Frank Zappa: Läther

By Parke Puterbaugh

Stereo Review, January 1997

FRANK ZAPPA: Läther. RYKODISC 10574-76 (three CD's, 173 min).

Performance: A marathon
Recording: Sparkles

This marks the first official appearance of "Läther" (pronounced "Leather") as it was originally conceived by Frank Zappa. Back in 1977, he submitted the material to Warner Bros. as a four-LP boxed set. When the label wouldn't issue the bulky leviathan, he retaliated by airing the whole unreleased mass of it over KROQ in Los Angeles and urged his fans to tape away. Subsequently, the music was doled out piecemeal, serving as the basis for four albums: "Studio Tan," "Sleep Dirt," "Orchestral Favorites," and "Live in New York." Zappa later tinkered with and reworked various tracks for the CD reissues of those titles. Finally, here comes "Läther" as nature intended, strictly following the original running order and using the undoctored mixes.

In a career typified by big, bold strokes, this was a hefty undertaking: 2 1/2 hours of mostly instrumental music that captured Zappa the composer, conductor, soloist, and musical visionary at a mid-career zenith. He leads various small ensembles through soaring passages whose complexity and inventiveness hold their own with the likes of "Uncle Meat" and "Hot Rats." Throughout the set, snatches of genre-warping sound collages – eerie, weeping fountains of Varese-like strings, speeded-up percussion interludes, rock-band meltdowns – morph and overlap at a dizzying clip. At their best, Zappa's instrumental chases are like slalom runs for the ears. "Lather" is chockablock with such moments, including what may be his most breathtaking soloing ever in The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution.

Then there's the rest of the album. A truly schizophrenic artist, Zappa could ennoble the human spirit with his instrumental reach – only to deflate it with puerile attempts at social satire. Much of "Läther" will send shivers down your spine, but other parts will cause nausea in your gut. God only knows why someone with Zappa's gifts would stoop to such sophomoric lows as The Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit, Punky's Whips, and Titties 'n Beer, which are as banal as their titles.

 "Läther" represents both the best and the worst of Frank Zappa. My advice: Savor the best, overlook the worst.