Frank Zappa - Zoot Allures
French was a big pain for me in school. I was never particularly gifted at it, and I found myself under the tyrannous rule of two incredibly sexist (anti-male slant fyi) professeurs. However, my rudimentary understanding of the language has helped me in a few situations. Well, it sort of helped. Once in Istanbul, to avoid paying the American tourist cab fare we pretended to be French. I guess we avoided that but paid the inflated night fee (it was 4 a.m. and somehow we had just come home from the birthday party of Turkey's version of Enrique Inglesias). Also, when I watch the world cup, I can pronounce all of the French players' names properly! So ya, my ability with French is pretty useless, but, it did allow me to understand the titling of Frank Zappa's album Zoot Allures
, which is a goofy pun on "Zut Alors," a French exclamation meaning something along the lines of "God Dam
n!" No? Uncool? Okay, ya, I suck at French, and seguing into writing about Frank Zappa, and life...but, it's interesting to briefly analyze the album title. Using an exclamation as a title, is very much in the Zappa vein, his first album with the Mothers of Invention being titled Freak Out!
. Also, his goofy humor comes out in having a really cheesy and awkward pun inserted into his album title. Even beyond that, the actual words chosen "zoot" and "allures" aptly describe his style as it is influenced by the brassy sounds of the zoot suit bands of the 30s and 40s, and his songs certainly are alluring with their slinky and angular guitar that borrow from the ever-alluring to western ears, middle eastern scales and also odd jazz licks. Zut alors, is his album title saturated with his personality.
Zappa's personality is what so greatly defines his aesthetic and attractiveness as a musician. He blends a ton of different styles with often humorous or zany results. The album Zoot Allures
in particular feels very diverse in its style. There are really equal portions of everything, rock, jazz, prog, soul, non-western music, such that I can't find one domineering genre, like how jazz fusion stands out on Hot Rats
. In addition the songwriting comes off as centaurian, with roughly half of the songs being more straight forward with goofy lyrics and simple backgrounds, and the other half being instrumental or at least instrumentally-driven, with wilder musical ideas as well as very pronounced virtuosity and originality. And because I find myself vastly preferring Zappa's insane, virtuostic, and original moments, I really can only get into that half of the CD. As a general layout I have separated the CD into its two halves.
Originally Posted by Totally Awesome 'Zoot Allures'
The Torture Never Stops
Friendly Little Finger
Originally Posted by Less Awesome 'Zoot Allures'
Wind Up Workin' it a Gas Station
Find Her Finer
Don't be dismayed by the proportions on the two lists. In terms of elapsed time, the totally awesome songs outweigh the less awesome, (partially because "The Torture Never Stops" nears 10 minutes), and also, the less awesome songs aren't at all bad. They just are eclipsed by the other songs on the album. Also, I am likely being too harsh on "Wonderful Wino" and "Disco Boy," which are much more complex and impressive than I'm letting on. It's just that they too focus from a lyrical and vocal emphasis rather than an instrumental one. My main gripe with the weaker songs on the album is that their vocals are wild and all over the place in a way that makes the songs feel slapstick and odd with a comparatively mundane musical backdrop, whereas when Zappa is slapstick and odd with his guitar and compositions, he infuses the songs with an insane energy that makes them instantly likable. I attribute this to Zappa being a masterful guitar player but not necessarily a masterful vocalist. When his fingers handle his unique mind's creations, they always come out tasteful and brilliant, but when his vocal chords and pen grapple with his mind's zaniness, the results are lackluster.
I don't want to dwell too long on the negatives though because my overall impression of this album is very positive. I feel that even on the weaker songs, there are moments when Zappa showcases his awesome talents, even if the songwriting is weaker. And of course, when he does truly have an instrumental focus on a song, the results are stunning. He is such an original and capable guitarist that all of his solos are brimming with personality. Take the very lyrical solo to "Black Napkins." He plays each solo phrase as if it's a vocal line by stating a solo line as a phrase that lasts a few measures and then taking a break, which causes the guitar to sound like it's saying something and then stopping for breath (all with a cool soul backdrop). Then as the song moves on he breaks away from that style, he is able to force the solo into a strong culmination of velocity and power that produces an incredibly powerful and memorable result. Also, just the way his plays the guitar makes it sound as if he's speaking through it. It's not cheesy like Peter Frampton-style talking, but it's more like the guitar is an extension of his brain that his voice really can't fulfill. His solos, particularly on "Black Napkins" is unexpected and takes pauses as if to catch its breath as aforementioned. It also has very emotional slides and pitch oscillations as if it were an uncontrolled voice. As you've probably gathered, this song alone makes the album, and really encompasses all I love about Zappa. Beyond that though there's the epic and oddly sensual "The Torture Never Stops," with its Knife Party-esque female wailing and shrieking in the background that emulates sex noises. There's the Eastern-feel "Friendly Little Finger" that impresses with its over the top guitar solo and fun instrumentation. And lastly, of the truly great songs, there is "Zoot Allures," which uses tons of awesome sweeps and tremolo bends and slides to produce one of the most memorable leads of the album. I can even hear Zappa's originality in songs by bands like Tera Melos, who in their song "Self Titled" (a live version can be found [url=http://jedicore.com/teramelos/03%20-%20self%20titled.mp3]here[/url], go to about 2:30 in) lift that technique of bending their harmonics, which is insanely catchy and fun technically.
Ultimately, while this album has some throw away songs, the best moments on this album are definitely worth a purchase or download. If you are a non-beleiver or haven't ever heard any Zappa before, at least sample "Black Napkins." It's instantly likable yet has amazing long term value, and will give you a good taste of the personality and proficiency in Zappa's guitar playing. This album isn't his best but has some true classics in his catalogue.
Recommended Tracks: duh refl