Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention - One Size Fits All

While his skills as a composer and guitarist are self-evident on everything I've ever heard by him, Frank Zappa hasn't ever really clicked with me as a personal favorite.  I think it might have something to do with the tension between his obvious seriousness and discipline as a composer and player but the apparently complete lack of seriousness when it comes to thoroughly crafting an album or imbuing his songs with anything but the most lightweight of messages.  I know, I know--it's just how Zappa is, but the slapdash composite of dense jazz rock, rock and roll parody and novelty song that makes up most of his fans' favorite albums just hasn't satisfied me to the point of admitting that any of them are really great.

One Size Fits All is about as enjoyable as others I've heard, though.  The dense, twinkling jazz rock that initiates the album with "Inca Roads" is my favorite part; these compositions are fluid, full of little ostinati and vibraphone/vocal runs that precariously and quickly speed through a jaw-dropping number of notes.  Zappa could always build a band, and in terms of musicianship, there are virtually no chinks in the armor here, especially in the rhythm section.  For his part, Zappa's playing runs the typical mix of able but jammy blues-inflected lead guitar interspersed with some more interesting standout ideas.  For example, his fun but repetitive fuzz solo on "Po-Jama People" sounds really familiar, while the twiddly clean riff near the end of "Sofa No. 1" sounds like only Zappa could have written it.  Obviously, I prefer the more peculiar and idiosyncratic stuff, and there's at least an adequate amount of it here, thanks to the late-game clutch pull of "Andy," with more ridiculous vocal arrangements, freely-flowing ideas, and a little bit of atypical guitar playing. 

Though I don't really find the songwriting especially consistent, the sound on this album definitely is--wide open, major seventh, ninth and eleventh chords give the music a happy feel and provide a lot of roaming territory for the vocalists, which are another strength--Zappa's proficient but limited voice is aided quite ably by some of the African American members of his band, including a welcome guest appearance by Johnny "Guitar" Watson on "San Ber'dino," which almost sounds like ELO (sorry, bigtime Zappa fans!).  As a much bigger fan of groups from the Canterbury scene (most of which are undeniably influenced by Zappa's earlier work), I can hear traces of Hatfield and the North in some of this album's intricate jazz rock, but the idea of a group from Canterbury managing to successfully include black American music in their blend is laughable.  In this way, Zappa is to Canterbury almost like extreme fascism is to extreme communism--almost the exact same thing, but somehow fundamentally and permanently separate.  For me, at least, the Canterbury bands usually did a better job of looking at the big picture and creating really solid albums, even if the music gets a little darker and less "fun," and for some reason I find their sense of humor more compelling.  And the problem for me with Zappa's idea of fun, on this album, at least, is that most of the songs are merely just goofy and rarely cross over into a level of humor that actually makes me laugh--"Po-Jama People" seems to be trying to be satirical but the identity of Zappa's actual target remains a mystery to me, while the punchline to all of the verbosity on "Evelyn, A Modified Dog" is merely "arf."  I thoroughly understand that Zappa's "I don't give a shit" attitude is deliberate and is precisely what a lot of people love about his music, but for me it's more attractive in theory than in practice.  He does come close, though, on the rock and roll bum send-up "Can't Afford No Shoes" with "maybe there's a bundle of rags that I can use."

Maybe I just need to keep sorting through the favored albums of the Zappa-converted for a couple more to help me really appreciate the man's music and humor, but for now I prefer the more successful satire of We're Only in It for the Money and Hot Rats is still my go-to for concentrated playing and compositions.  Recommendations welcome!

Get it here.

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