So imagine you're a label (Rykodisc, say) and you have the work of a prolific but still late musician (oh, let's go with: Frank Zappa) as a part of your catalog. You've issued all that artist's material - in many cases, twice - and though his estate has a wealth of studio and concert tapes, the artist's widow for whatever reasons (quality, personal cussedness) is holding onto 'em. S'been something like eight years since the release of "new" Zappa product - two or three lifetimes in the pop world - so how you gonna keep folks interested in the stuff you've still got?
Zappa Picks: you get some current, cultish pop guy to put together their own "mix tape" of favored Zappa cuts - then you package it in hope of snagging some of that pop guy's fans. First up: collections by Jon Fishman of Phish and Larry LaLonde of Primus.
They're two logical choices (you can imagine the average Primus fan actually getting off on the material chosen by the band's guitarist), though I wish the selection had been a bit more adventurous. Wouldn't you like to know what, oh, Willy Nelson's favorite Zappa tracks are? Or, moving outside of music, how about someone like Al Gore? On Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention you can hear him telling Frank he's a fan, after all.
I'll leave it to Phish or Primus fans as to whether their respective Zappa Picks collections add to listeners' understanding of the bands: only disc of either group I own is Pork Soda, and I haven't played it ages. It's clear both musicians came to Zappa and his musicians at around the same time: the early Mothers of Invention era material is scantly repped (the amusical freak-out "It Can't Happen Here" pops up on Fishman's disc), while seventies era stuff like Overnite Sensation, Roxy and Elsewhere or Joe's Garage are all over the place. Two cuts show up on both collections: the live Flo & Eddie version of "Dog Breath" and the classically silly classical number "Sofa No. 2." I can see the second cut, but the first choice puzzles me: to these ears, the original MOI version from Uncle Meat is the more solid and inventive performance.
Each collection has its share of "dirty" Zappa numbers, of course. I'm one of those who believes that Zappa's over-reliance on smut-themed material was a lyrical dead-end. It may've increased his popularity, but it weakened his eyes for the bigger-themed satirical targets. When the best you can do by the end of your career is bitch-slap sexually hypocritical evangelists, you've definitely reduced your satiric range.
So for those of you attracted to Zappa the satirist, the pickin's are spare on both discs (unless you consider the E-Z teevee put-down of "I Am the Slime" to be tuff stuff). The focus is more on surrealist lyrics and extended instrumental riffery. Hearing some of this material outside its original setting can admittedly be instructive. I found myself appreciating "Wild Love," for instance, away from Sheik Yerbouti, an album I've long considered one of Zappa's worst. (Following it with "G-Spot Tornado" was an inspired choice.) Pulling "Five Five FIVE" from the guitar instrumental set, Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar makes that track stand out more, though my bias is more toward more fully composed instrumental tracks like Hot Rats' "Little Umbrellas" or Roxy and Elsewhere's "Echidna's Arf (Of You)" (both on LaLonde's collection) where you get to hear more than just FZ showing off.
Of the two sets, LaLonde's seems the more fully thought-out, if only because he's more willing to break up cuts that (as often was the case with Zappa) originally appeared in extended song cycles. As representations of the man's middle period as a novelty cult-rocker (none of Zappa's orchestral experiments are included), both discs are fairly solid: old hat to Zappa freaks, perhaps, but hopefully challenging enough to inspire some fresh interest in that big ol' catalog of tunes.
And, hey, Rykodisc, if you wanna do some further plundering of the Zappa oeuvre, why not work in issuing a copy of the Bizarre Era collection Mothermania? (It's been reissued in an import edition.) A collection of Mothers of Invention tracks with some of the stuff that was originally cut out by Verve reinserted, the disc'd probably go over well with those Zappa completists who've already bought two different masters of We're Only in It for the Money. And you wouldn't have to pay some punk college-rock musician to "produce" it. . .