When one has to buy a Frank Zappa album, and one has only few choice cds from said artist already, it's really hard to figure out what to go with as the next purchase. It's totally blind picking. So when it came to picking up Zappa album number four, I opted for a live album from the later part of the Zappa catalogue.
I'll be totally honest, it was the album's title that drew me in. The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, how does one say no to that, especially when it comes to Zappa. Then there were the songs that I knew that make up this double disc CD. Some Frank Zappa classics like Cosmik Debris and Zombu Woof, and then covers of Purple Haze, Ring Of Fire, Sunshine Of Your Love, and Stairway To Heaven.
This album gives a glimpse into what a Zappa concert would have been like, and that allows me to see why some people loved his live shows, while others stayed away. The musical genius isn't for everyone. Hell, I would say he is more for the experimental minority. The covers I mentioned are the band's own takes on those songs. The way the album is designed to simulate a live concert is fantastic, and the performances themselves range from flat out ridiculousness, to musical excellence.
However, this album did serve the purpose I was looking for when I picked it up. It allowed me to see what Frank Zappa is like when they do a cover, and not just one or two songs, or specific genres, but a bit of a variety, done various ways. You also get the vibe for a Zappa live show. I mean a true feeling. Then finally, and most importantly, it gives me a sense of where to go with my next purchase. Although purchase number five ended up coming so shortly after, that the only bearing this album had on it was the number from the catalogue. (The next album I bought was number two, where as this is fifty-five.)
In the liner notes Frank Zappa insists that this album was recorded live, from various shows recorded in Europe and the American East Coast between February and June of 1988. The musicians that make up the best band you've never heard are Frank Zappa (lead guitar, computer-synth, vocal), Ike Willis (rhythm guitar, synth, vocal), Mike Keneally (rhythm guitar, synth, vocal), Bobby Martin (keyboards, vocal), Ed Mann (vibes, marimba, electronic percussion), Walt Fowler (trumpet, flugel horn, synth), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Paul Carman (alto sax, soprano sax, baritone sax), Albert Wing (tenor sax), Kurt McGettrick (baritone sax, bass sax, contrabass clarinet), Scott Thunes (electric bass, mini-moog), and Chad Wackerman (drums, electronic percussion).
The double disc album opens with Heavy Duty Judy, which was a completely new song to me. Musically it opens the album with a sound that almost seems inspired by Sesame Street. Which is pretty cool. It also sets the tone of this album perfectly. It's a little silly, a bit strange, very fun, and musically inspiring. This song in an instrumental originally from Shut Up And Play Your Guitar.
Granted this isn't entirely an instrumental. They use this track to introduce the next song which is Ring Of Fire. Yes this is a cover of the Johnny Cash classic, but no it's not like the original. They do it in a Reggae style. It's Jamaican Country music. I find part of it humourous in a good way, and I also find it a bit insulting, because it comes off a bit jackassy courtesy of Zappa's adlib commentary.
After that comes Cosmic Debris which I know from my old copy of Apostrophe/Overnight Sensation. While I haven't had a copy to listen to in the better part of a decade, I recognized the track right away and yet know it's not the same as the original. I'm not so big on this track.
Find Her Finer follows that up, and I like the switch up compared to the last couple of tracks. While it has a lot of typical Zappa elements to the song, it also has a very sexy groove. It's slinky and stretchy like a pair of colourful spandex on a 1980's fitness nut.
When we get to Who Need The Peace Corps? I'm a bit let down. It's a pretty basic cheese ball Zappa tune with very litte redeeming musical value. This goes seemlessly into a short rendition of I Left My Heart In San Francisco which is nothing to write home about.
However the abrupt change into Zombie Woof is much needed and respected. This is a kick ass funk kind of track. While it has some of the playful elements I have come to expect from this band, it also has the really fun and funky sounds, and rhythms, and textures that make Zappa's music sexy. Then there's also the solo which is really sweet and would have been killer to see live.
This is then followed up by a cover of Bolero, which I recognize from somewhere, I want to say some movie that takes place in Paris, or at least France somewhere. Maybe It's even somewhere else in Europe, I'm not entirely sure. All I know is that this cover is decent, and totally enjoyable. It's a bit sad to say that some of the best parts of this album are when the band breaks into full fledge instrumental ecstacy.
I should point out that at this point we are into the heavily Jazz inspired section of the show. Actually it's pretty mind blowing when Zoot Allures gets going for two different reasons. The first is that this is a very intense song musically. The second is I'm pretty sure Steve Vai lifted part of this from Zappa later. I wish I could think of what song it is, but I think it may have been from Fire Garden. Then again it could just be that Zappa recycled parts of this song in later tracks. With Frank anything is poosible.
You can tell Mr. Green Genes is from a different show just by the way the track is cut. It's such a quick and abrupt cut that it's like they didn't even try to make it flow. Maybe there was no way to do it right, or maybe it was a time issue. As for the song it self. Well, I'll let the lyrics do the talking for me. "Eat your greens / Don't forget your beans & celery / Don't forget to bring / Your fake I.D. / Eat a bunch of these / MAGNIFICIENT / With sauerkraut / MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM / Sauerkraut! / Eat a grape, a fig / A crumpete too ... / You'll pump 'em right through / Doo-wee-ooo / Eat your shoes / Don't forget the strings / And sox / Even eat the box / Your bought 'em in / You can eat the truck / That brought 'em in / Garbage truck / MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMouldy / Garbage truck / Eat the truck & driver / And his gloves / NUTRITIOUSNESS / DELICIOUSNESS / WORTHLESSNESS". I can assure you that the music is nowhere near as odd, or silly, but it is inpiringly different.
