Frank Zappa has become legendary in death. He must be laughing as he looks down, or up, from wherever he is spending eternity. His music is still available in beautifully packaged editions, just the way he always wanted it to be. Ryko has done a wonderful job of managing the old music, and now they’ve come up with a way to sell the legend to legions of new fans. Not a standard “greatest gits” package for Mr. Zappa (although they did that too) but rather a couple of collections hand picked by somebody the kids will dig! This one is by Larry LaLonde of Primus, who offers a brief introductory liner note and no reasons for his choices. It is interesting, filled to the brim with Zappa music, and provides a listening experience similar to being at a friend’s house while he plays you his favorite 45s – fun but not especially rewarding.
LaLonde starts the ball rolling with one of Frank’s wild guitar solos from Shut Up ‘n’ Play Yer Guitar, “five-five-FIVE” uses the whole fret-board and introduces the sounds you’re about to hear quite effectively. Then “Dumb All Over” from You Are What You Is brings in the horns and vocals that long-time listeners were familiar with. One of the absolute treats of Zappa’s mid-period was his use of vibes, and we hear quite a bit of them on Zappa Picks and they are haunting. They lift Zappa’s compositions to a different level than Top 40 radio, where one gets the impression Frank would have loved to be; but since they weren’t going to play his esoteric music he would simply remain detached, aloof and cynical.
This was his best feature. I remember hearing Frank Zappa interviewed on an FM radio show one night, and the mellow-cool DJ was trying to impress Zappa with his high-coolosity level, and Frank just reduced this would-be Dr. Johnny Fever to a quivering mass with a few well chosen bon-mots. His music maintains some of the same qualities. It is intelligent, structured and clever, even as it seems aimless, abstract and dumb. The lyrics don’t help because Zappa’s target was often modern mass culture, so he would adopt the elements of the subject about to be skewered and then reduce it all to its lowest common denominator. Except of course, for the complicated arrangement of music. So you had this juxtaposition of goofy, silly, snarly, lyrics over top of high powered, heavily rhythmic, jazzy, bluesy, precisely arranged musical compositions. It was cool.
“Camarillo Brillo,” “Evelyn, a Modified Dog,” “Wild Love,” “Dog Breath,” and many more titles are selected here by LaLonde, and they do provide a snapshot of what Zappa accomplished. No one CD can ever give you a balanced look at the mind and talents of Frank Zappa, but LaLonde has chosen tunes that give the listener a sense of the breadth and scope of Zappa’s work.
Funny, challenging, a little bit dirty, even sophomoric at times, Zappa is an acquired taste. You don’t even have to like everything he did. His takes on modern orchestral music appeal to some, his doo-wop songs will appeal to others. His outrageous sense of humor, his virtuosic guitar playing, they’re are all facets of Zappa’s rich oeuvre. As I said, one CD can never contain all aspects of Zappa’s abilities, but LaLonde’s Picks provide a personal view of Frank’s career and open the door for further study.
Frank Zappa is legendary, but for a glimpse behind the legend, for an hour of appreciation of his talents, for a few samples of why musicians (like Primus and Phish) hold him so dear, this series (and particularly Picks by Larry LaLonde) will open a few ears.
[Update: This CD and its companion disc Zappa Picks – By Jon Fishman of Phish are still in print but no longer on Rykodisc. According to Wikipedia, “The Zappa Family Trust and Ryko parted ways in 2012 with the Zappa Family Trust reacquiring Frank Zappa’s recorded music catalogue and Universal Music Enterprises taking over distribution of the Zappa catalogue.”]