Frank Zappa Established

By Mark Peel

Stereo Review, March 1985

FRANK ZAPPA has always sought recognition as a serious composer, although he has gone about it in a rather elliptical, calculatedly unserious way. He's had pieces performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic, and last year he released "Zappa, Volume I," an album of orchestral works performed by the London Symphony that showed him to be a master of orchestral effects and color but a mannered, somewhat narrow composer. With "The Perfect Stranger," his new album for Angel Records conducted by Pierre Boulez, Zappa has finally earned the establishment credentials he so studiously makes light of. The imprimatur of Boulez, one of our leading contemporary composers and conductors, is a very large feather in Zappa's cap. That Boulez actually commissioned "The Perfect Stranger" from Zappa is even more impressive.

Like all of Zappa's orchestral writing, the seven short chamber pieces here are marvels of instrumental detail that generally come up short on thematic interest. The Perfect Stranger is a flat landscape of wobbly strings dotted with thundering snare drums and busy, furtive woodwinds. According to the composer's notes, it depicts a licentious encounter between a vacuum-cleaner salesman and a slovenly housewife. Nothing in the piece is as interesting or amusing as the description. Naval Aviation Art is even more minimalist, if that's possible. A long, unvarying tone is dragged across the strings while clipped phrases in the winds and horns are superimposed upon it. In short, nothing happens.

But things get more interesting after Boulez's new-music chamber orchestra, the Ensemble InterContemporain, is dismissed and the Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort – Zappa's own studio computer-synthesizer – takes over. The Girl in the Magnesium Dress, a percussion piece, is so vivace that it must have been played at normal speed on the xylophone, speeded up on tape, then shifted back down an octave or two to its normal pitch. Outside Now, Again is even more interesting – a modern-day March of the Dwarfs for two-voiced synthesizer with xylophone and contrabass continuo. A one-minute interlude called Love Story ostensibly portrays "an elderly Republican couple attempting sex while break dancing." It sounds as though every string in the orchestra were snapping, one by one.

Dupree's Paradise is the closest Zappa ever gets to being conventional. Its lilting rhythm and the block chords played on the piano suggest an Aaron Copland ballet, although the delightfully absurd shifts in tempo and orchestration could only be Zappa. The album concludes in terrifying fashion with Jonestown, a zombie-like, slow-motion theme that winds itself tighter and tighter like a watchspring until it reaches an almost unbearable tension.

It may say less about Frank Zappa's stature as a composer than about the state of modern music, but "The Perfect Stranger" is as inventive and intelligent a collection of contemporary chamber works as those of any currently active "serious" composer. That it comes from the notorious dirty old man of rock makes the album that much more satisfying.

Twice as long as "The Perfect Stranger" and not half as interesting, Zappa's latest rock album, the two-disc "Them or Us," is a vintage Zappa burlesque, a rude variety show during which the dirty old man casts his leering judgments over a rather predictable assortment of cultural icons and institutions-rock videos, Michael Jackson, current sexual practices, Carl Sagan (a few years too late), and even the French.

Some of Zappa's music here, such as the instrumental Sinister Footwear, is lively and intricately inventive. Some of it is funny – Planet of My Dreams, for example, is a wonderfully drippy parody of the sort of soft, spotlit solo number that leaves audiences grabbing their handkerchiefs on Broadway. But an awful lot of it is Zappa's familiar soft porn, with no redeeming musical value. It must be a constant source of annoyance to Zappa to see Prince praised for candid sexuality when he has been getting critical brickbats for years for doing the same thing Prince does, though Zappa's approach is more that of a carnival strip-show comedian than a rutting naïf.

While "Them or Us" may be a landmark of sorts, heralding the debut of Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa as guitarist and songwriter, respectively, it's not much of an advance in the elder Zappa's rock work. The best example of the musical dead end into which Zappa has driven is his cover of the Allman Brothers' classic Whipping Post. A muddy arrangement of the song erodes even further when Zappa takes up his solo – a busy, aimless, finger-tying mess that makes the late Jimmy Page sound as clean and precise as a Sor study and is a positive embarrassment next to Duane Allman and Dicky Betts.

It's time, I think, for Zappa to retire to the cozy life of a "serious" composer, appearing as guest conductor with symphony orchestras, lecturing to college audiences, and giving us something like "The Perfect Stranger" every other year or so.

FRANK ZAPPA: Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger. Ensemble InterContemporain; Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort. The Perfect Stranger; Naval Aviation in Art?; The Girl in the Magnesium Dress; Outside Now, Again; Love Story; Dupree's Paradise; Jonestown. ANGEL ◑ DS-38170 $11.98, © 4XS-38170 $11.98.

FRANK ZAPPA: Them or Us. Frank Zappa (vocals, guitar); vocal and instrumental accompaniment. The Closer You Are; In France; Ya Hozna; Sharleena; Sinister Footwear II; Truck Driver Divorce; Stevie's Spanking; Baby, Take Your Teeth Out; Marque-Son's Chicken; Planet of My Dreams; Be in My Video; Them or Us; Frogs with Dirty Little Lips; Whipping Post. BARKING PUMPKIN ◑ SVBO-74200 two discs $15.98, © 4XBO-74200 two cassettes $15.98.