Monday, November 26, 2007

Tinkertoys

Had Frank allowed himself to cheat, cheatily-cheat like all the rest, he could have been merely a distinguished rock and roll icon, or master bluesman, or paragon of neoclassicism, or a Spike Jonesish musical comedian.

But no. Along with all that, he had to go and invent little ditties that the best conservatory-trained musicians struggled to play properly. This would be Frank's "Tinkertoy" music – the tunes with all those little notes that fly by at 8,200 mph, usually set against some impossible time signature.

"Drowning Witch/Envelopes," besides being hilariously imaginative and featuring truly evocative guitar expression, includes some completely bitchin' flurries of notes, including the Hawaiian Punch jingle. In the liner notes to YCDTOSA III, Frank notes that the 1984 band never played in correctly all the way through, and that the 1982 band only came close on one occasion. That's why the album version of the song had to be stitched together from 17 different performances.

There are Tinkertoy-dense songs, like "Moggio," "St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast," "Wild Love," and many others. And everyone (except possibly Sam Brownback) adores those two all-time top Tinkertoy tunes, "Peaches En Regalia" and "The Black Page." Of course, many other "routine" Zappa songs are punctuated by mind-blowing micro-note passages.

This tendency may be Frank's most defining characteristic. When you hear those amazing passages, you know right away that you're listening to Zappa music. But he didn't seem to see any musical difference between the impossible parts and the most guttural rock or blistering blues. They were all flavors on his musical pallet, ready for deployment at his whim.

So, for the Nov. 30, 2007 Zappa's Grubby Chamber, we'll play lots of highly challenging (for the players) Frank songs encrusted with jillions of tiny notes, those little quick ones that no one else really ever tried to play.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Classical Frank

Obviously Frank's music can be and has been articulated many different ways, from a capella to full symphonic treatments. Rock may have been the core – or at least the funding mechanism –
of the Zappa experience, but the only thing that minimized his use of more elaborate instrumental assemblages was their cost and inherent management problems.

Even young Frank would hire orchestras from time to time, just to hear his music played. And he knew how to get the big band sound by augmenting the rock bands with horn and percussion sections. In attempting to more fully instrumentalize his music, he got screwed a few times.

Nonetheless, given his persistence and productivity, over the years Frank did manage to overcome the obstacles and create a solid body of what we might call "classical" music, whatever that is. With small ensembles, full orchestras and in digital realms, he explored the harmonic and percussive climes of fine, fine music.

On the November 27, 2007 Zappa's Grubby Chamber, we'll enjoy a pleasant Thanksgiving treat together as some of us digest and assimilate slaughtered turkey remains – Classical Frank. And I'll be channeling sort of a combo of Sebastian Cabot and Leonard Pinth-Garnell for the occasion.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Who Is Making Those New Brownback Clouds?

By now, you, today's concerned Frank Zappa fan, probably know about the dumpster-based deathcult that comprises the Sam Brownback for President campaign.

Someone from that camp – or purporting to be, anyway – said some rude things about Our Hero that really don't bear repeating. Suffice to say that they're perfectly in keeping with the whole Neocon Repuglican ethos we've come to know and loathe over these past seven years.

I think it's up for grabs as to whether anyone could actually be that stupid, even knowing the depths of intellectual and moral depravity the Party of Piety has become so deservedly known for. It could be some kind of ultra-hip conceptual art project or something. But some on both sides took it seriously, as the comment threads on the Brownback blog and good old Kill Ugly Radio demonstrate.

Unfortunately, some Frank fans responded to the hate rhetoric in the same spirit in which it was (maybe) intended. Here's one particularly piquant hunk o' blowback, appealing of only for the rhythm and texture of the verbiage:

You sad sacks of decaying human pus … thank your Imaginary Cop for the ignorance that keeps the shredded integuments of your twisted little faux-reality intact. You plainly lack the morals, the intellect or the maturity to stomach the alternative.

Guy’s been stone dead for almost 15 years - hey, wow, so has the conscience of the USA!

Coincidence?