After that is turns all bad ass for Florentine Pogen, until it gets a bit odd, and then slips into a dark and sensual track of Jazz experimantalism. This is one of those live tracks that inspires me to check out the original to see if I'll enjoy it more, because something just seems to be missing on this one. For the most part this song breaks down into a kick ass instrumental.
Then it cuts straight into Andy. Which contains some very typical Zappa musical stylings, mixed with some Disco, a little Chicago Blues/Jazz mixture, and a lot more typical Zappa stylings. So much so that I don't even notice when it switched to Inca Roads.
Inca Roads starts off kinda boring because it's almost cliche in it's Frank Zappa sound and style, but once the track get's going it turns into one of those Zappa songs you are happy to know. I hate to say it, but this is one of those tracks that are for the musically pretentious, and even then I don't think it's meant for most of them to enjoy it. At times it's almost as if you are not supposed to like this song much at all. Then at other times it's like this song is meant to make your mind explode in a version of musical colour.
Sofa #1 finishes off the first disc. This track sounds like a show closer. Almost like the music played at the end of Saturday Night Live. That's not the best description for the song, but it's the best one I have.
The second disc opens with a cover of Purple Haze. While you will recognize this song, it's not the same as the original. For starters, Zappa doesn't do anything like you'd expect. Then when you move past that simple notion, you get to the fact that the instrumentation on this song borders between eighties synth pop (think Devo) and a Mexican Caberet Show. Hendrix did not expect this, when he did this song originally. But what's even odder is the cover of Sunshine Of Your Love, which follows so seemlessly that you don't even notice that they stopped playing Purple Haze. It's almost like Frank and crew were trying to make some type of point. Now if you can get past the weird rawness to the two songs performances you may actually enjoy the performances. Just remember to expect different.
Let's Move to Cleveland Is a really good instrumental track. While it bares some simularities to other instrumentals found on the album, it is still it's own unique beast. In fact it may be my favourite instrumental on this album.
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling is a very short cover that I don't feel is long enough to be called much more than a ditty at 0:46. However, it's meant as a bit of a break especially with the seemless flow in the Godfather Part II Theme.
Then it's on to A Few Moments with Brother A. West. This is more of a performance piece. A bit of show for the audience. It's interesting to listen to, especially given that it was recorded over twenty years ago and it sounds like it may have been recorded in the last ten. It really is a fun listen though.
The Torture Never Stops, Pt. 1 is a return to some Frank Zappa original music. Not just talking, or playing for instruments only. I'm talking a full blown song full of lyrics, various time and tempo changes, complex playing, and some really messed up other vocals. This song is just all over the place with styles even. It's like a hodge podge of three or four different tracks. Which is why it flows into the theme from Bonanza which you can easily miss, if it wasn't slightly announced. What an interesting performance as well.
Then it's onto Lonesome Cowboy Burt. Which is pretty much a cheap shot at country boys in the big city, mixed with mocking the idea that masterbation is a sin.
Then it's on to The Torture Never Stops, Pt. 2 which gets into the extended play catagory at 10:47, which is double Pt. 1 almost. And for the most part Frank Zappa is playing the hell out of his guitar. I mean he makes it sing like it's no one elses business.
More Trouble Every Day is a track that dates back to the very first Mothers Of Invension album, however this is the Swaggart Version. It's not like you'd expect if you know the original well.
Penguin In Bondage which is also a Swaggart Version, is one of the few tracks on this album that really caught my attention. This song is listed as being from the Roxy & Elsewhere album, which was a live album too. This is one of the more Rock songs on this album. I mean Zappa always resembles Rock in his way, but this is like some New England styled Rock for a good chunk. With a mix of Big Band and Rock stylings this song is just a pure enjoyment.
After that it gets into what I can only best describe as Experimental Acid Jazz. The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue is the last original Zappa track on this album. Actually, that's not a fair statement. This is the last Mother's Of Invention track on this album. You want to talk about a really fucked up way to go out. I mean this is some pure experimentalism bullshit. You have to really be into really weird and wild Jazz to get into this song. This is like abstract art for the ears, that's meant to blow your brain.
The double disc set concludes with a cover of Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven. There's a deinite Southern Islands kind of feel to this one. Think of the styling Dy'er Mak'er then apply it to Stairway, while keeping the orginal music, but changing the instrumentation. As well as adding some digital sampling. I know the medium to hard core Zeppelin fans may have some issues with this one. I know I was a little put off at first by the cover. But before I was even done the first listen I had developed one hell of a respect for this song. Imagine Zappa doing his own guitar riffs on top of an already musically phenominal song. But, because the rest of the band performs much of the original guitar work it allows Frank to really open up and let it fly. I mean he is throwing out some amazing fills and mini solos the entire song. Then instead of the guitar doing the solo, like one would expect, the horn section gives it. I mean they really give it, and the lead guitar comes back in to lay down the gentle riffs before the song gets heavy. I should mention that when I say heavy I mean Zappa heavy, which is a little different than most people's heavy. It's a great way to close the album, I think.
I would never suggest this album to just the casual music listener. They wouldn't get it, like it, or appreciate it. I wouldn't suggest this album to the basic Zappa listener. They wouldn't get all of it, like some of it, but they might appreciate it. I might suggest it a Zappa fan, as it is a Frank experience, though not what I might call a strong one. I would suggest this album to heavier Frank Zappa fans though, because you have to own it all, and this one is worth the money if you are a true fan.
7/10 - content
7/10 - production
/10 - personal bias