Saturday, April 7, 2007

Zappa - Absolutely Free - 320 CBR


Majority opinion seems to hold that We're Only In It For The Money is the best of the early Mothers of Invention albums, but Absolutely Free has always been my favorite. It's basically two suites of songs, which flow together to make sides one and two of the album. Both sides have an overarching theme of social commentary, with side one using somewhat surreal lyrics about fruits and vegetables, and side two using more direct comments about American society. Sandwiched between the two sides are two bonus tracks added for the CD release - "Big Leg Emma" and "Why Don'tcha Do Me Right?". These were the A and B sides of a single put out around the same time as this album, while Frank still had hopes of having a hit single.
One highlight of side one is "The Duke of Prunes", which seems like a silly little Duke of Earl parody here, but reveals itself for the fine composition that it is when the vocals are replaced with orchestral instruments on the Orchestral Favorites album. "Call Any Vegetable" became a concert staple, while "Invocation..." is a fantastic, high-energy seven minute jam track.
Side two is framed by the "America Drinks" tracks, sounding like they're being performed in a bar - the first by an avant garde rock group, the second by a smarmy lounge jazz singer. In between, we get commentary on violent war toys for children, the pointlessness of high school, and Suzy Creamcheese breaking out of her cameo role on the first album to get an entire song named after her. Then there's "Brown Shoes Don't Make It", which is usually hailed as an early Zappa masterpiece. While I agree that musically it's pretty amazing, the lyrics are one of the few places where I think Zappa went too far. It feels like a revenge piece against the authorities who set the young Frank up on a phony pornography charge and threw him in jail for a while. The song accuses authority figures of being morally corrupt, engaging in everything from pedophilia to incest. In particular, the part about "smother my daughter in chocolate syrup and strap her on again" makes me wonder how Moon Unit feels about the song.
But all in all this is a great (if slightly dated sounding) Zappa album that should appeal to most adventurous prog fans with a sense of humor. If you're thinking of exploring the music of the original Mothers, start with this album or We're Only In It For The Money.

Every year when the Halloween season approaches I am drawn to Absolutely Free. I bought this album in the fall about ten years ago; I liked it immediately and played it often. On Halloween of that year, I happened to have it on the stereo when my doorbell rang. It was a kid (dressed up like a cowboy) and his father. I was a student at the time, living in a cheap apartment located behind a storefront in a non-residential neighborhood and I had not expected any trick-or-treaters. I apologetically explained that I had no candy, but I invited them in and was able to find an unopened can of beer in the back of my refrigerator for the dad. "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" was on, and the dad said something about the "scary music" I was playing.
I hadn't considered this album from that angle, but it was a good point. Plastic people? Talking vegetables? Vampires? High school? The Johnson administration? "A dozen gray attorneys?" This was definitely some scary shit, and that's not even getting to how the collaged organization of the music and its genuinely unsettling distorted sounds and demented vocals can give the listener the feel of being inside a carnival freakhouse. Whenever I'm at home to hand out candy on Halloween, I play Absolutely Free all night. It always draws comments from the parents — mostly negative ones, which means that this relic from the 1960s hasn't lost its potency and can still disturb up-tight "squares" of all stripes.
I rank Absolutely Free among a handful of the greatest rock albums ever made. A complete exposition of my thoughts about the record would run many pages long, and that is well beyond the space available here. So here are a few observations. First, Absolutely Free is an underappreciated landmark in the history of rock. Recorded in November of 1966, it had no precedent in popular music other than for a couple of songs on the flip side of the band's own debut album, Freak Out. 1966 witnessed the first trickle of records indicating that rock was a maturing artistic force — at the forefront there was Revolver, Pet Sounds and a few Bob Dylan albums — but Absolutely Free combined greater musical sophistication with studio technology experimentation to an extent that was well beyond what the Beatles and Beach Boys were doing, and while the socially-conscious lyrics weren't as eloquent, subtle or imagistic as Dylan's, their messages were just pertinent and they worked with the music on a level of wit and intelligence that I think was the equal of Dylan's. Were it not for the overwhelming influence that King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King cast over 1970s progressive rock, I would probably consider Absolutely Free to be the first progressive rock album.
Secondly, the album is striking in that it was written as a social protest for a particular time and place, yet addressed its themes on a general enough level that it now transcends that time and place — unlike the much ballyhooed follow-up, 1968's We're Only In It For the Money, which is so immutably set in 1967 Southern California that it's difficult to get much out of the album without first prepping one's self on its many period references. Governmental hypocrisy, corporate greed, insincerity, plasticity, consumerism, the idiocy of high school, the quiet desperation of the life of the average schmo... this stuff, on the other hand, is universal. And rather than trying to heal society's ills by building a better tomorrow (the utopian aim of the late-1960s counterculture which, once it failed, ironically provided the fertilizer for greater satire and postmodernism in rock) the Mothers simply cut out the middle man and lampooned their targets right from the start. At the time, this approach was criticized by some as being too cynical but, for better or for worse, Zappa and the Mothers now look like the forward-thinkers.
Of course, none of the above would amount to much if the music didn't sound so good. Whether or not The Mothers of Invention were the first post-modern rock band is a point for debate, but their method was undeniably post-modern. They created a breath-taking style that forged, among other things, doo-wop, fifties rock and roll, commercial jingles, experimental jazz and atonal symphonic music. Their obliteration of boundaries between "high" and "low" culture is the classic mandate of postmodernism and the album is exciting and viscous, from the deconstruction of "Louie Louie," ("Plastic People), to the Ventures-meet-Coltrane dueling solos on "Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin," to the cut-and-paste surrealism of "Brown Shoes Don't Make It." And all points in between, like "Status Back Baby," a jab at bands like the Beach Boys for writing songs that glorified high school. I find every track on Absolutely Free to be fascinating — catchy, experimental, fun and funny. It's almost like a musical, so total and complete is the experience; it's one of those albums that I have to hear in its entirety if I put it on. In the words of Zappa himself: "What a pumpkin!"
Link in comments.

19 Comments:

Blogger dagmartheugliest@yahoo.com said...

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April 7, 2007 at 12:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Suzy Creamcheese,

If you want to do something useful give free blowjobs.
Not free music.

What you are doing is not cool.

Have a fucking brain in your head and find something else to do. Albums that can be bought should be bought.

Your brain's one burnt weeny.

April 7, 2007 at 6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how do people who have no interest in blogs like this find them?

April 7, 2007 at 7:20 PM  
Blogger poor said...

Thanks a lot!
Greetings

April 7, 2007 at 8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful :-)


Thanks for this!

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April 7, 2007 at 8:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"how do people who have no interest in blogs like this find them?"

Boredom and nothing else to do with their small lives?

;-)

April 7, 2007 at 8:49 PM  
Blogger dagmartheugliest@yahoo.com said...

Anonymous said...
Hey Suzy Creamcheese,

If you want to do something useful give free blowjobs.
Not free music.

What you are doing is not cool.

Have a fucking brain in your head and find something else to do. Albums that can be bought should be bought.

Your brain's one burnt weeny.


And your's so tiny....................

April 7, 2007 at 8:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please dont feed the trolls, not even a burnt weeny. It just makes em worse and there's nuthin to be gained.

"The most important thing to do in your life, is to not interfere with somebody else's life." FZ 1987

April 9, 2007 at 5:02 AM  
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