And so on. But really, what's the point? Do we need to become like them to define them? Do you think Frank would have wasted his time flaming morons? Sure, but he'd do it musically.

And did. So, for the Nov. 16 Zappa's Grubby Chamber, we'll harken back to those halcyon days when Mr. Z "celebrated" the Republicans of his day in song. And whenever the word "Falwell" or "Robertson" or "Meese" comes up, we'll mentally substitute "Brownback."

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Extra Texture

From The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks.
"Pressed shank braised with smoker's phlegm."

Frank was second to none in bringing forth interesting sonic textures. Turning on a dime from syphilitic buzzsaw guitar to cayenne-pepper harmonic climes to flurries of the impish xylophone merriment, Frank danced the blues. Also the greens, purples, burnt siennas and mellow yellows of our imagination.

Frank always had a good beat, funny lyrics, great insights, all enveloped in the most enchanting textural cocoons. Electronic mischief, xenochrony, found items, traditional instruments used in fantastically expressive ways – he just had a way with sound.

"The Black Page #1" is a fine example of Frank's sound sculpting. Terry's drums are adorned with percussive dubs in a merry dance of sound. What about that shimmering cascade after the forst line of "Why Does it Hurt When I Pee?" What could that signify? Here's another one: that woeful vocal sample on "Promiscuous," the one that reacts to Dr. Koop's fascinating lecture? The portentous trombone in "Cheepnis" alone is worth the price of admission.

Some of my favorite Frank soundification is on the vastly overlooked L. Shankar album, Touch Me There. Does anyone else love that genius work as much as I do? The ashy, raspy texture on "Windy Morning" is so delicious. What about the fantastic clash of jammin' guitars and inter-galactic orchestral strings on "Little Stinker?"

Well, there's a lot to choose from. The Nov. 9, 2007 Zappa's Grubby Chamber will be chock full of texture. And maybe, just for texture, I'll read some of James Lileks' favorite dishes. Yum! Send your textural suggestions to studio@khum.com or call (707) 786-5486.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Flower Power


Frank wasn't necessarily a fan of flower power and things psychedelic. Best I can tell, it wasn't contempt, but more... let's say, "rueful bemusement." Yeah, that.

Frank certainly could have cashed in on the whole hippie-music phenomenon, since he emerged onto the music scene right when all that was happening, man. Instead, he unreservedly hoisted all the flower-power pretense on its groovy petard with songs like "Flower Punk," and "Absolutely Free (The Track)."

Here's what Frank said in a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone (Oh, it's gotta be true!):

You once told Davy Jones of The Monkees you liked Monkees music better than anything you'd heard from San Francisco. Were you serious?

I said most of what they recorded sounded better. People think San Francisco rock is supposed to be cosmic value and all that, but it is manufactured music and manufactured music is worthless. Monkees music is manufactured, too, of course, and I'd like to say at this point: they're worth about the same, except the Monkees records sound better produced. The problem with San Francisco groups is, I was expecting wonders, and miracles and what I heard was a bunch of white blues bands that didn't sound as funky as my little band in high school.

And yet, just in terms of production values, songs on Freak Out! and Absolutely Free do sound kind of like Jefferson Airplane music. You know, the gutless drum sound, the treble-y guitar, the too-much-echo and overall lack of dynamic range. I doubt if most of the psychedelic bands had any higher aspirations, but we know Frank did. The shitty sound was surely a result of uncomprehending engineers in white shirts and ties utilizing 10-foot poles to operate the primitive recording equipment, and all on a low budget since the execs weren't sure if the rock "fad" would last another 10 minutes.

On the Nov. 2 Zappa's Grubby Chamber, we'll delve into Frank's psychedelic side and maybe even play a few tracks by other rockin' teenage combos of the era, including my favorite psychedelic band, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy.

Regarding the groovy rendering of Frank above, it appeared at the KHUM studio with my name on it, so THANKS to whomever dropped it off. It's by Connie Fisher, a Verde Valley, Arizona artist and designer. Check out her site for some really mind-expanding art and music!