November 2018

Twenty-five years after Frank Zappa’s death from prostate cancer at age 52, it’s still difficult to assess his career, in part because it was so multifaceted. Composer, guitarist, satirist, free-speech activist -- Zappa had many sides, and while they often overlapped, it’s easier to appreciate each of them separately: he was almost compulsively prolific. In his last 27 years he released 64 albums, many of them multi-disc sets, and since then the Zappa Family Trust has released an additional 49 albums, bringing the total of available Zappa releases to 111.

Some albums emphasized one or another of Zappa’s talents. As a satirist, Zappa was an equal-opportunity offender, like his contemporaries Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, and Richard Pryor. While some of his satire can seem dated, at its best it hit its targets squarely. We’re Only In It for the Money (1968) went after the foibles of both late-’60s hippie culture and the squares it opposed, and it’s still one of Zappa’s best records, musically and satirically.

But as much as I enjoy Zappa’s satire, it was the richness of his musical imagination that keeps bringing me back to his music. At his best, he blended jazz, rock, and modern classical music in unpredictable, often exhilarating ways. His later symphonic works are worth checking out, but my knowledge of the modernist classical music that inspired him isn’t deep enough to evaluate how innovative or important his work was in that arena. It’s his own unique brand of rock music that still has the strongest pull on me.

The Zappa Family Trust has brought a number of Zappa’s recordings back into print on Zappa Records (ZR) vinyl. Bernie Grundman handled the all-analog remastering, and Pallas in Germany pressed the LPs. In the early CD era Zappa oversaw the remastering of his music for digital release, and in some cases made significant changes. He added digital reverb to many of them, and for We’re Only In It for the Money and Cruising with Ruben and the Jets he re-recorded the bass and drums, played in styles very different from those used by the original musicians. While it was good to have his music back in print, many fans continued to search it out on vinyl.

I’m satisfied enough with my old Verve pressing of Freak Out!, the 1966 debut of the Mothers of Invention, the group Zappa led in the ’60s, to start my sampling of the new vinyl series with the group’s second album, Absolutely Free (1967). I have original mono and stereo Verve pressings of this album, as well as the Rykodisc CD, but none seemed to really convey the music’s richness. I could tell I was missing something -- the music was pleasing, and often showed Zappa’s genius, but all the versions I owned sounded dull and one-dimensional.

Absolutely Free

Grundman used the original master tapes as his source for the newest reissue of Absolutely Free (ZR 3835-1), and the improvement throughout is remarkable. “Plastic People” begins the album with the President of the United States speaking (it’s Zappa), and a fractured version of the chords to “Louie, Louie.” The spoken section continues, now with guitar and electric harpsichord in the left and right channels, respectively; on the new pressing they sound cleaner and more tonally convincing than on my Verves. Reeds are also presented with more transparency, and ensemble vocal passages are deeper and easier to appreciate. The transition to a brief instrumental section feels more natural, and the random voices in the next section are easier to pick out on the soundstage.

Ray Collins’s lead vocal in “The Duke of Prunes” is moved slightly forward and is more focused in the new pressing, for a more three-dimensional effect. Throughout the album, instruments are presented in greater detail, and even in busy sections it’s easier to hear them and visualize them on the soundstage. The Ryko CD is somewhat clearer than the Verves, but lacks the sparkle and sense of space of conveyed on the ZR pressing.

The seven-minute “Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” shows how much better the ZR is than previous editions. Instruments have more room to register -- for example, Zappa’s guitar and Bunk Gardner’s soprano sax, answering each other across the two channels, aren’t recessed as on the original pressings, or too aggressive as on the compressed CD. Tambourines ring out more solidly, and drums, while still somewhat in the background, come out more forcefully.

The hi-hat and bass in “America Drinks” are indistinct on the Verves and CD, but cut through on the ZR. The keyboards and guitars in “Status Back Baby” are much better separated, and the voices are more forceful. Instruments in “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” are more precisely placed, and the electric bass, which sounds somewhat puffy on the original LPs, is tighter, allowing more space for and between other instruments. The transitions in this cut happen more smoothly, and the song is more satisfying and complete. The CD is bland and flat by comparison.

Listening to the ZR pressing, I felt as if I were hearing Absolutely Free for the first time. Instruments sounded more realistic and nuanced, voices were fleshed out, percussion was more dynamic, and Zappa’s various aural experiments were more successfully presented. This two-LP reissue includes a third side of previously unreleased material, and a libretto that was originally available only via mail order. Laser-etched into side 4 is Zappa’s portrait as it appears on the album cover.

Verve released Absolutely Free in May 1967. Earlier that year, Capitol Records had commissioned Zappa to write and conduct music for an orchestra. Zappa had assumed that his contract with Verve allowed him to conduct music for another label, but Verve sued. Zappa re-edited this brief oratorio, added some spoken sections, and Verve released it as Lumpy Gravy in May 1968. It was his Zappa’s first solo album.

Lumpy Gravy

Grundman used the analog safety master as the source for this new pressing (ZR-8636-1), and the spoken opening resonates more fully -- Zappa had asked the participants to speak into a piano, so that their voices caused the strings to vibrate sympathetically. Instruments in the opening section of the music are more clearly delineated and easier to follow. As the second section develops, the bass lines are firmer, with a fuller midrange, and the double-bass lines in the right channel are much thicker, with more attack, which gives the music more foundation.

