Friday, December 29, 2017

Frank Zappa 33: The Man From Utopia

Right around this time Frank started (over)using a vocal technique he called “meltdown”, which was really just him singing in an overly smarmy lounge-jazz voice, which is funny for about half a minute. The only possibly interesting aspect of the technique was that whiz-kid guitarist Steve Vai would listen to the tapes of Frank thus emoting onstage, then painstakingly transcribe the notes so he could double the vocalizing via overdub on the track. Frank, naturally, was so proud of his extemporaneous brilliance that his vocal on the completed track (and subsequent album product) remained mixed just as high, while the more impressive guitar work (again, not his, but he “wrote” it) takes the aural back seat.
This is important to know, because The Man From Utopia suffers for it. It starts okay with “Cocaine Decisions”, a rather well-thought-out diatribe against young urban professionals who spent much of their salaries on Columbian sky candy, to the point where their jobs might be affected. Then the meltdown takes over “The Dangerous Kitchen”, an otherwise clever portrait of what the facilities at the Zappa household looked like when various musicians, employees, progeny and assorted friends went in search for sustenance. “Tink Walks Amok” is a multi-layered, multi-bass solo performed by Arthur Barrow, peppered occasionally by the “My Sharona” riff Frank was so fond of quoting. Unfortunately it’s elbowed aside by “The Radio Is Broken”, wherein Frank and Roy Estrada both use the meltdown voice to crack each other up whilst describing old sci-fi horror movies. Roy does throw in his falsetto briefly, with an original Mothers throwback reference. A good old snork opens “Mōggio”, a welcome instrumental.
“The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou” combines two R&B sides from the mid-‘50s, sung in style, but losing something with the modern instrumental sheen. “Stick Together” is another diatribe, this time against American unions, delivered over a reggae beat and the same two chords, salvaged slightly by the asides from Ray White and Ike Willis. As it doesn’t say anything new, “SEX” is puerile by even Frank’s standards, relying on a couplet that Spinal Tap would use to much better (and funnier) effect. The respite from the meltdown is broken by “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats”, yet another summary of the sexual-scatological exploits involving the band and crew. Finally, “We Are Not Alone” is a fairly rocking instrumental, heavy on saxophones, with a couple of intriguing changes in tempo and use of mandolin.
In another case of post-partum tampering, the first authorized CD issue of The Man From Utopia was not only remixed, but re-edited and re-sequenced. This breaks up the meltdown selections a little better, but the albums isn’t improved as a whole. The side-ending instrumentals are swapped, so the disc now ends with “Mōggio”, but first one must endure (or skip) “Luigi & The Wise Guys”, a doo-wop harmony piece that doesn’t say much more than “you’re a dork”. After which, the listener may either agree or feel insulted. Especially coming after “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats”.

Frank Zappa The Man From Utopia (1983)—2
1993 Barking Pumpkin CD: “same” as 1983, plus 1 extra track

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