Wednesday, October 8, 2008

One Size Fits All

What on earth is a Florentine Pogen?

This is a conundrum that faces every listener of Zappa’s “One Size Fits All” as soon as the song titled as such begins. There is the initial, albeit superficial, conclusion that the subject of the song is connected somehow with the lore of Italy. After all, a Pogen is a member of the aristocratic class of Florence. But as this Web site reveals, a Florentine Pogen is also a cookie. And given Zappa’s quirkiness, we cannot ignore that possible influence in the song’s origin.

“One Size Fits All” is one of a series of albums released in the years after “The Grand Wazoo” that represent Zappa’s finest work. Zappa, having honed his compositional, recording and playing techniques during the fantastic jazz fusion period he went through during the late 60s and early 70s, took all that he had learned and brought together the brashness of rock music and the story-telling capabilities inherent in a Broadway musical. It kicked off with “Over-nite Sensation” to be followed with “Apostrophe,” and then “One Size Fits All.” This latter album was recorded over a period of five months from December 1974 to April 1975, but many of its songs were already in development. When I saw Zappa play at the field house at Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Mich., on April 28, 1974, he played “Inca Roads.” In fact, I think he opened the show with that tune. I’m pretty sure he played “Titties and Beer” during that show as well, which would be contrary to what is posted about this song at the All Music Guide.

I still prefer the guitar solos on “Over-nite Sensation” primarily because of their sheer energy. But Zappa’s guitar work is brilliant on “One Size Fits All” as well, although I believe in a much more esoteric way than “Over-nite Sensation,” or even “Apostrophe” for that matter; in both those recordings, the guitar work was more mainstream, albeit brilliantly mainstream.

However, I would set myself up a fool if I were to ignore Zappa’s work on “One Size Fits All.” Let’s begin with the beginning and the solo on “Inca Roads.” Apparently, there are others, in addition to me, who think that solo is remarkable on many levels, including Steve Vai. Rhythmically, “Inca Roads” is extraordinarily complex with many abrupt interruptions that apparently frustrated band members like George Duke. But Zappa’s solo, recorded during a Helsinki concert, begins with an ethereal quality that musically combines the emotional opposites of suppression and expression. By the end, his guitar work sends the listener into the ether on a journey that comes very close to religious epiphany punctuated with staccato notes reaching to the quasars. And then there’s George Duke’s frenetic electric piano solo that captures so well the essence of a song that conjures cosmological imagery. The pace is captured vocally as well, juxtaposed with Ruth Underwood’s amazing marimba work. The song closes with an acknowledgement to Underwood’s performance with an “On Ruth, On Ruth, That’s Ruth!”

Initial releases of the album reportedly had a flaw within "Inca Roads" with a barely noticeable skip in the track. Once it was identified, those albums in circulation but unsold were recalled and replaced with corrected versions.

We next jump into “Can’t Afford No Shoes,” one of two rollicking numbers on the record that also includes “Andy.” This is great rock-n-roll with Zappa’s unmistakable flair. And, of course, this song has its own brilliant guitar playing, a bit of Delta blues that sounds like Frank is literally bending the neck on his axe. And there is the “big finish!”

“Sofa No. 1” is simply beautiful. So melodic and still so FZ. Full of bombastic Germanic structure that it almost drips Wagner, but pulled off with such smooth panache, it can bring me near to tears.

Then there’s “Po-Jama People,” which begins with a guitar riff that teases you, foreshadowing another solo that is destined to rip your ears off, ironic considering the song is about people who are boring and soporific.

I already covered the debutante daisy with the color note organ, although there is another inside joke within the song regarding Perellis, who is not a figure from Florentine legend but was Zappa’s manager at the time of the recording.

“Evelyn, A Modified Dog” remains one of my favorite Zappa songs because of its poetic brilliance. But then comes a song that contains a bit of personal arcana right out of Zappa’s life. That reference goes with the verse “Well there’s forty-four men stashed away in Tank C/And there’s only one shower/And it don’t apply to Bob-bee!” Zappa spent time in the San Bernardino County Jail after being convicted of a trumped up indecency charge in 1962.

I mentioned that “Andy” was another fun rollicking tune, although it starts a bit more grandiose than your basic rock-n-roll song. But after the initial question is asked of whether there is anything good inside of you, the guitar gets gritty. I really like this song because it goes to the heart of a belief that is very Buddhist, and that is there is nothing good inside of us. We are neutral. People, of course, misinterpret this notion and twist its expression to mean, well, if there’s nothing good inside of us, then what’s inside of us must be evil. But that is not at all what is being implied in the lyrics. It just means we are what we is, nothing else. By nature, we are very selfish creatures. It is through socialization that we are supposed to learn that by being nice to each other, we get along much better.

“Do you know what I’m really telling you? Is it something that you can understand?”

You have to love Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s vocals at the end of this tune as well, so visceral, so hair-raising, it’s delicious.

Then we have “Sofa No. 2,” with lyrics this time taking the notion that god is everything to its absurd conclusion, that god is the chrome dinette as well. And by the way, we are god’s sofa.

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

This post was edited and new content added on Jan. 4, 2009.

Album release date: June 25, 1975, Warner DiscReet Records.

Song tracks:
Inca Roads - 8:45
Can't Afford No Shoes - 2:38
Sofa No. 1 - 2:39
Po-Jama People - 7:43
Florentine Pogen - 5:27
Evelyn, A Modified Dog - 1:04
San Ber'dino - 5:57
Andy - 6:03
Sofa No. 2 - 2:47

Frank Zappa - guitars, vocals
George Duke - keyboards, synthesizers, vocals
Napoleon Murphy Brock - flute, tenor sax, vocals
Chester Thompson - drums
Tom Fowler - bass
Ruth Underwood - percussion
James Youman - bass
Johnny "Guitar" Watson - flambe vocals
Bloodshot Rollin' Red (Captain Beefheart) – harmonica


Anonymous said...

Best Zappa album, hands down. Nice review, but mention should be made of the fretless guitar used on San Ber'dino and Can't Afford No Shoes.

Brilliant songwriting on every track, amazing musicianship and awe-inspiring futuristic guitar innovations. Unbeatable.

Richard Harrold said...

Thanks for pointing that out about the fretless guitar. It's gratifying that these posts are still getting comments long after they were originally published.

Anonymous said...

Inca roads one of zappas best pieces for touring band/ non orchestra.