Much of the music on Lumpy Gravy is in snippets; Zappa manipulated bits of recorded tape to create unusual effects. On the new pressing, the music has more texture and layers of complexity. Orchestral sections are cleaner and easier to hear; strings are silkier, and the rock-style drums that play against the orchestral section have more snap and body. Other percussion rings out more boldly.

Little bits of business during the spoken sections -- door slams, voices in the background -- are arrayed across the soundstage better on the new pressing, with more back-to-front audibility. The cinematic orchestral passage at the end of side 2 is much more vivid and rich on the ZR pressing. Sections of the orchestra are easier to follow, and stay on course as the music becomes more intense. My Verve pressing sounds surprisingly good, but the ZR renders the orchestral sections more subtly; brass instruments, in particular, sound more realistic.

The ZR pressing also has more low-frequency extension and more low-level resolution -- it’s vastly better than the CD in these regards. Drumstrokes are more exciting and cymbal strokes have longer decays. Grundman has uncovered more air in this recording, which lets instruments register and resolve more convincingly. The CD version I own, the Rykodisc edition from 1986, sounds flat and unexciting compared to both LPs I listened to. Lumpy Gravy is an album for Zappa initiates; if you have a Verve pressing, you needn’t rush out to buy this one. But you’ll be happy if you do.

Zappa had disbanded the Mothers of Invention by the time Burnt Weeny Sandwich was released on Bizarre/Reprise, in 1970. Further projects would be released under his own name, or with his various bands that toured under the moniker “The Mothers.” Burnt Weeny Sandwich consisted of previously unreleased recordings by the original Mothers, as did Weasels Ripped My Flesh, released the same year.

Burnt Weeny Sandwich contains some of Zappa’s most fully realized instrumental compositions, and I’ve owned several copies on vinyl. A Simply Vinyl pressing from 1998 was almost certainly cut from Zappa’s digital master, and an early UK pressing lacked energy. The CD was a clean reproduction of the music, but lacked the low-end detail and force of the original Bizarre pressing, which for me was always the album’s definitive edition. Bernie Grundman’s remastering (ZR 3842-1), from an analog safety master, surpasses it.

Burnt Weeny Sandwich

The album opens and closes with a doo-wop tune, and in the first, “WPLJ,” an old Four Deuces tune, individual voices are easier to pick out of the mix, as is Zappa’s lead vocal, which is double-tracked in the right and left channels. The saxophones and snare-drum strokes are also easier to hear. The snare taps in “Igor’s Boogie, Phase One” are more solid and echo with more force, and cymbals ring out brightly. Individual instruments are better separated, making it easier to “see” them on the soundstage.

More densely arranged tracks, such as “Overture to a Holiday in Berlin,” are more spacious, which allows instruments to bloom. Tiny percussion accents that are barely audible in the original pressing are now more prominent, enriching the music. The cymbal stroke that closes “Berlin” to segue into “Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich” splashes brightly and solidly. Zappa’s guitar in this track is more tonally convincing, and the attacks of individual notes in his solo give it force and momentum. Percussion that’s veiled and distant on the original pressing now pops out.

In “Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown,” one of my favorite Zappa tunes, his ideas seem most fully realized as modernist classical music, jazz, rock, and other genres come together in a seamless whole. Ian Underwood’s piano is more open and organic on the new pressing, and the instruments in the reeds section occupy more solid positions in the mix. Two drummers play here, each registering clearly in one of the two stereo channels. In the closing section their kick drums have a lot of punch on the original -- the CD and later pressings toned down that aspect of the recording, diluting its power. Grundman restores it while also giving it more clarity and air -- Zappa’s solo and the drums are more forceful and impressive.

The longest track on Burnt Weeny Sandwich, the 19-minute “The Little House I Used to Live In,” takes up most of side 2 and begins with a piano solo by Underwood. The new pressing more realistically conveys the piano’s sound, size, and strength, and lets us hear Underwood’s use of dynamics. When a large ensemble then enters, the ZR pressing gives a much better sense of the group’s scope and size. As the piece develops, the scope of Zappa’s ideas is more impressive on the ZR, and instrumental details, such as the grittiness of Don “Sugarcane” Harris’s electric violin, fill out the music.

This new edition of Burnt Weeny Sandwich reveals the careful development and rich craftsmanship of Zappa’s arrangements -- Grundman has given the music much more room to spread out than even the original pressing allowed. He’s also brought back the full force of the lows, especially in the kick drums and bass, while tightening them up. The full splendor of Burnt Weeny Sandwich is now presented on a beautifully pressed, quiet LP.

The new LPs are flat, jet black, and absolutely quiet. The covers are nicely reproduced versions of the original artwork, directly printed on medium-weight cardboard, and Burnt Weeny Sandwich includes a poster that accompanied early pressings of the original LP.

Other Grundman reissues in the series include We’re Only In It for the Money, which restores the original 1968 mix; Cruising with Ruben and the Jets; Weasels Ripped My Flesh; and Joe’s Garage. I look forward to even more titles from Zappa’s voluminous catalog, and I encourage Zappa fans to locate a copy of Grundman’s remastering for Classic Records’ 2008 reissue of Hot Rats.

. . . Joseph Taylor