Sunday, May 9, 2010

Them or Us

Some consider “Them or Us” Zappa’s last studio album, inasmuch as a typical rock studio album. But “Thing-Fish” was released just a month later and it, too, is largely a studio album. Both albums contain live elements as well, despite the material being predominately recorded in a studio. However, with Zappa, it’s difficult to find any “studio” album that didn’t have some live material in the mix. If one wants to differentiate between “Them or Us” and “Thing-Fish,” the former is Zappa’s last mostly-studio release general song material, whereas “Thing-Fish” is a studio release of a themed, concept album reflecting a failed attempt by Zappa to produce a Broadway show.

But a lot of that is just blah-blah-blah.

“Them or Us” presents us with a wide variety of material, from the doo-wop cover opener “The Closer You Are,” to the hard-rock blues cover of The Allman Bros. “Whippin’ Post.” There’s even some of Zappa’s more complex material, such as “Sinister Footwear.” Originally released as a double album, it goes all over the place. Not a bad release, as it has some gems, but not a great one among Zappa’s releases either. Unless you’re a collector and must have every Zappa release possible – such as with my curse – you can easily skip this one. Most every tune on it, including the really good ones, can be found on other releases and compilations, often with better arrangements and performances. Except, perhaps, “Ya Honza,” and “Marque-son’s Chicken.” But more on them in a moment.

The opening cover song by Earl Lewis and Morgan “Bobby” Robinson, for example, can be found on YCDTOSA Vol. 4, and the second song, “In France”, shows up as well on YCDTOSA Vol. 3. Of course, the difference being with the version of “In France” on this release you get Johnny “Guitar” Watson along with Napoleon Murphy Brock, who are not in the YCDTOSA version.

Then along comes “Ya Honza,” which is “Sofa” from “One Size Fits All” with the lyrics backwards, as well as backward fragments of “You’re a Lonely Little Girl” from “We’re Only In It For The Money.” Among Zappa’s studio tracks, this is one of his best. This interesting twist on two of his earlier songs is accompanied by a hard-driving guitar rhythm and ends with a searing shred of a guitar solo that knifes through your brain like a sonic scalpel. You aren’t going to find this track any where else.

This arrangement of “Sharleena” is better than the performance on YCDTOSA Vol. 3, even if it does have Dweezil playing on it, but it’s not a reason to buy this release.

While “Sinister Footwear II” shows up in many places, this particular performance – mixed from two shows – is really interesting. The first half comes from a Nov. 15, 1981 performance at the Painter’s Mill Music Fair in Owings Mill, Md. The guitar solo is taken from a June 23, 1982 performance at Sporthalle, Boeblingen, Germany. It is a huge, soaring solo with frenetic picking and maniacal string bending driven by Chad Wackerman’s relentless drumming.

There’s nothing particularly exciting about the next track, “Truck Driver Divorce,” other than the segue guitar solo, which is actually a solo from a performance of “Zoot Allures” from the Nov. 17, 1981 show at The Ritz in New York City. It’s an odd splice of the tape, as it appears to me that these two songs share nothing in common musically.

Next comes one of Zappa’s best straight-up hard rock songs, “Stevie’s Spanking.” Zappa takes a back seat on this one, playing rhythm guitar while Steve Vai – of whom the song is about – plays the first solo and Dweezil performs the second solo. This song also demonstrates how pointless it is sometimes to call a Zappa album a studio album. This performance is pieced together with at least three segments from shows in Minneapolis, New York City, and Munich, Germany.

Zappa throws in a prurient song with “Baby Take Your Teeth Out,” from which we are thankfully relieved with the instrumental “Marque-son’s Chicken,” which, unfortunately, doesn’t turn up anywhere else.

“Planet of My Dreams” is a curious number from Zappa’s never-produced “Hunchentoot,” a play that went nowhere. But it’s a throw-away, nonetheless. “Be In My Video” doesn’t excite me much either. It’s a rip on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance!” and the music videos of the era, and not a very sophisticated one at that. The title track gives us a decent guitar solo taken from the Stadio Communale show in Bolzano, Italy, from July 3, 1982.

The next song, “Frogs With Dirty Little Lips,” is one Zappa co-authored with his son, Ahmet. This puerile little ditty uses a Landini cadence, according to the book Cosmik Debris: The Collected History and Improvisations of Frank Zappa.

The real star of this release is the last track, The Allman Bros. classic “Whippin’ Post.” The back story on this song begins in a 1974 concert in Helsinki (see YCDTOSA Vol. 2) when a fan shouts out “Whippin’ Post!” Ten years later, Zappa has a band that can deliver and they learn this rocking blues number that not only keeps true to the Duane Allman composition, but carries Zappa’s unique signature as well. You should also compare it with the performances on “Does Humor Belong in Music” and the bootleg “Frank Zappa’s Best Band,” which covered a show in Binghampton, N.Y.

This is a decent release, but not necessarily a “must-have” for your collection. Unless, of course, you are a complete Zappa geek like I am. By the way, I would like to express my great appreciation for Román García Albertos, whose website Information Is Not Knowledge I have found to be invaluable. Check it out.

