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Frank Zappa - The Yellow Shark CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



3.89 | 131 ratings

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2 stars The circumstances surrounding this album are such that not really liking it is enough to make me feel a little guilty. This was the last Zappa album before his unfortunate passing, and it largely fulfilled one of his lifelong wishes: to have his "serious" music played by an orchestra that was up to the task and that would take his work seriously. I don't know a lot about Ensemble Modern, but I know that they have a good reputation amongst fans of late 20th-century classical, and they were probably the ideal choice to handle this music. In short, everything about this album exudes Big Symbolic Power (especially with Zappa conducting a small number of tracks), and a proper narrative of Zappa's career and life would consider this the definitive argument in favor of Zappa, the serious composer.

It's too bad, then, that I just don't like it much. I like a lot of classical music, and I even like a few composers who did much of their work in the 20th century. There's just a certain point, though, somewhere out beyond the borders of Bartok (whom I love) and Schoenberg (about whom I'm somewhat ambivalent), where my patience for stretching the boundaries of music wears thin. I remember reading a fascinating article in which the author responded to a claim by a defender of modern classical: the defender's statement was, essentially, that it was hypocritical for people to complain about not knowing what to expect when listening to a new classical piece, when people had no problem going to watch a soccer game without knowing in advance how it would turn out. The author's counter (I'm paraphrasing and rewriting parts of it, as I don't have the original link) was that this was a false comparison: somebody watching a soccer game might not know how the game would finish, but at least they'd know the rules of the game. They would know that the game would be played with one ball, not three: they'd know the goal of the game was to knock the ball into the opposing net: and they would know that the score might end 1-0, or 4-2, or possibly 8-1, but that it would not end with a score of Q to 7 or thereabouts. I simply cannot understand the kind of music that dominates much of this release, and given how relatively easy my assimilation into the world of classical music has been otherwise, I can't help but think that this isn't entirely my fault. Does my lack of ability to figure out what Frank and the Ensemble are doing on much of this album reveal a gaping hole in my artistic sensibilities? It probably does, and yet, I just don't feel a great urge to correct that deficiency, or like I'm missing out on that much. I can generally tolerate much of this as background music, and I do find it funny that "Girl in the Magnesium Dress" has been given a full orchestral treatement (making this an orchestral version of somebody running fingers randomly up and down a synthesizer), but enjoyment is something else entirely.

The album has some stretches that break the tedium in a decent way, though. There are some very nice renditions of various Uncle Meat tracks ("Dog Breath Variations," "Uncle Meat," "Pound for a Brown") that make me wish more of the album had been orchestral versions of existing tracks (and no, I'm not counting the orchestral version of "Be Bop Tango," oy). The album finishes with a GREAT rendition of "G-Spot Tornado," which retains all of the melodic and rhythmic wackiness of the Jazz from Hell version, but naturally with a more "organic" sound. There are also a couple of skits, and they're basically ok, though in a lot of ways they kinda strike me as tired imitations of the sorts of things the original Mothers might have done on stage back in the day. "Food Gathering in Post-Industrial America" features a woman reciting a poem over various orchestral parts, and while part of me wants to laud Zappa for bringing back his social satire side here, I can't help but think that it seems kinda amateurish. "Welcome to the United States" is a little better: it features somebody reading (in a really, um, "affected" vocal manner) excerpts from the questionnaire that needs to be filled out for immigrants to enter the US, while the orchestra plays relevant backing music for the question. So for instance, when a question is asked about drugs, there's psychedelic harp music: when a question is asked about having lived in Nazi Germany, part of a German march is played: and when a question is asked about terrorist activities, "Louie Louie" is played. A lot of the humor seems a little too forced for my tastes, but I like the track more than not.

I understand that a lot of Zappa fans will really enjoy this, and I can understand it. There are a lot of people who are well-versed in late 20th-century classical music, with a good grip on the various developments of the genre and of what separates the good from the bad, and those people may get a kick out of this (then again, maybe this is bad within the genre of avant-garde classical: how would I know?). As is, I'm happy to dig out the few obvious nuggets, and let the rest just kind of exist in its own sphere without my having to deal with it. A major Zappa fan will probably want this, but the rest of us probably won't.

PS: I feel it's important to add a brief addendum to this review, to clear up any confusion. I do not believe that it's a bad thing for classical music to continue to progress and morph into new and strange forms, and I certainly do not begrudge people the right to enjoy classical music as it continues to evolve. I also certainly do not have anything against having to expend some effort to stretch my sensibilities in order to enjoy music that I might not otherwise enjoy. That said, there's only so much work I'm willing to put into enjoying a musical piece before I decide there are better ways for me to spend my relaxation and leisure time. Since the time and work I put into such efforts is pretty substantial (it's not infinite, but I feel like I do pretty danged well), I do not feel much remorse in not enjoying music that I cannot enjoy after these efforts. This is what I mean when I say that music, past a certain point, tries my patience more than I'd like.

tarkus1980 | 2/5 |


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