Review Summary: ‘The way I see it, Barry, this should be a very dynamite show.’
And boy, the anonymous drone of a voice, which kicks off Frank Zappa’s first solo album, sure is right. ‘Lumpy Gravy’ is musical dynamite.
Frank Zappa, in collaboration with the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra, has brought to life 30 minutes of audio, in a way that no other 1960’s musical visionary could have dreamed of. The record sounds somewhat like a radio playing. In a circus big top. On the moon.
‘Lumpy Gravy’ is a carefully contrived collection of the classical, jazz-influenced and popular music genres, accompanied by comedic spoken word elements. For anyone familiar with Edgard Varese, his influence will be almost at once glaringly apparent. On first listen, much of the album tends to come across as arbitrary, and even dissonant; on future approaches to ‘Lumpy Gravy’, a greater sense of structure will become clear, and a level of respect for the piece will grow without relent.
Zappa has divided the record into two parts – each a little over 15 minutes – which are both home to several song-like components. A number of these songs are found in different forms elsewhere in the Zappa catalogue; ‘Oh No’ pops up on ‘Weasels Ripped My Flesh’, while the example of surf music, which closes out this album, appears in song form on ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’ (as ‘Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance’).
The authority which Varese’s legacy maintains over this album is most palpable in the album’s structure and content; amid songs, odd ‘noise’ samples are placed, which range from exotic percussion to what appears to be animal noises. The result is the configuration of an uneasy ambience. Such an atmosphere is fortified by the recording approach of the spoken word elements of ‘Lumpy Gravy’; in assembling his cast of orators inside a piano, with the sustain pedal depressed, Zappa has crafted some seriously eerie vibes, which spring forth from some very peculiar characters. These sections are hilarious…
‘Merry-go-round, do do do, merry-go-round – and they call that doing their thing.’
‘Oh yeah? THAT’S what doing your thing is.’
‘The thing is to put a motor in yourself’.
…but the sinister atmosphere always keeps the listener’s mirth in check.
Apart from the obvious influence of Varese, which is found throughout, the orchestral segments of the record are a throwback to the style and form of Igor Stravinsky, a hero of Frank Zappa’s. As would be more firmly evidenced later in his career, Zappa’s taste for, and execution of, classical music was competent, if not exemplary.
The downfall of the album is found in the crudity of the editing, which was rendered difficult by the unorthodox recording techniques employed by Zappa. The consequence of this is the release of quite a disjointed record, which for many will be a strain to sit through.
While certainly not the pinnacle of Zappa’s ‘musically serious’ work, ‘Lumpy Gravy’ is a vastly entertaining listen, which is more than what can be said for many other experimental debuts. Best listened to as a whole, the sonic pleasure granted by the orchestral and instrumental music, the bizarre ambience fashioned by the influence of Varese and Zappa’s oddity, as well as the comic relief of the spoken elements, all amalgamate into the creation of a landmark release, and a distinct experience.