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Music Review: Frank Zappa – Trance-Fusion

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Back when yours truly was a young and bony, somewhat speed-freaky collegian, I used to bug my dorm mate by regularly playing Mothers of Invention platters on my plastic Sears portable phonograph. My roomie was a sometime guitarist who appreciated the band's garage-y musicianship (if not their vocals), but he couldn't get behind their early attempts at jamming. Listening to the group's first recorded full-blown instrumental, "Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin" (from Absolutely Free), I remember him disparagingly saying, "Nicely played. But it doesn't go anywhere."

Putting on the recently released Trance-Fusion (Zappa Records), the much delayed final project overseen by Frank Zappa, I found myself remembering my old roommate Marty's words. An instrumental set of a piece with the composer's earlier Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar and Guitar releases, T-F is primarily composed of solos that have mainly been taken from 1984-88 concert performances, given their own unique names ("Bowling on Charen," "Gorgo," et al) and left to fend for themselves. With most of these tracks stripped from their original context (one notable exception: opening instrumental "Chunga's Revenge," which had its genesis on one of Zappa's first solo albums), they really don't "go anywhere."

I need to be upfront about my bedrock bias here: as a fan, I favor Zappa's early MoI work above everything else he did in the course of his long contrarian career. I love him as (to use Wilson & Alroy's phrase) the Psychedelic Satirist – and have much less use for his later pervy lyrical obsessions – and I equally favor the band he started out with over all the professional sidemen he later corralled to tour with him. What makes the Mothers interesting for me, outside of their sterling garage punk chops, was the way their limitations pushed against Zappa's high-blown aspirations. Too much competence – as with many of Zappa's later working units – and the man's complex compositions start to lose all trace of humanity. I know there are guitar geeks who still worship at the altar of Shut Up Zappa, but I'm just a poor pop nerd who prefers his tunes with a beginning, middle and end, thanks.

As a result, the sixteen tracks on this set pretty much blend together about five cuts into the disc. I've played Trance-Fusion several times in the car driving to work in the past week. Each time I found myself listening fairly intently to "Revenge," "Bowling on Charen" (which has lines that sound like they could've come from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, though apparently it's from a 1977 performance of "Wild Love") and "Good Lobna" (Zappa-phile Matt Groening must've been tickled by the Simpsons ref here) – than needing to be goosed back into full attention by a good rhythm shift (as with the snippy "Soul Polka") or a dose of bluesy familiarity ("After Dinner Smoker.") In most cases, the titles don't particularly help: you'd expect, for instance, a song called "Gorgo" to be a full-blown tromper much like "Chunga's Revenge," but you'd be wrong.

To be sure, listening to the man's assured fingering can provide slivers of pleasure – even to a musical dunderhead like myself. For years, I've used earlier Zappa guitar collections for background music while writing, and I suspect I'll be pulling out T-F in the future for the same. (As a sonic experience, it's certainly much less intrusive than, f'rinstance, the frequently annoying Sheik Yerbuti.) But when I want to actively listen to the man and his music, I'm still most likely gonna slip on something from the '60s or early '70s. That pumpkin dance track on Free may not "go anywhere." But it's surrounded by the front and back of the original "Call Any Vegetable," which definitely does.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    While I like to try and wrap my mind around Zappa’s increasingly more complex later stuff, his music from the late 60’s-early 70’s remain my favorite part of his work. So this FZ review for “the rest of us” is a welcome change from the ones I usually find. I’m likely to enjoy this record the same way you do, i.e., without much listening involvement. Thanks!

    -P

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites.

  • Suzy Creamcheez

    Fair assessment of this music. Although I would add that this album does not in any way purport to be a linear album of “songs”. Like the “Shut Up and Play Your Guitar” series and the “Guitar” album it is simply a collection of guitar solo’s intended for those that are interested in that sort of thing.

    That being said it successfully accomplishes what it set out to do. It contains material at least as good as the afore mentioned records. If you like “Shut Up” and “Guitar” you should enjoy this fresh sampling of high quality guitar solos.

  • Louis

    Zappa is unmatchable. I have always been astounded that his 1981 album “You Are What You Is” is rarely mentioned. Many great songs on this album should delight any “poor pop nerd who prefers his tunes with a beginning, middle and end.” (big grin)

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com Bill Sherman

    To my ears, You Are What You Is is the most enjoyable of the later Zappa sets (with Them or Us following as a close second). My Mothers-lovin’ heart still favors the early stuff, but Is is a lotta fun . . .

  • Louis

    Bill, do you like “Broadway the Hard Way?”