?" and "Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink" feature watery fairground organ and goofy brass to accompany a more normal rock/pop instrumentation of guitar/bass/drums. The former track is, to me and many others, the better of the two, going through a number of fine melodies that borrow from a variety of styles, from up-tempo doo-wop (the initial falsetto-laden lines) to the Bo Diddley beat, to generic rock (this time accompanied by some wild Leslie-processed guitar playing) and of course goofy carnival-esque fanfare. It also has the funnier lyrics, in the fine tradition of Mothers music, telling a story of a girl on a date with a USO serviceman who's especially "hands-on", culminating in the refrain "Would you go all the way for the USA?/Would you go all the way for the USO?/Lift up your dress if the answer is no!". In some ways, the variety of styles explored in the melody and the diversity of instrumentation accompanying a risqué tale of perversion reminds me of 10cc. And here I thought it was Zappa's early albums that influenced them the most, yet this would fit right in on their debut.

"Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink" would have fit in with 10cc's early numbers too, and while it also has a number of fine melodies set to boisterous trombones and watery organ telling a funny story – this time of corrupted unions taking on a new target, rock stars with gambling debts – it doesn't quite enchant me as much. Maybe on another album, where it's not a couple of tracks down from its stylistic superior, it would be a highlight. Still, don't let that detract from the enjoyability of the quasi-militant rhythm, the smarmy, slick, snake-oil salesman-like vocals, and some fine comical lines like "I hope the bulge/Don't bum you out/Wanna get a good look?/Let me pull it right out" implying something perverted while also referring to the preceding verse line about his carrying a gun for personal safety.

As I often do, I've saved the best song for last: "Tell Me You Love Me". The song predicts, of all genres, 1980s hair metal(!), and as surprising as that sounds on paper or screen, you'd be surprised how logical it is for the master of parody who is also a masterful guitar player to take a sexual theme and set it to heavy rock music that an entire genre would dedicate itself too. With a heavy main guitar riff that weaves its way upward in a chord sequence Black Sabbath would adore but with a tone so embroiled in porno-like wah-wah it could never be taken seriously as horror-rock riffage, Flo & Eddie howling out sexually implicit lyrics in their most macho voices, and the two accompanied by all kinds of flashy guitar fills and drum fills, as well as an organ part so bright it resembles those chintzy synthesizers so popular with hair metal bands in the late '80s – not to mention a bridge where Flo & Eddie take on a mock-soulful falsetto backed by equally mock-soulful electric piano – they manage to make something that Def Leppard would be proud of but with a level of self-awareness and melodic/riff-based talent they would rarely achieve. Funny enough, this line-up of the band loved the riff so much they would use it as often as they could in live contexts, even if it was in an entirely different song where Flo & Eddie could exaggerate their seemingly 12-year old-written sex jokes (but that's a story for another album).

Ultimately, I see this album as a step below all but two of Zappa & the Mothers' 1960's albums (or all but three if you count Lumpy Gravy, or all but four if you count both versions of it), but considering those are all in the top echelon of avant-garde/parody rock/jazz-fusion/etc., that's hardly an insult to this album. It shows Zappa going for a more streamlined sound, sure enough, but whose to say a guy who could pull off a "Trouble Every Day" or "Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder" couldn't successfully streamline their sound without compromising their artistic vision? Anyways, I have no problem giving this album a solid 11/15: given it has a number of interesting instrumentals and at least four great actual songs, that's the least I could award it. And if the Flo & Eddie-era of Zappa's career has a reputation that scares you away from digging into the albums produced then, let this review be a reminder that at least one of such albums is a worthwhile purchase.

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