Friday, September 19, 2014

Frank Zappa 23: Zappa In New York

At this point the Zappa catalog becomes even tougher to navigate. A break in the release schedule was precipitated by various lawsuits, which also affected what he put out and how. Four records’ worth of material were prepared, then combined into a single package, then supposedly split up again. (The actual chronology is moot for the time being.)
The first of these related (or not) albums was Zappa In New York, a live two-record set culled from a set of concerts that closed out 1976. The album was further “tampered with” against Frank’s wishes, and as the current, Zappa-approved CD edition not only restores those edited portions but expands the original by about 40 minutes, that’s the sequence we’re going to examine.
Only a couple of years on from his last live album, Zappa’s band had evolved yet again, with basically only Ruth Underwood still hanging on. He had several vocalists who could also play instruments to his satisfaction, including guitarist Ray White; drummer Terry Bozzio was put forth as the teenage heartthrob star, but his singing is only slightly less grating than Flo & Eddie, since there’s only one of him. He gets the spotlight early on, voicing the parts of the devil in the puerile parable “Titties & Beer”. A lengthy instrumental extrapolation on “Cruisin’ For Burgers” shows off his compositional prowess, as does the so-called “sensitive instrumental ballad for late-nite easy listening”, the unfortunately named “I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth”. (And therein lies the problem with post-‘60s Zappa: anytime you want to admire him as a composer, he has to go and deflate it with “humor”, under the concocted defense that such activity was what his audience demanded.)
Left off most pressings of the LP but included here, “Punky’s Whips” begins with a setup from guest MC Don Pardo, explaining how Bozzio became entranced by a photo of a guitarist from an otherwise forgettable band. The drummer duly sings of his predicament, in a voice ranging from raspy to nasal, in between excellent interplay between horn section and guitar (and a well-timed quote from “Isn’t It Romantic”). Less taxing and not as “provocative”, “Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?” is funky and complicated before spewing a variety of derogatory terms. Don Pardo is brought back to introduce “The Illinois Enema Bandit”, the fresh-as-that-day’s-headlines story of an armed robber who provided an extra “service” for his female victims. Naturally, Frank finds it hilarious, else he wouldn’t have written, arranged, performed, recorded and released a song about it. Again, the solo is preferable to deciding whether, as the song suggests, the women enjoyed it.
“I’m The Slime” gets a welcome, enthusiastic performance from Mr. Pardo, before a solo sets up “Pound For A Brown”, with a lengthy synth solo, ending abruptly for the faux-sci-fi soundtrack “Manx Needs Women”. This segues neatly into the complicated drum solo section of “The Black Page”, which reappears later in an alternate arrangement. Perhaps to give the audience some relief from such a complicated piece, the band performs the rare (for then, anyway) B-side “Big Leg Emma”. This version of “Sofa” sounds like the closing theme from Saturday Night Live, which makes sense since some of that band makes up the horn section. The last half-hour of the set is devoted to two tracks. “The Torture Never Stops” is well played, without the distraction of the “recreational activities” from the studio version. “The Purple Lagoon/Approximate” originally took up side four of the album, and features some very jazzy solos from the Brecker Brothers and bass player Patrick O’Hearn. Ultimately, it’s the music that puts Zappa In New York solidly in the plus column. Whether truly live or enhanced later, the performances on the album stand out much better than the humor.

Zappa Zappa In New York (1978)—3
1991 Barking Pumpkin CD: “same” as 1978, plus 5 extra tracks

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