Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Frank Zappa 31: You Are What You Is

In between tours, Frank installed a state-of-the-art studio in the basement of his house, and proceeded to spent most of his time there. The first album recorded (or at least finished) at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen was You Are What You Is, four sides of snide commentary on the state of America under the new Reagan regime. (No points for guessing he wasn’t in favor of much of it.)
Picking on dumb kids was old hat for Frank, and “Teen-age Wind” updates it to the era where they’d sniff glue, follow Grateful Dead concerts and even “go to a midnite show of 200 Motels!” And who should turn up in the next track but Jimmy Carl Black in his Lonesome Cowboy Burt guise, claiming to be “Harder Than Your Husband” (“to get along with”). As a country pastiche it’s far too complicated chord-wise. “Doreen” is basically a doo-wop song sped up and translated to a hard rock arrangement; one wonders if a “straight” version exists. “Goblin Girl” used to get occasional radio play around Halloween, but if any program directors listened to the actual lyrics they might have thought twice. The end of the track has some bits of “Doreen” layered on top, with some “pachuco” references from old Mothers albums, then it’s a quick cut to “Theme From The 3rd Movement Of Sinister Footwear”, a complicated guitar solo subsequently overdubbed.
Side two is a suite of sorts, beginning as another satire along the lines of “Dancin’ Fool” but takes a tragic turn before ending with more irreverence. “Society Pages” describes a doyen of suburbia, whose son would grow up to proclaim, “I’m A Beautiful Guy”. The Greek chorus reminds him that “Beauty Knows No Pain”, but he’s preoccupied with “Charlie’s Enormous Mouth”. Modeled on the woman from a one-time perfume commercial who also shovels a certain substance into her similarly oversized nose, leading to her premature demise and interment, where her vapid friends stand around asking “Any Downers?” (It’s too bad, as it’s a good riff.) Somehow Frank manages to tie this to a celebration of the “Conehead”, as seen on Saturday Night Live. The title track got some attention when its video was glimpsed on an episode of Beavis & Butthead—the original clip wouldn’t have been aired back in the day, given its depiction of Reagan in an electric chair and lyrics about “white” guys trying to be “black” and vice versa. Somehow this leads into “Mudd Club”, already immortalized by Talking Heads, played in a style hemispheres away than the music normally associated with the place. Somehow he decides that this would be a good place to lambaste the church (and the government) in “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing”—a great track on its own—which continues on “Dumb All Over”, an extended rap in a mild Central Scrutinizer voice.
Even his concept couldn’t be contained on one side, so we get more of that final chant at the top of “Heavenly Bank Account”, which predicts a decades’ worth of crooked televangelists. Somehow this leads to a portrait of a “Suicide Chump”, who wants to end it all but is too scared to. A savior arrives in the form of an overweight girl, of whom the young man quickly tires and threatens to pummel; hence the refrain of “Jumbo Go Away”. “If Only She Woulda” works in the two most common chords from “Light My Fire” as a bridge explaining how the chump’s life got even worse. “Drafted Again” is an adaptation of a Zappa single from the year before, notable now for featuring the vocal stylings of 14-year-old Moon Zappa and six-year-old Ahmet.
Most Zappa fanatics seem to think well of You Are What You Is. These days it sounds very slick, even coming from the days before digital recording took its hold on Frank. Steve Vai is all over the album, providing a distraction from the negativity. Many of the tracks could stand find by themselves, but by insisting on weaving everything together (you know, ‘cos he was such a genius at “conceptual continuity”) they don’t get enough of a chance to breathe. Somehow.

Frank Zappa You Are What You Is (1981)—

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