For those unimpressed by bathroom humor or avant-garde, Hot Rats makes an excellent case for Zappa as a musician. Culled from sessions with select musicians outside of the Mothers as a touring unit, it was a surprise commercial success, too. The album is predominantly instrumental, and the few lyrics are neither topical nor provocative, unless you have a problem with the word “pimp”.
Side one is terrific, beginning with a grand fanfare in “Peaches En Regalia”. Not only is it one of his most melodic pieces to date, each segment is unique and melodic on its own. “Willie The Pimp” rides the same riff for nine minutes, begun on the electric violin, supporting the vocal by Captain Beefheart, then making way for the lengthy wah-wah guitar solo. Nearly as long, and even more majestic, is “Son Of Mr. Green Genes”. Here the melody from the Uncle Meat track is sped up and dressed up by multiple keyboards and saxes. (Frank should really have considered giving Ian Underwood equal billing, considering all the excellent work he did on the whole album.)
Side two gets a little more out there, approaching a sound that would one day be called jazz fusion. “Little Umbrellas” has a mildly Arabic melody, which always confuses us with the last song on the side. “The Gumbo Variations” is a 13-minute groove (extended to 17 on some CDs) featuring the whole ensemble, giving plenty of room for Ian to honk away and Sugarcane Harris to saw. “It Must Be A Camel” ends the side as it began, a little slower, a little unresolved.
If you’re going to dive into Zappa, Hot Rats is highly recommended. However, besides being very good, there’s not a lot like it in his catalog, so your next step won’t be as easy. It’s still the one album just about everyone can agree on, and even though the Rykodisc CDs' mix is different from the vinyl (now available with the 2012 catalog overhaul) it’s still pretty damn good.
Frank Zappa Hot Rats (1969)—4