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Frank Zappa - Apostrophe (') CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



4.03 | 670 ratings

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4 stars REVIEW #1 - "Apostrophe" by Frank Zappa (1974). 5/4/2018

To preface my first review, I thought that covering a Zappa album would be a good way to begin. Given that this work is arguably his most commercially successful and accessible work, it seemed like a good starting point. Frank Zappa was one of the first artists that introduced me to progressive rock, even if at the time I was not aware of the genre's existence. A friend of mine suggested Zappa's work one night in 2015 as we were driving down Washington Boulevard in Petaluma, California - about 400 miles from where Zappa grew up in Lancaster. It would not be until 2016 that I got my hands on a copy of his 1979 album "Joe's Garage" that I got hooked onto his music. For those who have hardly listened to Zappa or not at all, his music is extremely abstract even by today's standards. An eccentric character, Zappa is surprisingly one of the few resonant prog acts to ever emerge from the United States, with a prolific catalog that includes his 1974 album "Apostrophe".

That brings me to "Apostrophe" the album, which is arguably Zappa's most accessible work from his leviathan of a discography. Running for only just over half an hour, this is a great album to test the waters for Zappa's extremely abstract and humorous style. The first side of the album is dominated by the "Yellow Snow Suite", which is a collection of four tracks that are loosely based on the same concept. The premier piece, "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" was a commercial success, cracking the US Billboard Hot 100 and peaking at #86. While the single version of the song, which contains excerpts from all four songs of the suite, is radically different than the album version, a DJ in Pittsburgh edited his own version, which was popular unto itself and inspired Zappa to release the official single. While "Yellow Snow" is hardly a feat in Zappa's own musicianship, its relaxed tempo and abstract lyricism make for a good introduction to the album. In this piece we are introduced to the protagonist, an Eskimo named Nanook, which is likely a reference to the 1922 film "Nanook of the North." As Nanook's mama lets him off into the tundra, it breaks into the next song "Nanook Rubs It". The longest piece of the Suite, coming in at 4:38, we are now introduced to what I suppose is the story's primary conflict, where a "strictly commercial" fur trapper begins to whack one of Nanook's favorite baby seals with a lead-filled snow shoe. Offended by the egregious act of animal cruelty, Nanook begins throwing the "Yellow Snow" at the man, blinding him. Ultimately, the story shifts over to that of the fur trapper, who in order to heal his eyes, must travel to the parish of St. Alphonzo. This brings us into the next song of the suite, the aptly titled "St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast." A very short piece, it is a intercalary between the fourth and final piece, "Father O'Blivion" - both these songs feature sexually ambiguous lyricism, a staple of Zappa's lyricism. By the end of the Suite, any semblance of the concept has been lost oddly enough, and there is a fade out to conclude it; altogether the "Yellow Snow Suite" comes in at 10:53.

"Cosmik Debris" concludes the first side of the original LP. A popular Zappa work that was played prolifically in his live shows, it completely abandons the themes of the first four songs, now concerning the story of a particular snake-oil salesman. This one was also quite popular on the Dr. Demento radio show in the 1970's, which only further spurred Zappa's success in the States. This is the first song on the album where we get some real high energy, largely in part to both a Zappa guitar solo and a fast-paced bridge.

The second side lacks a concept, but it does start off with another short piece that serves as an introduction. "Excentrifugal Forz" comes off as the primary throwaway track of the album, and is forgettable even though it isn't necessarily bad. It is tight, fast-paced, and contains all of Zappa's musical quirks of the time period. However, it is followed by the instrumental title track, which is an absolute masterpiece. Featuring Cream bassist Jack Bruce on bass guitar, this track is pure musical nastiness. A farty bass-line drives the music at a cool pace, reminiscent of a jam session. While this collaboration proves to have spawned a wonderful piece of music, it also seems to have spawned tension between both Zappa and Bruce. Zappa, who later in 1977 was asked about the collab in an interview with Guitar Player Magazine, remarked that he met Bruce through drummer Jim Gordon, and found him "difficult" to play with. Bruce had even harsher words for Zappa in 1992 in an interview for Tylko Rock, claiming that Zappa had invited him to appear on his album, and after listening to his "awful" music, had "made a sound" for Zappa's "most popular record". Bruce even denied that he played bass on the album, with him saying that he recorded cello parts for the album. However, given the audible similarities between the bass-line on "Apostrophe" and his work with Cream, it is obvious that Bruce was lying. Whatever tensions the two artists had, at least they were able to put together a very strong work - a take-away from this album.

Next up, we get a much more light-hearted collaboration between Zappa and jazz pianist George Duke for the brief but powerful "Uncle Remus". A song which has a pretty clear-cut theme about race relations in the 1970's, the title is inspired by the controversial African-American cartoon character of the same name. This is another one of my personal favorites off the album, opening up in a balladic fashion with Duke's piano and Zappa's happy-go-lucky vocals backed by the uncredited Tina Turner and the Ikettes, who elevate this song to another level. Midway through the song, Zappa brings in the guitar, and we're in a jamming mood as the song hits a bridge and careens towards the coda, which is a wonderful Zappa solo - unequivocally the best on this album. Duke would record his own version of the song for his own 1975 solo album "The Aura Will Prevail" which is much more mellow and is also deserving of a listen. Closing out the album is the six-minute "Stink-Foot" which was inspired by a foot-spray commercial. The longest piece on the album if you don't consider the Yellow Snow Suite a full song, it is a continuation of the avant-garde jazz style featured on the album, and contains many allusions to previous Zappa lyrical themes, including the talking poodle Fido, "conceptual continuity", and even the boots from "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" earlier in the album. This style cannot be considered musique concrete, but is more a rather unique concept that is exclusive to Zappa's music. Overall, while "Stink-Foot" is geared to close the album out with an extended guitar solo, it is a step down from the previous two pieces which arguably dominate the album.

"Apostrophe" is Zappa's most easily accessible albums. It features a roster of musicians, including not just Bruce, Duke, and Gordon, but also violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, Ian Underwood, and Napoleon Murphy Brock. The album gets its fair share of exposure in the prog rock community - while it is by no means one of Zappa's greatest works on a musical level, it has a role given its affinity to introduce a listener to his music. The greatest takeaways from "Apostrophe" are the title track and "Uncle Remus" - the former being an excellent bass showcase and the latter being one of Zappa's more emotional and serious works. There are no terrible pieces on the album, although I was not particularly struck by half of the Yellow Snow Suite, and I felt "Stink-Foot" fell flat following up the album highlights. I give this album four stars (83% B-); it is a succinct album with some takeaways that are worth being in your personal collection.

SonomaComa1999 | 4/5 |


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