Review Summary: Easily one of the weirdest albums ever. It's noisy and insane yet catchy, and will appeal to those who wouldn't usually listen to jazz.
By looking at the grim album art, you would probably expect ‘Naked City’ to be a violent grindcore album. You would only be party right. There is grindcore here, but there aren’t many genres Zorn doesn’t explore in ’Naked City’. Mostly the album is full of short, quirky and catchy jazz songs which twist and turn in unpredictable ways. Mike Patton himself once said ‘Naked City makes all other bands look fat and lazy’, which sums them up pretty well.
It’s hardly a dark album either as the cover implies. Even when it’s at it’s noisiest it still keeps it’s humour. In fact, it’s hard to tell exactly how seriously Zorn is taking this, as even though the songs are obviously very well written and memorable they’re also completely bizarre. Sometimes they change direction in unexpected frenzies of noise, switching genre completely. There are punk sections, metal sections, classical, even country and reggae sections; though don’t expect much of them, these genres enter and leave again before you even notice they’re there.
The sudden changes in tempo and sound was largely inspired by Carl Stalling, who wrote much of the music for Warner Brothers. The odd cartoony influence is clear throughout the album. Despite the weird song structures the songs remain accessible and catchy enough to listen to, even if it may take a few listens to ‘get’ some of them.
There’s even a huge amount of variety in the ‘normal’ jazz tracks. Mostly of the jazz is chaotic, fast paced free jazz but sometimes it slows down, becoming much more orderly cool jazz.
As well as the insane original compositions, ‘Naked City’ contains seven covers of film soundtrack songs and jazz standards, such as Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Sicilian Clan’ and Jerry Goldsmith‘s ‘Chinatown’. The covers vary from livelier versions of the originals to completely new takes on the songs, often straying away and ending up completely differently.
A highlight is the cover of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’ which makes the original seem boring and ordinary in comparison. When the original came out it was criticised for being too weird, God knows what those criticising it would think of John Zorn! Another is his fantastic version of the James Bond theme which explodes into random noises in the middle.
The album gets to its noisiest half way through, with a series of short grindcore songs which rarely go over half a minute. Yamantaka Eye makes a guest contribution on vocals during this part, his demented screams fitting the frantic music perfectly. This part of the album is the most difficult to listen to as the catchy melodies are gone and it instead focuses on little more than noise. However, this part of the album rushes past in only a few minutes to separate the more ‘ordinary’ songs, so it doesn‘t really get in the way if you don‘t like it.
The musicians playing on Naked City are all superb, even in the ‘noisier’ parts. John Zorn himself is an excellent saxophonist, with a unique tone and signature high-pitched sax squeals that litter the album. Joey Baron’ drumming is brilliant, easily handling the sudden changes in tempo.
Overall, a very highly recommended album that I recommend not only to jazz fans, but also to people who don’t listen to jazz because if one album’s going to change your view on the genre, it’s this one. It’s got enough variety of different genres and is different enough to appeal to those outside the genre‘s fanbase.