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Frank Zappa - You Are What You Is CD (album) cover

YOU ARE WHAT YOU IS

Frank Zappa

 

RIO/Avant-Prog

3.67 | 199 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
5 stars Leave it to Frank Zappa to throw a curveball like this into my evaluation of his overall career arc. Frank's post-Mothers work had been very good to this point, of course, but looking at the pattern of ratings I gave the late 60's albums and comparing that to the ratings I gave the 70's albums, it's easy to see that I've considered them a clear (not huge, but clear) step down from his initial surge (Roxy is a mild exception to that, as it would have been a ***** album without the idiotic last track). Well, it's time to break that pattern, because this is my second favorite Zappa album and is a solid *****. While I eventually became somewhat bothered by a few little things, I absolutely adore this album on the whole.

Formally, this marks Zappa's return to making "song-oriented" albums, but while this is certainly in the spirit of Overnite Sensation, Apostrophe or the non-ADD half of Sheik Yerbouti, this album really wipes the floor with all of them. It's another double album, with 20 tracks spread over 67 or so minutes, with a wide variety of styles and lyrical topics, and it really feels to me like the culmination of everything Zappa had done since taking off on his own. The songs are mostly normal at their cores, but they're so spastic and hyper and so chock-full of entertainment and ridiculous hooks (and well- produced!) that nobody in their right mind would ever call this even remotely "normal." Some of the individual songs don't hold up that well on their own, but the album is also perfectly sequenced, and the songs have a neat way of playing off each other that makes the overall effect stunning.

Take a song like "Doreen," for instance. It's a weird cross between 50's soul and 80's hair metal, and while the main part of the song is a lot of fun, it also has a way-too-long coda with a seemingly endless guitar solo, and overstays its welcome by more than a minute, which is a bad thing for a 4:43 track. In other words, it must be a weak point, right? Well, listen to the next track, "Goblin Girl" (a bit of light reggae with lyrics that make it clear this isn't about a girl dressed up to trick or treat: "When they're a goblin, I start a-wobblin,'" indeed). It has its own lengthy coda, and what should start appearing in the coda but various aspects (melody, lyrics, guitar etc) of "Doreen?" The song itself, which overstayed its welcome, doesn't know that the song is over, and is basically trying to play at the same time as "Goblin Girl." The effect kills me every time I listen to the album.

The first side, including the two aforementioned tracks, gets the album off to an extremely strong start. "Teenage Wind" is an amazingly catchy (and absolutely filled to the brim with rhythm changes and vocal overdubs) rip on slackers who essentially believe that "Freedom is when you don't have to pay for nothing or do nothing; we want to be free," and for whom freedom is huffing glue while wishing they were at a Grateful Dead concert. "Harder Than Your Husband" is a hilariously straight-laced country song with lyrics much less smutty than suggested by the glorious pun of the title, and the instrumental "Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear," while no more impressive than the average track on Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar, is still a fun listen.

The second side consists mainly of rips on the "beautiful people" of the world; the stupids who obsess over being written up in society pages, and spending too much time looking good, while they take too many drugs and eventually overdose and die. This side also introduces a pattern found on the rest of the album, which is that almost every track makes some significant mention of the lyrical matter of the track before or the track after it (and sometimes both). The funny thing to me is that the album ends up feeling like a series of mini-rock-operas about nothing, which is certainly an interesting twist on the notion of conceptuality in rock music. Of the individual songs on the second side, I'd say that I'm a "Beautiful Guy" is significantly less interesting than the others (it's really dumb in melody and lyrics, though I guess that was kinda the point), while the funky "Society Pages" and the AWESOME hard rock (with vocals as loud and powerful as can be) of "Charlie's Enormous Mouth" are high points, and the rest of the tracks are all notable too. "Beauty Knows No Pain" has a great riff that pops up repeatedly, along with a hilarious monologue from Frank about what beauty is, while "Any Downers?" has another magnificent riff with a great metallic guitar sound and funny wails in the background. Finally, "Coneheads" is an amusing tribute to one of the recurring Saturday Night Live acts of the late 70's (Frank had performed this song three or so years earlier on the show, and the skits had stopped running by the time this album came out), managing to make a fairly innocent sketch as suggestive as it probably could have been.

The third act of the album kicks off with the title track, an uptempo rocker about a white guy who tries to make himself black, and a black guy who tries to make himself white, and how they both just make fools of themselves in the end. The following "Mudd Club," then, is the album's one major misfire; it's more light reggae, but the melody isn't interesting this time, and the lyrics (which are largely spoken in Frank's Central Scrutinizer voice) are an angry rant against ... some group. Young people? Swingers? S&M people? I'm not sure. But whatever, the next few tracks leave this in the dust, as they present an eloquent rant against organized religion and televangelists and related things. I may not completely agree with Frank's lyrics in these songs (though I don't disagree as much as you might think), but in terms of making an effective argument, these lyrics are spectacular. The organy, gospel- ish "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing" is largely a rant against the religious right and its influence on politics, and it would be worth it if only for the following lines: "You say yer life's a bum deal/'N yer up against the wall.../Well, people, you ain't even got no/Deal at all/ 'Cause what they do/In Washington/They just takes care/of NUMBER ONE/An' NUMBER ONE ain't you/You ain't even NUMBER TWO." "Dumb All Over," then, takes all of the anti- religious rantings by Ian Anderson, Roger Waters and whomever else and BURIES them. There's not really any significant music in the background (there's just some simplistic repetition, essentially making this Frank's version of a rap song, heh), but the lyrics alone (also delivered using the Central Scrutinizer voice) are enough to make this a classic. And finally, "Heavenly Bank Account" is even more gospel-based (though with its own share of weirdness) than "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing," with a good melody in support of more bashing of Televangelists (and a spoken voiceover of one of the best lines ever written: "There's a difference between kneeling down and bending over").

The album finishes up with a return to loose conceptuality, starting with "Suicide Chump," a hilarious and catchy song about how, if you're going to commit suicide, you'd better just get it over with and do it right the first time. The song leads into the slightly disturbing but nonetheless interesting "Jumbo Go Away," a rant against a completely disgusting, VD- riddle groupie. It's bothersome that the song culminates in her getting hit, but at the same time, if anybody would deserve it, it would be this ridiculous person. The last two tracks, then, are total winners. "If Only She Woulda" is lyrically just a bridge between "Jumbo Go Away" and the next track, but the lyrics are still effective, and it has a good melody and an amusing lightweight instrumental backing. And finally, "Drafted Again" features lyrics about incompetent people getting roped into military service, with more funny vocals and some great melodies. Say what you will, but the melody to, "Wars are really ugly/They're dirty and they're cold/I don't want nobody/To shoot me in the fox hole...fox hole" is freaking AWESOME, and shows that his skills as a melodist are really underrated.

On the whole, aside from weak tracks, and the fact that the album is a little too relentlessly critical and pessimistic for my tastes, this album is amazing. I guess that it could underwhelm somebody that mostly prefers Frank's more "serious" work, but anybody who goes into this with an open mind should be impressed. Heck, I'd recommend getting it first.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |

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