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

Released Oct. 18, 1984, Barking Pumpkin Records/Capitol Records.

LP release:

Side One

The Closer You Are (2:58)
In France (3:30)
Ya Hozna (6:26)
Sharleena (4:33)

Side Two

Sinister Footwear II (8:40)
Truck Driver Divorce (9:03)

Side Three

Stevie’s Spanking (5:24)
Baby, Take Your Teeth Out (1:24)
Marque-son’s Chicken (7:34)
Planet Of My Dreams (1:40)

Side Four

Be In My Video (3:39)
Them Or Us (5:08)
Frogs With Dirty Little Lips (2:46)
Whipping Post (7:32)

CD release

1. The Closer You Are (2:55)
2. In France (3:33)
3. Ya Hozna (6:27)
4. Sharleena (4:33)
5. Sinister Footwear II (8:39)
6. Truck Driver Divorce (8:59)
7. Stevie’s Spanking (5:24)
8. Baby, Take Your Teeth Out (1:54)
9. Marque-son’s Chicken (7:34)
10. Planet Of My Dreams (1:37)
11. Be In My Video (3:39)
12. Them Or Us (5:23)
13. Frogs With Dirty Little Lips (2:42)
14. Whipping Post (7:32)


Frank Zappa – guitar, keyboards, vocals, arranger, producer, main performer, assistant
Tommy Mars – keyboards, vocals, soloist
Patrick O'Hearn – wind, bass guitar
Scott Thunes – vocals, Minimoog, synthesizer, bass guitar
Johnny “Guitar” Watson – vocals, guitar
Ray White – guitar, vocals, backing vocals, choir, chorus, harmony vocals, harmony
Moon Unit Zappa – vocals
Ed Mann – percussion
Chad Wackerman – drums, vocals
Ike Willis – vocals, backing vocals, choir, chorus, harmony vocals, harmony
Arthur Barrow – bass guitar
Napoleon Murphy Brock – saxophone, vocals, harmony vocals, harmony
Brad Cole – piano
Roy Estrada – vocals, backing vocals, choir, chorus, harmony, bass guitar
Bob Harris – keyboards, vocals, harmony vocals
Thana Harris – vocals, harmony
Steve Vai – guitar, soloist, fills
Dweezil Zappa – soloist, guitar
George Duke – keyboards, vocals, piano
Bobby Martin – keyboards, saxophone, vocals, falssetist, harmony vocals, harmonica

Sunday, May 2, 2010

You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol 4

With the fourth installment of the “You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore” series, Zappa returns with a song lineup from a variety of shows covering many different periods of time. And while many individual songs include parts from different performances mixed together, there are several songs that were not mixed that way, presenting an unedited version of a song from a single show. That can be a rarity with Zappa recordings.

As mentioned, Vol. 4 lacks a specific theme or show for focus, covering instead a wide array of eras and bands in much the same way Vol. 1 did. There are a few gems on this release that are special not so much because of their performances, but because they show up at all.

The first track, “Little Rubber Girl,” typifies how many of Zappa’s live songs were put together for release. The intro portion of the song comes from a 1984 show at the Bismark Theater in Chicago, while the main song is taken from the 1978 Halloween show at the Palladium in New York City. If you hear something familiar in this song, it’s because it contains a quote from “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder,” from the debut album “Freak Out!

The next three songs are single edits: “Stick Together” is from the Dec. 18, 1984 show at the Queen Elizabeth Theater in Vancouver, and both “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” and “Willie the Pimp” are from the Dec. 23, 1984 show at the Universal Amphitheater at Universal City, Calif. This performance of “MGWTKYM” is very tight and includes an intense, albeit very brief, guitar solo.

One of the intriguing items on this release is track 7, “The Evil Prince,” a song from Zappa’s ill-fated attempt at a Broadway show, “Thing-Fish.” This version is pieced together from two performances with the main portions of the song coming from the 1984 Vancouver show, and the guitar solo coming from the Sept. 24-26, 1984 shows at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. Ray White’s vocals are outstanding in this, his voice strong and clear. Zappa’s guitar solo is inspired and delicious; it’s some of his best picking.

The “Let’s Move to Cleveland Solos” include saxophonist Archie Shepp during this performance from an Oct. 28, 1984 show at the Fine Arts Center Concert Hall in Amherst, Mass. Shapp plays an inspiring solo that includes beautifully rendered melodies as well as precision squawks and squeaks that are both amazing and spot-on in terms of the composition’s structure. Allan Zavod provides the keyboard solo, an up-tempo jazz performance that I think would sound positively heavenly had it been played on a grand piano as opposed to the electronic instrument.

The interesting rarity “You Call That Music?” goes all the way back to the original Mothers of Invention as it comes from a Feb. 14, 1969 show at the McMillin Theater at Columbia University in New York City. This piece is focused on percussive instruments, something that Zappa really had an affinity for (his musical career began as a teenager playing drums).

