Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Frank Zappa 37: Them Or Us

After a couple of classical detours, Frank came back with another “rock” album, and another double to boot, conveniently released amidst another tour. Them Or Us was compiled from a variety of studio and live sources, edited and juxtaposed, but doesn’t seem to follow any basic theme, except for another dog painting similar to that on The Perfect Stranger.
Once again he opens with a cover of an obscure doo-wop oldie, and once again his vocal delivery suggests “The Closer You Are” is supposed to be a parody, but we know better. “In France” is an extended in-joke sung by Zappa idol Johnny “Guitar” Watson that seems longer than it is. But then there’s “Ya Hozña”, predominantly a demonic-sounding solo overlaid with vocals recorded entirely backwards, to suggest something equally demonic in the wake of the then-current controversy over alleged backward-masking on rock albums. He makes his point, even if it goes on a little long. A little better is a reprise of “Sharleena”, included here to showcase young Dweezil Zappa’s pre-teen guitar prowess.
Side two consists of two lengthy pieces. “Sinister Footwear II” is another part of a longer ballet suite hinted at on You Are What You Is. It does sound rather sinister, with furious drums and guitar, and keyboards that remind us of what Ruth Underwood used to bring to the table. Whatever mood he’s trying to create is elbowed aside by “Truck Driver Divorce”, sung in his obnoxious lounge voice, which thankfully switches back after a minute and a half to another solo recorded live.
Further silliness ensues on side three, beginning with “Stevie’s Spanking”, which details some of the after-show exploits of stunt guitarist Steve Vai, who indeed solos on the track, as does Dweezil again. There’s another detour into the mildly doo-wop “Baby Take Your Teeth Out”, before returning to the jazz fusion of “Marque-son’s Chicken”. “Planet Of My Dreams” is sung in a high register by one-time keyboard player Bob Harris; a segment from yet another unrealized Broadway musical, it fades pretty quickly.
At the top of side four, “Be In My Video” is the closest the album might come to a possible hit single, or at least fodder for the Dr. Demento show, but considering its skewering of MTV culture (and specifically “Let’s Dance”, Frank still miffed that Bowie stole Adrian Belew away) it likely wouldn’t have been appreciated. The title track is another furious solo from a live show, while “Frogs With Dirty Little Lips” brings another Zappa offspring onto wax, somewhat; this time it was young Ahmet who contributed the lyrics. Finally, another cover bookends the set: a mostly reverent live rip through the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”, done reggae stylee for the guitar solos.
Them Or Us is an odd mishmash. Frank had embraced digital recording for its clean sound and editing capabilities, but even modern mastering can’t keep it from sounding sterile today. There’s enough of instrumental interest here, even though there aren’t any “classic” tracks. It would also be the last album of “songs” he’d release in his lifetime.

Frank Zappa Them Or Us (1984)—3

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