Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Prog Rock Guide to the Project/Object - Burnt Weeny Sandwich

By the time this album had been released, Frank Zappa had already dissolved the original lineup of The Mothers Of Invention. You might then consider this album a collection of leftovers from that lineups late 60s recordings. It is exactly a certain extent. The material on this LP was recorded over a wide timespan and is a bit of a collage. Some pieces were taken from here, others were picked up from there. Yet, somehow, Zappa was able to pull in all these various recordings and create an album that works as a whole just as well as any album by the original Mothers. That's no small achievement considering just how well all of those records were assembled. As I said in my review of Absolutely Free, Zappa and The Mothers were really insanely ahead of their time when it came to the use of The Album as a united whole as opposed to a collection of unrelated tracks.

What makes this album work so well as a whole? Well, the vast majority of it is entirely instrumental so it sure isn't unified by a lyrical theme. What makes this album work so well is the structure and order of the tracks. You really feel that you go on an adventure with this album. The album begins deceivingly with a simple doo-wop song. WPLJ is actually a cover of a song originally recorded by the Four Deuces in 1956. Zappa performs this song completely straight. It is essentially a heartfelt tribute to a song that clearly had an impact on a young Zappa and if it wasn't for the comical Spanish rambling near the tracks end, it is performed with honest sincerity. After the track fades out you should strap yourself in because you are about to enter a completely different world.

Igor's Boogie must be a tribute to Igor Stravinsky, another one of Zappa's childhood heroes. The short quirky instrumental is performed by the members of The Mothers who could actually read music. Zappa, in case you didn't know, was composing chamber music before he even considered becoming a rock and roll song writer. With many of the tracks on side one of Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Zappa creates a little chamber ensemble with the 'talented' members of the group. This chamber ensemble really shines on both movements of Holiday in Berlin. The track was composed after a Mothers of Invention concert in Berlin in which a riot broke out. The whole event was really dangerous for the members of the band and the playful feel of the music really doesn't quite reflect the nature of the event that inspired it. Nevertheless this is Frank the composer at his best.

Zappa's guitar is naturally present here and really shines not only on the Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, but also on the 'Full Blown' movement of Holiday in Berlin. The guy really has a knack for some skilled yet tuneful lead guitar. The first side of the LP closes with Aybe Sea, a classically fused piece with lots of appealing layered keyboard and moving acoustic guitar. The sound of the piece is almost Baroque with its harpsichord. The piano and guitar shift gears and the whole piece trickles out like the tide. This is really one of Frank's more beautiful and underrated instrumental.

Side two opens with more piano. Zappa is really shining here as the great classical composer that he is often not given credit for being. The 18 minute epic Little House I Used To Live In has just about a bit of everything, from its soaring main theme to the extended live solos. In fact, you never know which bits are live and which were recorded in a studio. The track encompasses the collage theme of the album into a piece that has bits from all over the place and yet never feels disconnected. The highlight of the song might just be the extended violin solo that really burns the house down. It smokes. It rocks. It flies and soars. As the piece ends, many themes from side one are repised and the whole thing ends and a huge cacophony. The crowd arrupts with applause and then you hear some member of the audience shouting his lungs off. Zappa replies "Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don't kid yourself".

After the crazy instrumental adventure, the album comes full circle with yet another classic doo-wop cover. This time it's Jackie and the Starlites' Valerie. I'm not sure why, but it's almost an emotionally moving way to conclude the disc. It probably has to do with the album's amazing structure. Starting and ending the album with such simple and serious doo-wop songs creates a perfect circle. You start your adventure on firm familiar ground before being taken on a tour of the unknown before being brought home.

As vast and wide as Zappa's discography is, I really think that this album deserves much more recognition. It usually gets buried as being experimental and difficult, but this couldn't be further from the truth. This album has some of Zappa's most accessibly beautiful melodies. The unique and brilliant structure of the album means that you never feel it get too out of hand. It all fits together perfectly. I highly recommend this to any Prog fan who is looking for an early glimpse of instrumental Frank Zappa: the composer and producer. A real unappreciated work of art.

No comments: