Friday, March 13, 2015

Frank Zappa 25: Sleep Dirt

This album has gotten a bad rap over the years, mostly due to the post-operative work Frank did once the masters reverted to him. (Seems to be a trend there.) Also, being one of those late-‘70s albums that he may or may not have approved, with a crappy cover to match, one approaches Sleep Dirt with some trepidation.
That approach is awarded, as the original LP, now available for purchase or streaming, has been restored in all its instrumental glory. As befits an album that some sources say had a working title of Hot Rats III, the music does the talking, with no lyrics or even wordless vocalizing to distract. Some of it came from the same period that begat Studio Tan, while two tracks would have been welcome on Zoot Allures.
Strains of feedback and backwards guitar open “Filthy Habits”, helped along by a plodding 10/4 riff not far removed from Black Sabbath. Frank’s also credited with keyboards for this, and a nice job he does too. A lengthy cocktail piano intro via George Duke begins “Flambay”, before Ruth Underwood takes over the melody on vibraphone. (We checked major Zappa sites, and even they didn’t notice the quote from “Fly Me To The Moon”.) There’s a quick segue to “Spider Of Destiny”, a just as grandiose melody played in neat unison by Duke, Ruth and Zappa. (Here we also found a link, equally unnoted, to “Cruising For Burgers”.) “Regyptian Strut” is a big, big theme along the lines of his previous “classical for rock” attempts, this time featuring an entire horn section overdubbed by Bruce Fowler; think the best parts of 200 Motels mixed with Waka/Jawaka.
In the big picture, “Time Is Money” ends up being another transitional piece overshadowed by the title track, a rare acoustic guitar duo (which ends when the other guy, the inimitably named James “Birdlegs” Youmans, gets his fingers stuck between the strings). This, combined with “The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution”, puts the album a different spin on the album entirely. Over the 13 minutes of the last track, a heavily treated guitar fights for fusion space against two basses (overdubbed) and drums. Add the high-speed solo and the unsuspecting listener might think it’s an ECM production.
The first two CD versions sported altered versions of four tracks, three of which were given vocals. These featured lyrics left over from a Broadway musical he never finished (as if the Great White Way could handle a monster-movie takeoff about an alien and a spider trying to conquer Earth). So it could be argued that the album was now the way Frank “really wanted it”. As we’ve seen in a few cases, his opinions on post-production didn’t always make an album better. Thana Harris has a decent voice for music supposedly written for the stage, but she’s not missed on the restored version of Sleep Dirt. Having been wiped clean, it’s a better album for it, a nice surprise, and recommended.

Frank Zappa Sleep Dirt (1979)—

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