Friday, March 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "Uncle Meat" by the Mothers of Invention


So far, I've really only talked about albums that I happen to like. Okay, I might not put Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on the turntable often, but I would, every once in a while, anyway.

And then there's the current album. I have to admit that I really don't get Frank Zappa. Or perhaps that's the problem - I do get him. It's his fans I don't get. I mean, I don't get why someone would buy dozens and dozens of albums that tend towards either sophomoric humour barely a step above Beavis and Butthead or interminable twiddly improvisation. I haven't heard enough of the 80 albums he's apparently released to say for sure, but from what I have heard I can safely say about 5% of it is sheer brilliance. The other 95%? Well, I can't say I'm better off for having heard it. If you ask me what my motives are for choosing Uncle Meat, considering how many double albums Frank Zappa has, my answer would be this: Originally I was going to do Freak Out!, because it was allegedly rock's first double. But then I found myself profoundly uninterested... I've never even heard it but I just presume that it's all quasi-novelty stuff (plus it's effectively a single album, one bonus track and two experiments). So I took the easy route: I bought Uncle Meat about 10 years ago and gave it a few listens - I was travelling through Europe and had only a few cassettes for my Walkman. It was one of them. So it means I don't have to rediscover an album - I can just crack out that dusty cassette.

But here's the thing: I don't like Uncle Meat. I listened to it out of desperation and was annoyed at how its few good ideas were mixed in with loads of what seemed like pretentious rubbish to me. Returning to it now, my opinion is slightly more charitable, but I actually found it tough to cut this down to a single-length album: my end result is barely longer than an EP, but it has enough tracks to look like an album (and his early version of Lumpy Gravy was shorter than my single-length Uncle Meat, so I think it works).

Uncle Meat

Side one
  1. Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme (1:55)
  2. The Voice of Cheese (0:26)
  3. Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague (3:59)
  4. Zolar Czakl (0:54)
  5. Electric Aunt Jemima (1:46)
  6. The Legend of the Golden Arches (3:27)
  7. Cruising for Burgers (2:18)
Side two
  1. A Pound for a Brown on the Bus (1:29)
  2. Mr. Green Genes (3:14)
  3. The Dog Breath Variations (1:48)
  4. Sleeping in a Jar (0:50)
  5. The Uncle Meat Variations (4:46)
  6. The Air (2:57)



Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme: keep (side one, track one)

First track, first one I dislike. Well, let me say it differently: it's a few seconds of loveliness surrounded by all manner of nonsense. Don't get me wrong: the jump-cut quality of this album is not what I don't like about it. Actually, it's one of the more enjoyable aspects of it. It's just that so much of it seems like directionless twaddle or in-jokes. Still, it's the opening credits, for what it's worth.

It's the first track on the double, and it's the 'introduction', really. So let's keep it side one, track one.

The Voice of Cheese: keep (side one, track two)

Suzy Creamcheese was apparently some kind of spokesperson for the Mothers of Invention - a groupie or something. An actress, I presume. Meaningless gibberish, sure. But a bit of an 'intro', that gives the album a kind of cinematic feel, I suppose.

There's no real reason for me to include this, but there's no reason to cut it either. So I'll let it serve the same role as it does on the double, as side one, track two.

Nine Types of Industrial Pollution: lose


An intro to the Frank Zappa that I dislike: the one who goes into lengthy solos for no good reason. This is percussion and Zappa on twiddly guitar. It might be technically impressive, but technical wizardry does not an enjoyable listening experience make, and this to me is a completely empty six minutes. I even like jamming and improvisation - within the jazz genre, at least. But with Zappa, it leaves me cold.

Zolar Czakl: keep (side one, track four)

Really, this is a minute of weird, clashing noises. it's not entirely unmusical, but it functions more as a mildly interesting sonic experiment than as something people would voluntarily listen to.

I don't even like this track, but I'm including it (out of desperation), on side one as track four, stuck between two of the most 'commercial' vocal tracks on the album.

Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague: keep (side one, track three)

This is the one occasion on this whole extravaganza that I would call unqualified genius: a wonderful song, weird as hell but warm too, half-Spanish lyrics about cars not overly annoying... incredible complexity in service of pure listenability. Great melody, innovative instrumentation. This song's absolute success makes the half-assed experiments elsewhere on this album even more frustrating: if this is what Zappa was capable of creating, what was he doing with things like 'We Can Shoot You'?

Frank Zappa puts this song on side one, but buries it pretty deep. Since it's clear I really like this song, I wanted it to have a more prominent position. Side one track three would not, normally, be very 'prominent', but here it's like the beginning of the 'album proper' after two introductory tracks.

