Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Man From Utopia

“Cold and digital” is a common phrase used to describe Zappa’s production during the mid-1980s. Repetitive is one that comes to mind as well. And mechanical, as it seems that Frank would develop a musical or recording technique during this time and then clone that development for unimaginative re-use.

As an example, consider “I Come From Nowhere,” which was released on “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch.” The unusual timbre that Zappa used for the vocals in this song, while odd, provided a point of interest against the incredibly strong guitar riff driving the melody. But then this same vocalization technique shows up on “The Radio is Broken,” from “The Man From Utopia.” Boring.

And yet, this very disappointing recording starts off quite strong, beguiling the listener with the first three tracks (on the CD release) that this might actually be something nearing the compositional quality of “You Are What You Is.” The letdown, however, is substantial (it occurs more quickly on the vinyl release).

Following the order from the CD release, “The Man From Utopia” opens with “Cocaine Decisions,” a simple song with a nice harmonica part by Craig “Twister” Steward that punctuates the folksy rhythm and presentation. Zappa always had time with his material to ridicule drug use and users, but with this song, he reveals his personal animus toward cocaine. He saw the ripple effects of cocaine use not only in the music industry, but everywhere, from hypocritical politicians to doctors and lawyers. The musical interlude in between the repeated bridge has some delightful keyboards, I am presuming by Tommy Mars.

Next comes “SEX,” which starts with a strong, in-your-face rhythm, coupled with a lighter bridge finished off with what the “sniffer says.” Hmmm, lot going on in this song.

Arthur “Tink” Barrow shines on the next song, the instrumental “Tink Walks Amok.” This fantastic polyrhythmic tune with multiple bass lines, all provided by Barrow, is very cool. Listening to this I’m beginning to think that this CD has got a good groove going on. But ACK! Along comes “The Radio Is Broken.” Shit.

Lyrically, Zappa is lampooning the cheesy story lines from TV science fiction programming and SciFi movies. But the sing-speak delivery is just plain annoying. About the only redeeming quality the song has are the brief interludes of spastic guitar and drums. Things improve with “We Are Not Alone.” I really like the baritone sax in this by Bobby Martin. And musically, the song is so much more interesting than the nonsense in “The Radio is Broken.”

The first time I heard “The Dangerous Kitchen” was at the live show I saw in Tucson. I liked it then, and I enjoy the song now. Having said that, it would be even more enjoyable if the sing-speak delivery technique was limited to this song, and not used so frequently with other songs. Nothing more annoying than Zappa slipping into this sing-speak during live performances of songs like “The Torture Never Stops.”

Things pick up with “The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou,” and then really get going with the reggae-style “Stick Together.” This is a very cool song, from the impeccable rhythm section to the backing vocal harmonies that bring a spiritual quality to the song.

The sing-speak delivery that I hate so much returns with “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats,” which strikes me as laziness on Zappa’s part. The story is interesting enough in its own right, so why not just tell it? Or write a real song about it?

Frank returns to his doo-wop roots with “Luigi & The Wise Guys,” an a cappella song complete with falsetto harmonizing and snapping fingers, along with completely stupid lyrics.

The CD finishes with “Moggio”, a welcome respite from some of the other items on the release that were passed off as music. It features superb vibraphone playing by Ed Mann, and concludes with Zappa’s trademarked snorks.

All in all, I find this to be a mediocre release. In fact, I’d like to see it repackaged, taking the better items on this release and putting them together with the better songs from “Sleep Dirt.” Then I think you might have something there.

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

Released March, 1983, Barking Pumpkin Records.

Track listing

LP release:

Side One
1. Cocaine Decisions (2:56)
2. The Dangerous Kitchen (2:51)
3. Tink Walks Amok (3:40)
4. The Radio Is Broken (5:52)
5. Mõggio (3:05)

Side Two
1. The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou (Medley) (3:19)
2. Stick Together (3:50)
3. SEX (3:00)
4. The Jazz Discharge Party Hats (4:30)
5. We Are Not Alone (3:31)

CD release:

1. Cocaine Decisions (3:54)
2. SEX (3:43)
3. Tink Walks Amok (3:39)
4. The Radio Is Broken (5:51)
5. We Are Not Alone (3:18)
6. The Dangerous Kitchen (2:51)
7. The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou (Medley) (3:22)
8. Stick Together (3:14)
9. The Jazz Discharge Party Hats (4:29)
10. Luigi & The Wise Guys (3:25)
11. Moggio (2:36)


Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals, ARP 2600, Linn Drum Machine)
Steve Vai ('impossible' guitar parts on strat and acoustic)
Ray White (guitar, vocals)
Roy Estrada (pachuco falsettos etc)
Bob Harris (boy soprano)
Ike Willis (bionic baritone)
Bobby Martin (keyboards, sax, vocals)
Tommy Mars (keyboards)
Arthur Barrow (keyboards, bass, micro-bass, rhythm guitar)
Ed Mann (percussion)
Scott Thunes (bass)
Chad Wackerman (drums)
Vinnie Colaiuta (drums on "The Dangerous Kitchen")
Dick Fegy (mandolin)
Marty Krystall (sax)
Craig “Twister” Steward (harmonica)

1 comment:

@YellowShark said...

you're not wrong about your criticisms... but i still find this to be one of my favorite FZ albums!! the difference may be that i can tolerate the speak-sing style you describe.

esp. on jazz discharge party hats - your descrip[tion is not wrong, but i see it as extremely exciting in both a rhythmic and harmonic sense, as there are some very clever tensions/releases explored in that melody line, and they counterpoint/complement the story's punch lines quite well.

"radio is broken" is again one of my faves, only because i appreciate the jokes (every line in the song is joke or reference to something), and - as you mentioned - the spastic musical interludes are rad. plus, that lengthier jam at the end of the tune is great as well.

but thanks for reviewing this album, i think it's often overlooked, and it's one of my faves. definitely heavy on the speak-sing stuff though. rock!