The solos in “Pound for a Brown” are taken from the Oct. 28, 1978 show at the Palladium in New York City. Originally released on “Uncle Meat,” this song shows up frequently at Zappa shows and in many mutations (it’s one of the bonus tracks on the CD release of “Zappa in New York”). This release also has a very rare performance of “Filthy Habits,” which comes from “Sleep Dirt” and “Lather.” It is pieced together from two performances from the 1988 European leg of the ill-fated Best Band tour. Zappa’s solo on this is really filthy, and I mean that in a good way. While this sounds great on electric guitar, it’s solos like this that lead me to often wonder what Zappa’s scores would have sounded like had be become the “classical” composer that he always wanted to be.

Zappa’s relationship with Captain Beefheart was always a tortured one, but when the two high school friends clicked, they produced together some fantastic music. This “original version” of “The Torture Never Stops” from “Zoot Allures” is a prime example. Next to “Inca Roads” from “One Size Fits All,” “Torture” is one of Zappa’s most popular songs in his concert lineups, with variations of solos showing up sampled in much of his later works and releases. But this performance is really like none you’ve probably heard released anywhere else. With this May 21, 1975 performance from the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas, we get a bluesy interpretation of the song with Captain Beefheart’s guttural voice and shrieks set to a hand-clapping rhythm. Classic stuff. If you were in Austin to see that show, you witnessed something special and rare.

On Disc Two, we get a crazy performance of “Stevie’s Spanking,” which is pieced together from three European performances in 1982. Steve Vai kicks off the first solo with some maniacal shredding, with Frank following up with the second (Zappa’s solo begins at 4:41 into the song). Then at about 7:27 the two of them start shredding together, creating a sonic wall of guitar power. There’s only one other dueling guitar solo that comes close to this explosion of controlled distortion, and that is the solo during “Oh Jim” on the “Lou Reed Live” release.

We get another great solo from Frank in the next song, “Outside Now,” which comes from “Joe’s Garage.” What makes this track particularly nice is that it is taken from a single show at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., from Nov. 10, 1984. The later track “Florentine Pogen,” a complex but very cool piece, is interestingly not only pieced together from different performances, but different bands as well: a 1974 performance in Helsinki and a 1979 show from the Hammersmith Odeon in London.

This is followed by three arcane bits that ought to please any Zappaphile. The first, “Tiny Sick Tears,” is based on the pop song “96 Tears” by ? And The Mysterians and includes a reference to Jim Morrison and The Doors’ song “The End.” What I find very interesting about this song is the way Frank describes mundane activities by using terms that reflect the described action as it really is. There are references in some biographical works that Zappa dabbled with Buddhism for a bit, and evidence of this periodically turns up in his work. The way the lyrics describe going to the kitchen and getting a raisin cookie and putting it in “your eating hole” might sound a bit stupid initially, but these concrete description of everyday activity is really quite brilliant in my view. As Zappa says on the track, “Some people would say it’s bullshit, but we love it, don’t we kids?”

And then there’s “Smell My Beard,” from a 1974 show at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J. This is a sort-of quasi-spoken word bit accompanied by George Duke’s wild keyboards emitting a variety of somewhat cosmic-like sounds. This “story” leads into the next track from the same gig, “The Booger Man.” What’s a Zappa show without a bit of puerile humor?

Doo-wop fans are treated with this CD as well, with the second disc closing with a medley of this genre.

There’s a lot of good material on this release, something for just about every Zappa fan, with a smattering of nearly every major lineup. Realistically, anyone interested in Zappa could simply collect the YCDTOSA series and have a respectable representation of Zappa’s material from throughout his career.

I rate this 4.5 of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Release date: June 14, 1991 on Rykodisc

Track listings

Disc One

1. Little Rubber Girl - 2:57
2. Stick Together - 2:05
3. My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama - 3:20
4. Willie The Pimp - 2:06
5. Montana - 5:48
6. Brown Moses - 2:38
7. The Evil Prince - 7:12
8. Approximate - 1:49
9. Love Of My Life (Mudd Club Version) - 1:59
10. Let’s Move To Cleveland Solos (1984) - 7:10
11. You Call That Music? - 4:07
12. Pound For A Brown - Solos (1978) - 6:30
13. The Black Page (1984) - 5:15
14. Take Me Out To The Ball Game - 3:01
15. Filthy Habits - 5:40
16. The Torture Never Stops (Original Version) - 9:16

Disc Two

1. Church Chat - 2:00
2. Stevie’s Spanking - 10:51
3. Outside Now - 6:09
4. Disco Boy - 3:00
5. Teen-age Wind - 1:54
6. Truck Driver Divorce - 4:47
7. Florentine Pogen - 5:10
8. Tiny Sick Tears - 4:30
9. Smell My Beard - 4:31
10. The Booger Man - 2:46
11. Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy - 6:28
12. Are You Upset? - 1:30
13. Little Girl Of Mine - 1:41
14. The Closer You Are - 2:05
15. Johnny Darling - 0:52
16. No, No Cherry - 1:26
17. The Man From Utopia 1:15
18. Mary Lou - 2:16