Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Frank Zappa-Lumpy Money (Review)

So, I received in the mail today my copy of Lumpy Money, the latest archival Frank Zappa release. The Zappa family has been busy the last few years pumping out all sorts of goodness from the Zappa vault...In case you don't know, the man produced an obscene amount of music in his lifetime, and only a portion of it got released. That said, the released portion filled up somewhere between 50 and 60 albums. Yeah, I know. I used to own ALL OF THEM, until I finally arrived at the point where I felt okay about selling off a few of the ones I didn't listen to much.

Lumpy Money is #2 in what the Zappa Family Trust (which will be referred to as the ZFT from now on) is calling the "project/object" series. "Project/object" was/is Zappa's short description of the idea that all his work should be seen not only as individual albums, but as one quasi-organic whole. Each album or whatever is a "project", but it is also a part of the larger "object". This was related to his idea of "conceptual continuity", the idea that there were themes in his body of work that, no matter how odd or random, united it. Lumpy Money is a 3-disc set of material related to the Lumpy Gravy and We're Only In It For the Money albums from 1968 (the first volume of the "project/object" series focused exclusively on the Freak Out! album). These two albums are two of the most highly revered in Zappa's catalogue, and are favorites of those who think his 1960s work with the original Mothers of Invention band was his only "good" stuff. They were recorded in rapid succession in 1967, and share some of the same musical and thematic material.

That being said, these records are hardly easy listening, and quite possibly much more difficult to digest than, say, certain 1970s albums like Apostrophe' or Over-nite Sensation. There's rock music here, yes, but there's also extremely difficult orchestral music, large portions of surreal dialogue spoken by people sitting inside a grand piano (no, I'm not kidding), and musique concrete (music created by manipulating previously recorded sounds on magnetic tape). Also, all of the material within this release differs from that contained on the currently available CD versions of both albums.

I became obsessed with these records somewhere around my sophomore year of college. I was starting another membership with the Columbia House CD club, I think, and was looking for additional titles to fill out my initial 12 selections, or something. At that point, the two albums were available on a single CD (they're both quite short, each coming in around the 35 minute mark). My college-level musical education was just starting to blow some doors open, and these two records really appealed to my growing ears. Suffice to say, these records have a special place in my heart. I was really quite thrilled to discover that they were going to be the subject of a "project/object" release.

Disc 1 contains a really nice mono mix of the original version of Money, previously unavailable on CD at all. It also contains Lumpy Gravy (Primordial), a previously unreleased 22-minute suite of most of the orchestral music recorded for the Lumpy Gravy album. Evidently, at one point, the music was intended to exist in that form...what eventually wound up being released is remarkably different. Disc 2 is where things get a little tricky; it contains the version of Money originally released on CD in 1986 (the one that the disc I bought in 1994 contained). What's important to note about this version is that Zappa, before initially releasing this material on CD, re-recorded all the rhythm tracks (drums, bass, and a number of the keyboard parts, I think). He brought in the players from his band at the time (Chad Wackerman, drums, and Scott Thunes, bass; perhaps the most stiff-yet-accurate rhythm section of all time) and re-tracked every single drum and bass part on the whole record. I'm sure it was a pain-staking process...listening to the original version, it's clear that not all the tempos were 100% steady, etc. Another detail worthy of note about this version is that it contains an extra portion of the song "Mother People" that had originally been censored by MGM, Zappa's record label at the time. The version of Money with the re-recorded rhythm tracks is the only place you can hear that portion in context. Unbeknownst to me until now, he gave Gravy the SAME TREATMENT at the time, but never released it. That version of Gravy is here also on disc 2, with Wackerman playing drums behind dialogue that was unaccompanied on the original, and Ike Willis and Bobby Martin singing a heretofore unheard vocal chorus during the first few minutes of the album. It's a little bewildering why he chose to do such a thing at all (can you imagine Paul McCartney deciding to go back and re-record all the bass and drum tracks on Rubber Soul or something like that?). Many Zappa fans were shocked and offended at the time that he would tamper with records previously recognized as masterpieces. However, since THAT version of Money was the first one I ever heard, there are some tracks on it that I prefer to the originals. The bizarre part to me is that this controversial element is not mentioned ONCE in the liner notes...Wackerman, Thunes, etc. are not credited anywhere in the package (of course, neither are any of the original Mothers). It's an odd thing to overlook. Maybe the ZFT decided it would rather ignore the issue.

There is an aspect to the whole "project/object" idea that poses a bit of a dilemma for me. Part of the "project/object" concept for Zappa was the idea that you could take any of his records and kind of chop them up into pieces, mix them all up in a different order, and it would still sound like part of the same whole. His music almost rewards such behavior...My Zappa playlist in my iPod kicks my ass even more on shuffle. At the same time, his album construction was many times quite meticulous...these two records are especially assembled in quite a delicate fashion. Still, he was guilty several times of taking music that had already been formatted into a particular album or albums, and reformatting it into a different record altogether. The Lather album is a great example of the "project/object", "conceptual continuity" ethos. It was originally intended to be a 4-LP set, and contained music spanning a 6-7 year period. Warner Brothers refused to release it, and Zappa reluctantly reformatted most of the material into four separate albums that he released later (it was finally released in its original intended format on CD in 1996). The liner notes state that it is a great opportunity to watch "the conceptual continuity get down with its bad self", in that much of the music (and the themes contained within it) resonate differently in the context of Lather than it did in its eventual destination. This happens when I throw my Zappa playlist on shuffle, too...I hear the songs differently, experience things deeper, whatever. The irony about the Lumpy Money 3-CD set is that I think that sitting down and listening to it all the way through has a bit of the opposite effect. It's such a navel-gazing, narrowly focused exercise, what with hearing certain songs and themes up to 4-5 times over the course of the record, that it kind of makes it feel like the potential resonance and experience are reduced, worn down from overexposure...

That said, it's a great release. No one can complain anymore about only having a particular version of either album available; there are now three different versions of Money in print on CD (the currently available CD issue, plus the two versions included on this release). In his lifetime, Zappa never expressed any regret about the decision to re-record the rhythm tracks, and up until his death, that was the only version available on CD. It seems justifiable to make sure that version survives...he evidently wanted it to. Plus, the third disc of ephemera related to the album is a revelation. Instrumental mixes of a number of the Money tracks are heard here for the first time, and many of them are glorious in their intricacy and performance (these are the originals, re-recorded tracks here). There is also a 25-minute+ edit of some of the Gravy material entitled "How Did That Get In Here?", prepared by Zappa himself in 1967. Really enjoyable for any fan. Highly recommended.


Mike said...

I stumbled on this blog after searching for a Lumpy Money review.
Read it and wow,... nice elequent review! I then read some more and it made me realize how Frank Zappa's music influenced people in such individualistic ways.
Nice writing a pleasure to read.
Mike in Minneapolis

ck said...

Can you imagine Paul McCartney deciding to go back and re-record all the bass and drum tracks on Rubber Soul? - Oh yes, I can! Apart from that - a very nice review indeed. Thanks, Chris in Mainz

Sonny said...

Thanks, great review. So difficult to find any meaningful information on the Zappa website. Difficult to buy it too - I'm in the UK and having terrible trouble trying to give them my money!

Andrew said...

I think he re-recorded the bass and drum tracks because the original master tapes where damaged. He had a lengthy court battle with MGM and when they finally returned the masters, they had poorly stored and were damaged.

Rob said...

On the re release of woiitftm and lumpy gravy,Arthur Barrow is the bassist,not scott thunes