The Legend of the Golden Arches: keep (side one, track six)

This album is mostly at its best when it's making a distinctly non-rock attempt at... well, I don't know what you'd call it really: classical music? No... it often feels like soundtrack music, and Uncle Meat claims to be a soundtrack to an unreleased film. Anyway, this music, which feels improvisational but clearly isn't (it might be composed based on improvisations), is frequently very pretty even while frequently being musically unattractive too. The handful of songs composed in this way form the heart, I think, of Uncle Meat. And since my single-disc version collects them all over 30 minutes (instead of 70-some) means that the suite-like nature of this group of songs is clearer than on the cluttered double. 'Golden Arches' is no better or worse than any of the others really ('A Pound...', the variations, etc.) but it doesn't bore or annoy. Which is good.

Part of the series of instrumentals that carry the album's main musical themes, it becomes the penultimate track of my side one, sixth in seven. Stuck between two songs about food (like much of the lyrics for this album, really), like this instrumental's McDonald's-referencing title.

Louie Louie (at the Royal Albert Hall in London): lose

While playing at the Albert Hall, Frank Zappa made a mildly funny musical joke. Why forty-odd years later we should care, I don't know.

The Dog Breath Variations: keep (side two, track three)

This takes the main melody of 'Dog Breath' and runs with it. Back to the vibraphones and woodwinds, but it's quite listenable throughout (largely because it is a great melody). There are those who prefer this to the 'plague' version. But again, I'll never understand Zappa fans. I like listening to it, but I'll take the 'normal' version any day.

On Zappa's album, this shows up just three tracks after the 'original' version. It seems to me, though, that it benefits from a later inclusion. There are two 'variations' here, and I submit them to an onion-skin approach. Excepting the concluding track, 'Uncle Meat' is first and its variations last, and 'Dog Breath' is third with its variations third last - in other words, side two, track three.

Sleeping in a Jar: keep (side two, track four)

The work that went into this 50 seconds must have been considerable... strange again that a song could be so densely packed with incident, whereas so much else on this set is just aimless noodling. A silly little joke of a song, it is usefully creepy and (a rarity here) genuinely funny. At 50 seconds, it's more enjoyable the most of the (much longer) other tracks here.

This little vignette immediately follows 'The Dog Breath Variations' on both the double and my single, but on the double there's that pause while you get up and change discs (unless you're listening on CD). Here, it's a tiny interlude between the two variations: side two track four.

Our Bizarre Relationship: lose

This spoken-word track is either a vain Frank Zappa using Suzy Creamcheese to brag about his sex life (if it's true) or a pathetic Frank Zappa making up stories about his sex life (if it's not): in either case, pretty sad, really.

The Uncle Meat Variations: keep (side two, track five)

To tell the truth, I don't see much similarity between the opening track and this 'variation' of it - it might be better to describe this track as 'variations on themes from throughout the album', especially when it mutates into a quasi-operatic version of 'Dog Breath'. I like this track a good deal more than the 'title theme'. It's filled with all kinds of invention, veering off into unexpected yet satisfying directions. There is a lot of harpsichord (if that's what it is) on this album, and it's a bit of an acquired taste, but it's not that difficult to acquire. It rather unexpectedly becomes a guitar-wank rock song at the end, but doesn't last long in that particular guise.

Originally I had this opening side two, like the original opens side one. But I felt it made sense to use this as a closing statement, to sum up the album as its brother opens it. It's the penultimate track, side two track five, not the final one, because I've included 'The Air' as a kind of coda.

Electric Aunt Jemima: keep (side one, track five)

This is pretty funny. It's novelty music, all in service of the joke, but it's listenable enough - like a doo-wop song on helium with silly lyrics about pancakes. Play it for anyone and you'll get a laugh from them. Play it a hundred times? Well, that's what I don't really get about novelty music. But it's all right, as Uncle Meat goes.

I put this on side one, track five for no real reason in particular. My programming of this album has, largely, a tendency to alternate vocal and instrumental tracks. This is one of three vocal tracks on side one.

Prelude to King Kong: lose

Every bit as twiddly and boring to listen to as its overwrought namesake, but one-hundredth the length.

God Bless America (Live at the Whiskey a Go Go): lose

More nonsense recorded live. Short of documenting a night that perhaps was special for the attendees, what is the purpose of including this here? Is anyone going to enjoy hearing this?

A Pound for a Brown on the Bus: keep (side two, track one)

This stupidly-titled track, apparently a reference to mooning on a dare, is like a slightly more dissonant variation on the main musical themes that recur throughout this album. As such, it fits in with what could have been a kind of suite. It's enjoyable enough non-rock stuff, and at 90 seconds, a suitable length.

It doesn't signify much that I put this track as track one on side two, except that side two alternates instrumental tracks with vocal tracks, and positions three and five are taken up with 'variations' of songs on side one, so that leaves the opening track of side two for this one here.

