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Frank Zappa - The Mothers Of Invention: Absolutely Free CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



4.05 | 504 ratings

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4 stars I'm not sure I've ever come across somebody who rated this one the same as Freak Out!; reactions (in my observation) to the album seem to be either that it's a huge improvement over the debut, stepping up Zappa's snide attacks on society and his avant- garde insanity to a higher level, or a comedown (of varying degrees, depending on whom you ask) that shows Zappa getting so focused on the message that he lets the music suffer a bit. I essentially fall into the second category, even if I still find this album a blast and an entertaining listen.

The album is divided into two "underground oratorios:" one, called "Absolutely Free," which mostly consists of Zappa singing about the life and culture of vegetables (though preceded by "Plastic People," which goes more with the second suite), and one called "The M.O.I. American Pageant," about the life and culture of the average yokel American. The general implication, of course, is that the average American is just like a vegetable, which naturally can be taken as some sort of biting general social critique. This concept of a vegetable/American parallel is a good idea, but the problem I have with it is that (in my observation at least; maybe I'm missing a whole bunch of subtext in it) Frank doesn't really bother to expound in detail on this idea. In my mind, a conversation on this topic between myself and Zappa on this album would go roughly like this:

Me: "So what exactly is the point of the vegetable suite?"

FZ: "Well, it's obvious that I'm saying that the average American isn't that much different from a vegetable."

Me: "Hmm, that's interesting. I think I have a vague notion of the kinds of direct comparisons that could be made as examples of your claim, but it would be nice if I could have a clearer idea of what you mean by that. Can you go into further detail about this comparison?"

FZ: "Uh ..... Chunga, Chunga, Chunga, Chunga!!"

The thing is, on Freak Out!, there was a kind of "thematic crescendo," which not only gave a neat tension as Frank went on and on before reaching the punchline, but also gave a chance to clearly (if indirectly) delineate what it was he was trying to say. Here, though, by throwing the vegetable suite at us without much of a warning/introduction, it's tougher to make sense of it, and given that the "message" of the album is so obviously a central focus point in trying to to enjoy it, this kinda hurts things overall.

Not that I don't basically enjoy the suite, of course. The "Duke of Prunes" suite is a goofy, yet lovely, pseudo-romantic melody crossed with weird, jazzy guitar rock and with a strange dissonant modern-classical/jazz/random-chatter/whatever break in the middle ("Amnesia Vivace"), and the "Call Any Vegetable" suite goes from a jazzy yell-fest into a lengthy instrumental break ("Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin"), before "resolving" (I guess) itself in "Soft-Cell Conclusion." "Invocation & Ritual Dance etc" might not seem extremely whacked today, but I have to suspect that crossing jazzy saxophone and guitar soloing with 60's go-go rhythms wasn't commonplace back in '67, and this innovation and sense of novelty adds to the enjoyment I already feel towards the piece. So yeah, the suite is basically ok; I wouldn't mind hearing it one more time, I mean.

The second suite is more interesting to my ears, probably because I can understand direct rips against average Americans better than doing so using prune metaphors. The album opener (which, again, I consider a part of the second suite, if only as a prelude), "Plastic People," has one of the greatest introductions to any album ever, and proceeds to alternate a great verse "melody" with a bunch of chatter to terrific effect. "America Drinks" is a nice lounge-jazzy piece (with stupid vocal asides like "Wanna buy some pencils?") whose opening "Dah doo doo doo doo doo doo doo Dah doo ..." is done in the best "deeeuhrr, I'm an average American idiot" voice I could imagine (it's also reprised at album's end, as "America Drinks and Goes Home"). "Status Back, Baby" is a jazzy doo-wop piece about a high school socialite who had once been popular but now finds his fifteen minutes of social fame slipping away, and who implicitly (I think, at least this is what I'm reading into it) realizes that he's now worthless because he's losing his popularity. Now this I can understand and enjoy; I like seeing popular people become losers like me.

"Uncle Bernie's Farm," then, is just hilarious, as it goes from an awkwardly anthemic (for the better) lampoon of whatever into an UNBELIEVABLY hilarious middle-8 ("We gotta send Sanny Claus back to de Rescue Mission! ...") that's delivered in a way that will send you rolling on the floor if you listen carefully enough. "Son of Suzy Creamcheese" is a short interlude loosely based on the "Louis Louis" riff (a theme that Frank would reprise several times in his career, and was already used in "Plastic People" to even better effect) that could have been a large hit in the hands of somebody else, but here it acts merely as an entertaining prelude to the main showcase of the album.

"Brown Shoes Don't Make It" sums up so much about Zappa and his world view that listening to it could easily serve as a 7:30 primer on Zappa. It throws jazz-rock and music hall and bluesy call-and-response and old cabaret music and whatever into a single pot, with all sorts of weird vocal effects and sounds and Zappa explicitly saying that the average American male wants to have sex with his daughter when the wife isn't around (!!!). Naturally, when he does the last of these, he does it in the goofiest novelty-tune manner imaginable, at least in the way he sings, "Smother my daughter in chocolate syrup ..." Excessively gross? Oh yeah. But it's brilliant, horrifying as it is.

Overall, then, I find this album much more confusing than its predecessor, which hurts it, but it's an intriguing kind of confusing, which helps offset much of the "damage" from that. Plus, the two bonus tracks that are plopped in between the two oratorios (bonus tracks in the middle, oy), are lots of fun; "Big Leg Emma" is (I guess) a music-hall/blues cross with more deliberately "dumb" vocals, and "Why Don'tcha Do Me Right" is growling nonsensical blues-rock that has one of the best grumbling bass tones that I can imagine existing in the 60's. So overall a **** seems reasonable to me; if you like it a lot more, though, I can understand that, as, as mentioned before, I vaguely suspect there's a bunch of subtext within that I'm missing that would make me enjoy this even more than I do.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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