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Frank Zappa - Hot Rats CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



4.35 | 1737 ratings

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4 stars In the glorious year of 1970 I at last left the safe environs of my parental enclave and moved to the quasi- bohemian, virile town of Denton. I settled into a cozy efficiency bungalow mere blocks away from the University of North Texas (NTSU at the time) campus and relished the unlimited freedom that being on my own afforded. I answered to no one except my own conscience and that egotistical imp wasn't paying close attention to anything other than pretty girls. The burg was teeming with musicians of every ilk and I had many for neighbors who were in groups I'd seen performing in Dallas nightclubs. One of those maniacs was a fellow guitar player named Dave Brown and he was as avid a record collector as I was yet his generosity and trust far exceeded mine in that he left his place unlocked and encouraged me to barge in and borrow any album he owned as long as I returned it in a reasonable time frame and without gouges in the grooves. His taste in music tended to run in more offbeat, unconventional ruts than mine (he didn't share my affection for groups like The Move, for example) but for that reason I got exposed to many artists that I wouldn't have sampled otherwise because of him. He had all of Frank Zappa's stuff in his stacks and I must admit that a lot of it left me as cold as a Siberian Christmas, including "Hot Rats." But that wasn't Zappa's fault or Dave's. It was mine. It wasn't until several years farther down the line that I came to realize that I just wasn't open-minded enough to appreciate what my na´ve ears were hearing.

Only recently have I procured a copy of this, Frank's first solo effort, and at long last have been able not only to appraise it with the discretion that age bestows but also in a historical backlight of the blur of progressive thinking that was running unfettered in those heady days of the waning 60s. Forget pushing boundaries. There weren't any. Not for pioneers like Zappa, anyway. He had craftily weaseled his way into a lofty position where he could record what he wanted, who he wanted and how he wanted with impunity. He didn't play it safe with that creative license, either. He wanted to leave behind a legacy of innovation and imaginative contrasts that would flourish and thrive beyond his generation. Suffice it to say, he did just that but for me this album isn't his masterpiece. It's very good, no doubt, and I can understand and support its high ranking but it's his sly, satirical humor that I gravitate towards when considering what his best work is. That's just me. Frank had so many sides to his genius that he draws all kinds of proggers to his music so it just depends on who you talk to, I guess.

Starting an album with supreme greatness like "Peaches en Regalia" certainly can't hurt your reputation one iota. It's one of his finest, most concise songs ever and it's as close to prog perfection as there is to be found on "God's grey earth." It's grandiose yet playful as a speckled puppy. A splendid mixture of Zappa's favorite styles and influences. What I didn't know until now was that there are only four musicians playing on it. It sounds like twice that many, at least. Frank's on guitar, Ron Selico sits on the drum stool, Shuggy Otis plays bass and everything else is Ian Underwood. Now that's amazing. I'll never listen to this tune again without thinking about that humbling fact because what he does is phenomenal. He turns it into a carnival. Next up is "Willie the Pimp," a plodding blues/rock thang that hasn't grown old gracefully. Captain Beefheart's raspy growl is entertaining but he's long gone by the three-minute mark and it becomes a long, tiresome jam session after that. Hey, it's Zappa's solo debut and he had every right to overindulge in a lengthy guitar lead since he so desired (bear in mind that it wasn't unusual, this was the golden age for talented but long-winded noodlers like "Cream" and "The Allman Brothers") yet I still must be honest. It wears me out.

"Son of Mr. Green Genes" is a return to a more tightly-structured format. Here the multi-talented Ian has taken Frank's radical, complex ideas and fleshed them out brilliantly. Zappa's guitar is one part of the soundscape, not the focus, and the number benefits hugely from that. His guitar ride is more taste than flash and Max Bennett's fluid bass playing stands out in particular. There seems to be a lot more thought being put into the track than the previous cut and the pompous, over-the-top ending is to die for. "Little Umbrellas" follows and it's the kind of fantastically dense, challenging avant garde jazz piece that the "serious" musicians who populated the full-ensemble lab bands in the NTSU rehearsal rooms in those days of my randy youth would drool over (perhaps they still do). Yet at the same time this short ditty makes for pleasant, casual listening, as does so much of his material.

"The Gumbo Variations" is a slightly funky boogie that comes off like a "Wow, I've got all these excellent cats assembled here in the studio and the tape's running so let's play already!" moment and who could blame Mr. Z for that? Underwood's sax solo is sinfully frantic and wild as a cornered Tasmanian Devil for a full seven minutes, then Sugar Cane Harris delivers a hot and passionate violin spasm that carries on for another five. Frank wades into the fray for a while, then they mercifully break it all down to the drums and bass before eventually turning it into a screechy melee that collapses from exhaustion. My hat's off to them for their unbridled enthusiasm but it ain't my cup of joe. The album ends on a positive note, though, with the impressive "It Must Be A Camel," another appealing venture into a unique, eclectic jazz fusion climate that's hard to resist. Sitting through it reminds me that this was so very unlike anything else being created even out on the wooly fringes of the vast rock & roll prairie of that time period. It truly was, still is and ever will be music for the progressive mind.

While I will always be much more likely to pull out and put on his wonderful "Roxy and Elsewhere" album when I need a little FZ shot into my veins, I must emphasize that the man never wasted an inch of recording tape in his too-short life and this is no exception. He epitomized creativity and when "Hot Rats" hit the music stores it only added to his reputation for being fearless. I clearly remember feeling a little uneasy each time I spied the wild-haired waif on the fuchsia cover who, at first glance, looked like she was about to crawl out of her crypt because I was afraid that I wouldn't comprehend what Zappa was doing in the vinyl grooves within. Even now I must entertain the possibility that I still can't fully grasp it all and never will. But I keep coming back, nonetheless. Only the greatest of the greatest have that irresistible, magnetic gift. 4.2 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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