Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sleep Dirt

I was surprised when I read the reviews for “Sleep Dirt” at Ground and Sky. Both Bob Eichler and Gary Niederhoff were effusive with their praise for this recording.

“Sleep Dirt remains one of Zappa’s better works,” writes Eichler.

“This is a great Zappa album,” writes Niederhoff.

And then Robert Christgau gives the album a B+. “For what it's worth, I thought I'd mention that this collection of outtakes showcases more good music than any Zappa album in years,” opines Christgau.

Wow. I wasn’t as enthusiastic about this “collection of outtakes” as these guys. To me, “Sleep Dirt” is mediocre at best. Was I missing something?

Curiously, the All Music Guide review of the album gives it 3.5 stars, compared to the 3 stars it awarded for “Studio Tan.” Ironically, I think “Studio Tan” is the better collection. Yet, I am comforted by Francois Couture’s words when he writes, “There are strong guitar solos, but the whole thing lacks panache (and the cover artwork is truly awful).”

And I was disappointed that Mark Prindle omited both albums from his litany of reviews. I was hoping I might find some common ground with Mark; we at times disagree on a few albums, but by and large I respect his thoughts on Zappa’s works.

So I gave it another listen to make sure I was certain about my opinion. By the way, I have the album version, which is deliciously devoid of lyrics and singing.

The album opens with “Filthy Habits,” which starts with a forlorn and dolorous sound that is almost painful, but don’t take that as a criticism. When this song begins, I am extraordinarily optimistic about my listening experience with this album. This is one of the leftovers from “Zoot Allures.” The chilling guitar work is clearly stylistically connected to the dark and ponderous sound that dominated that album.

Then comes “Flambay,” a song filled with promise, opening with a pretty piano introduction, but which devolves into the style of extraordinarily bland lounge music. I can picture myself in a bar while the band plays this piece, and I can hear the chatter of all the patrons rising above the musicians because the music just isn’t interesting enough to warrant rapt attention. And for me, that is what Zappa’s music is all about: it requires your rapt attention, and most of the time you are willing to give it because the music is so damned interesting and stimulating. I’m sure the musicians are playing this piece expertly; you can’t argue with Ruth Underwood’s skill. It’s just a tune that doesn’t grab me.

“Spider of Destiny” isn’t any better, and in fact, sounds like a somewhat more robust relative of “Flambay.” But frankly, I think I’m being kind in saying that. I do like George Duke’s delicate piano when he provides a tinkling interlude.

I’m feeling optimistic again when “Regyptian Strut” comes along. Bruce Fowler’s horns really add some class to this song. Unfortunately, this would sound so much better if it weren’t associated with the two previous tunes, “Spider of Destiny” and “Flambay.” The melodic similarity between the pieces detracts from “Regyptian Strut”’s strength. Nonetheless, I am feeling better when this tune comes along.

“Time is Money,” however, resumes my disappointment. The timbre is just wrong. In fact, I think this would likely sound better performed by a string quartet or small orchestra, rather than the band Zappa used.

Ah, but I get a reprieve with “Sleep Dirt.” It’s not often you get to hear Zappa play acoustic guitar, and the duet he plays with James Youman is just freaking excellent! And you don’t feel let down when Youman caves and the piece stops, as he explains that “my fingers got stuck.” It is an awesome piece.

Both “Sleep Dirt” and the final cut on the album, “The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution” are leftovers from “Zoot Allures,” and frankly, it is these songs that were cut from that album that are best pieces on the album “Sleep Dirt.” The last cut is great jazz fusion; Patrick O’Hearn’s bass playing is outstanding. Such a simple song in terms there are just three musicians on this (Terry Bozzio is on drums), but it is quintessential Zappa in that it demands your delighted attention. And the guitar solo is stellar too.

So my conclusion? I’m still sticking with my original opinion, and that is overall, “Sleep Dirt” the album is just mediocre. It has three outstanding pieces that definitely project themselves beyond the other rather dull tracks.

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

Released Jan. 19, 1979, DiscReet Records.

Album release:

Side One
1.Filthy Habits (7:33)
2.Flambay (5:02)
3.Spider Of Destiny (2:54)
4.Regyptian Strut (4:15)

Side Two
1.Time Is Money (2:52)
2.Sleep Dirt (3:20)
3.The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution (13:20)

CD release:

1.Filthy Habits (7:34)
2.Flambay (4:54)
3.Spider Of Destiny (2:33)
4.Regyptian Strut (4:13)
5.Time Is Money (2:49)
6.Sleep Dirt (3:21)
7.The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution (13:20)


Frank Zappa (guitar, keyboards)
Dave Parlato (bass)
Terry Bozzio (drums)
George Duke (keyboards)
Patrick O'Hearn (bass)
Ruth Underwood (percussion)
Chad Wackerman (drum overdubs on CD)
Thana Harris (vocals overdubs on CD)
Bruce Fowler (all brass)
James Youman (bass)
Chester Thompson (drums)

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