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Frank Zappa - Hot Rats CD (album) cover

HOT RATS

Frank Zappa

 

RIO/Avant-Prog

4.33 | 1076 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
4 stars If you consider jazz-rock one of the all-time greatest developments in rock music history, feel free to raise this rating a point; I like jazz more now than I once did, and as such I can finally buy into the idea that this is, in fact, a really freaking great album, but I still can't quite buy the idea of it as Frank's best (like a lot of people think). Frank's first officially solo album is quite a departure from his work with the Mothers, even if signs of this impending approach were manifesting themselves in pieces like "King Kong" (or in some of the various material that the Mothers recorded first on stage). If the main thing stopping you from enjoying the Mothers was the 'stupid' sound effects, or the ever-present feeling of being preached to, this album should probably be one of your first Zappa purchases (of course, Burnt Weeny Sandwich should take precedence, imho, but that's for later). This is the first Zappa album to feature his attention focused solely on the music (which kinda makes sense, given that it's almost all instrumental), and that should be something both lovers and haters of the man should be happy about.

I'm not thrilled with everything on here: no matter how many times I listen to them, I can't shake the feeling that the 3:04 "Little Umbrellas" and the 5:15 "It Must be a Camel" are clearly in the second tier of Zappa tracks. They have somewhat decent themes, and I find the conversations between the instruments somewhat engaging, but ehn, Zappa's done better. Still, they're good tracks, and they show that Zappa could write decent enough "regular" jazz pieces (as opposed to the wilder stuff that makes up the rest of the album). Well, and to be fair, "It Must be a Camel" has a couple of places where it really tears, so calling it "regular" might be a bit of an oversimplification.

I'm also not as thrilled with the main attraction of side 2, the 16:55 of "The Gumbo Variations," as I'm sure many many people are. The thing is, I like when jazz elements are sprinkled into rock, but this is something else entirely. This is Frank taking what I guess is one of the "fundamental jazz aesthetics," (choose your own better description, please), the idea of having most of a group play a single primary theme over and over while one person in the group solos on and on and on and on and on, and fusing it with rock by (a) making the rhythm section play a rather funky foundation ad infinitum and (b) have almost the entire song dominated by a single multi-instrument solo. Indeed, there's a lengthy saxophone solo here, a shorter (but not quick either) violin solo, a bit of a guitar solo, and then a bit of a drum solo for crying out loud. Not only that, though, but if you pay close attention, you'll notice that, near the end of the saxophone solo, the violin starts playing underneath it, and by the time the sax stops, the violin is in full throttle (the same phenomenon occurs with the transition from the violin to the guitar; these smooth transitions allow the soloing to never actually stop, thus making it seem like one continuous solo). Now, don't get me wrong, I do essentially like listening to it; it's awesome to listen to, for instance, if you're driving on Lower Wacker Dr in Chicago on a sunny day. But the solos and the entertainment caused by them during the piece don't stick with me once the piece is over, if you get what I mean. Put another way; the violin solo in "The Gumbo Variations" may be stunning in terms of speed and virtuousity, but it's the violin solo in "The Little House I Used to Live In" that sucked me in enough to desperately need to hear it again and again. Still, "stunning in terms of speed and virtuousity" is a nice compliment, and it is really entertaining when it's on, so that still means a lot.

So, ok, I'm not madly in love with side 2, even if I like it a lot. Side 1, on the other hand, is basically all top-notch winners. The opening "Peaches En Regalia" is a worthy contender for The Greatest Zappa Track Ever, one of the most famous jazz/classical/rock fusions that anybody ever came up with. It's really the closest thing I've ever heard to a symphony that lasts less than four minutes, a piece with so many elements and themes that work not only without negatively affecting one another but that even manage to find a real sense of emotion that was often lacking with his work with the Mothers that it's absolutely mind- boggling. (I have absolutely no idea what the correct way is to split up and punctuate that sentence. Meh.).

"Willie the Pimp" is up next, and it's a 9:16 wankfest that guest features none other than Captain Beefheart on vocals. Wankfest is meant in a good way here, though; the main feature of this is not the recurring violin theme, nor Beefheart's voice, but instead Zappa ripping out an amazingly non-repetitive guitar solo for a good seven minutes. This guitar solo once made a list of the 100 worst guitar solos of all time, and on a certain level I can actually see the justification for this; to say that it's excessive doesn't quite convey just how excessive it is. On the other hand, while it can certainly become boring as a whole after a while, there isn't actually any moment during it that I can pinpoint as the place where boredom officially sets in, because Frank is doing so many things and playing so many interesting themes that boring ends up seeming like a silly trait to identify it as.

Closing out side one is "Son of Mr. Green Genes," an extension of one of the interesting shorter pieces on Uncle Meat. At first I kinda lumped this in with the other pieces as "just another piece of jazz-fusion," but for whatever reason this one grew on me quite a bit. Maybe it's because, throughout all of the jazz-classical trappings of the piece, the essence of a neat, weird, quirky little tune is always shining through. Whatever; I like it.

So that's Hot Rats as seen by me. I know of quite a few people who rate this as Zappa's best, and all I can say is more power to them. If I had it in me to enjoy jazz even more, it's likely I would too. As is, it's still a really marvelous album, one no Zappa fan can possibly be without.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |

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