Ian Underwood Whips it Out (Live on Stage in Copenhagen): lose

Of the four live tracks here, this one is the least useless. What it is is a showcase for Underwood's skronky saxophone playing. If you like your more extreme forms of free improvisation, it's worth listening to. As for me, I can listen to it, but I don't exactly enjoy listening to it. And anyway live tracks stuck in the middle of otherwise studio albums are never a good idea.

Mr. Green Genes: keep (side two, track two)

Another 'song', and typical of Zappa's songs of the era (or my assumptions thereof), it's a kind of novelty about eating vegetables and trucks and stuff. Not very funny, and the song itself is plodding and dragging in a rather unflattering way. It's not the twaddle that fills the album as a whole: it's entirely a song, fully and properly constructed. It's just not a particularly interesting song.

And another track that I don't even like makes the cut... yeah, but at least it's a traditional song structure. Anyway, I stick it on side two, where it belongs, as track two with its traditional rock instrumentation stuck between two more classical pieces.

We Can Shoot You: lose

Perhaps this is an experimental classical composition based on minimalism and naivété. Or perhaps it's two minutes of aimless music-free tinkering on a vibraphone. We might pretend it's the former, but it sure sounds like the latter. Unlistenably long at 123 seconds.

If We'd All Been Living in California...: lose

A pointless bit of documentary, as a band member complains to Zappa about how little money they're making. Interesting once, never thereafter.

The Air: keep (side two, track six)

I'm a bit of two minds about this: while it's a very successful take on the doo-wop genre, a genre Zappa likes and dislikes in equal measures but is good at, it features lyrics that for the most part are just silliness. So a genre parody with novelty lyrics: why Zappa is a genius, where "Weird Al" Yankovic, who does this stuff better (see 'One More Minute'), is nobody's genius is completely beyond me. I can enjoy this by ignoring the lyrics and just concentrating on the worthy musicianship and vocals.

I don't know what it is about this song that makes me see it as a good final track for the whole thing: side two, track six. It doesn't 'sum things up' like 'The Uncle Meat Variations' does, but I think that the doo-wop 'vibe' establishes a kind of '(tongue-in-cheek) bitter farewell' feeling that seems like a conclusion of sorts.

Project X: lose

Interminable fiddling, twiddling and assorted nonsense. It's not music. And it's not something anyone would ever voluntarily choose to hear.

Cruising for Burgers: keep (side one, track seven)

This has a bit of the feel of 'Dog Breath' to it. It's kind of like a junior cousin to that more accomplished track, and is also enjoyable to listen to. The lyrics are practically non-existent: nonsense, but brief nonsense. It's all about the mood evoked by the instrumentation, which is intriguing, to say the least. All told, it's an experiment, but unlike so much of the rest of these two albums, an entirely successful experiment.

Zappa uses this to end side three, and since side four is all 'King Kong', in a sense it's the end of the 'album proper' (moreso if you're listening on CD). I think it does a great job as a side closer, but is a bit too minor to close out the entire project. So for me it's the closer to side one: track seven. My side one has seven tracks clocking in at less than 15 minutes. Well, so does 'Bookends'.

Uncle Meat Film Excerpt, Part 1: lose
Tengo Na Michia Tanta: lose
Uncle Meat Film Excerpt, Part 2: lose

The cassette I have doesn't have these on them. Nether did the original vinyl. But the CD does. It is, it would seem, 40 minutes of excerpts from an unreleased film with a 1980s synth-driven studio outtake stuck in there. People decry these tracks as horrible and call them, instead of 'bonus tracks', 'penalty tracks'. Even though I've never heard them, I must concur, though I doubt they're as bad as 'We Can Shoot You'. The CD versions programme the first three vinyl sides on CD1, and then put this stuff together with 'King Kong' on CD2, which means you get a CD and a handy beer coaster. My single-length Uncle Meat can be programmed without ever touching CD2.

King Kong Itself (as played by the Mothers in a studio): lose
King Kong II (its magnificence as interpreted by Dom DeWild): lose
King Kong III (as Motorhead explains it): lose
King Kong IV (the Gardner varieties): lose
King Kong V (as played by 3 deranged Good Humor Trucks): lose

This isn't really five different songs, or five different versions of the same song. It's just one song broken into five parts, apparently to separate each individual soloist. Part one is the main melody, then it's twiddly bits from then on. I did try very hard to enjoy this 'jam', but I'm afraid I failed. It's just 11 minutes of, well, jamming. And that's nothing I find very appealing. In my desperation to flush my single-length version out a bit, I originally decided to excise the first three parts and include just them, cutting the song mid-flow at the three and a half minute point. But even that much was more than my poor heart could take, so the extra-short running time of my single-disc Uncle Meat is due to that. Thank you, 'King Kong'.

King Kong VI (live on a flat bed diesel in the middle of a race track at a Miami Pop Festival... the Underwood ramifications): lose

After 11 minutes of one song, we get... seven and a half minutes more. Recorded live. Just as boring as the studio version.

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