Saturday, May 2, 2009

Zoot Allures

One of the few Zappa albums I purchased at the time of its release was “Zoot Allures,” which was released in October of 1976 while I was a freshman at Western Michigan University. The opening track, “Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station,” was welcomed by my “ready ears,” so to speak. As a college freshman, I had some ideas about what I might want to do with my life, but I honestly had no burning ambition. To me, it was all pointless, and to a large degree today it remains all pointless. Zappa’s lyrics, to some degree, undoubtedly influenced me while growing up, revealing in some way the chimeras of the world. But I think my mind in many ways was already seeing significant contradictions between how I was being told the world worked and how it actually worked well before I heard “Plastic People” for the first time while listening to “Absolutely Free” when I was 10.

Many of the rules of society are, indeed, there to help us all get along, to keep the peace. But I was quickly learning as a child that perhaps most of society’s rules were there to protect a minority of well-established powers. So by the time I was in high school, I was already doubting the point of seeking a career, of finding my “place in the world.” Don’t confuse this with any high-minded values here. I was also extraordinarily lazy. I had fantasies of becoming an important social leader, but I lacked the discipline necessary to follow through on this dream.

However, I did recognize how the world worked, whether I liked it or not. So I have always striven to do my best in whatever I’ve done professionally, not just because the world expects it, but also so that I may achieve some personal satisfaction.

Nonetheless, when I first heard “Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station,” I believed that my feelings were being validated.

“Zoot Allures” contains three outstanding guitar pieces; the title track, “Friendly Little Finger,” and “Black Napkins.” The latter also sets the tone for the majority of the album. In a fashion similar to “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” – which had avant-garde jazz pieces sandwiched between two doo-wop numbers – “Zoot Allures” is largely a group of somber, yet still excellent pieces, sandwiched between opening and closing tracks that tend to be musically anachronistic. The strictly instrumental “Black Napkins” smoothly transitions into the prescient “The Torture Never Stops,” a song that more than likely referred to Augusto Pinochet and his dictatorial regime in Chile, but which has uncanny relevance in 2009.

With this number, Zappa brilliantly blends the horrors of torture when used as an interrogation technique with the bizarre attraction it has for some sexual fetishists. The screaming and wailing woman accompanying the song expresses both arduous pain and sexual bliss, linking within the song the well-documented notion that those who employ torture against prisoners are not only attempting to extract information, but are also fulfilling a deep sexual perversion.

As if intending to more succinctly make that connection, the song swiftly moves from the female’s final orgasmic wailing to the funky “Ms. Pinky,” a song about sex with a blow-up doll. Captain Beefheart, appearing as Donnie Vliet, plays some ripping great harmonica here.

Sticking with the sexual theme, the B side of the album release opens with “Find Her Finer,” an OK piece that brings the tempo back down from the prior track. It’s a song that I can take or leave. The next piece, however, has Zappa returning with an awesome guitar solo-centered piece, “Friendly Little Finger.” Behind this soaring guitar work is the frenetic drumming of Terry Bozzio (who debuted with Zappa on “Bongo Fury”) and Zappa pulling double duty on bass. His bass playing on this jam is just as chillingly delicious as his guitar riffs, which come so close to an absolute loss of control, yet stick within the realms of human over-achievement.

The transition from “Friendly Little Finger” into “Wonderful Wino” is brilliant, a combination of bombastic orchestration with in-your-face heavy metal. While the fade out on “Wonderful Wino” works, the fade out at the end of the title track is soooo frustrating!

With “Zoot Allures,” Zappa gives his guitar an ethereal sound centered by superb use of distortion and a whammy bar. It almost strikes me as an ode to Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” albeit a more laid-back nod. The song moves into stinging, staccato plucking at the strings that almost sound vicious, followed with some picking and finger-floating across the neck that zings right up scale to fall like a floating feather back down to earth. I want to hear more of this, but the damn song fades out while Zappa continues to play, a frustrating taunt that equally infuriates me and leaves me exhausted.

The advent of disco music was nearing a zenith at the time of the release of “Zoot Allures,” and there was no way someone like Zappa was going to let this phenomenon go by without comment. The last track of the album, “Disco Boy,” is a sardonic reflection of the disco lifestyle, but unlike the later “Dancin Fool,” is set to a hip beat with a rockin’ guitar riff.

As many have noted elsewhere, the album’s title is an allusion to a French phrase, “Zut alors!” It’s an idiom that is difficult to translate, but seems to be one of those utterances of mild surprise, such as a muttering of, “Well, I’ll be damned!” An interesting tidbit, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the recording’s overall musical theme. Interestingly, the recording was originally conceived as a double album, according to a variety of sources. The additional tracks of “Sleep Dirt,” “Filthy Habits,” and “The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution” were omitted and later released on the album “Sleep Dirt.”

I rate this with 4.5 out of 5 stars. Add your own rating below.

Released: Oct. 20, 1976, Warner Bros.

Track listings:

Vinyl release:

Side One
Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station (2:35)
Black Napkins (4:18)
The Torture Never Stops (9:52)
Ms. Pinky (3:49)

Side Two
Find Her Finer (4:22)
Friendly Little Finger (4:19)
Wonderful Wino (3:05)
Zoot Allures (4:15)
Disco Boy (5:28)

CD release:

Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station (2:30)
Black Napkins (4:15)
The Torture Never Stops (9:46)
Ms. Pinky (3:40)
Find Her Finer (4:07)
Friendly Little Finger (4:17)
Wonderful Wino (3:38)
Zoot Allures (4:13)
Disco Boy (5:10)


Frank Zappa (guitar, bass, synth, vocals, keyboards)
Terry Bozzio (drums, vocals)
Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, vocals)
Ruben Ladron de Guevara (vocals)
Roy Estrada (bass, vocals)
Andre Lewis (organ, vocals)
Davey Moire (vocals)
Lu Ann Neill (harp)
Sparkie Parker as Sharkie Barker (vocals)
Dave Parlato (bass)
Ruth Underwood (synth, marimba)
Captain Beefheart as Donnie Vliet (harmonica)

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