Frank Zappa once said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”, well talking about Frank Zappa’s music is like “architecturing” about dance. I’ve read countless reviews about Zappa’s music that just don’t hit the mark. They try to capture the spirit of what makes his art so special, or perhaps try to explain why they don’t get it, but more often than not, reviews of Zappa’s music are typically poorly written by people trying to write about music that is indescribable. The implication here is not that I’m any better, but rather trying to convey my point that his stuff is nearly impossible to review. Frank’s music carries a vocabulary of its own, a language of its own. No wonder he is revered and respected by musicians from around the world. What makes Zappa’s music endearing to me is, it takes me somewhere. It welcomes me on a unique journey and sometimes, when its at its very best, feels like the mysteries of the universe are revealing themselves before your eyes when you drop the needle on the finer members of Frank’s extended catalog. I don’t always get it … but that’s to be expected. How can we always understand something that is entirely new to us? This is what keeps me coming back to Zappa, the nature of discovery and his pioneering spirit. In fact, even though many times very tightly composed, Frank’s music and solos breathe with such life and freedom that his music is always so liberating. In short, when I listen to Frank’s music, I feel like I’m learning something, expanding, and better than I was before, even if I don’t always understand it. This is what makes progressive music for me and at times, Frank was more progressive than any of his contemporaries (a word I use loosely in regards to FZ). In fact, any progressive musician who is worth listening to, in my opinion was somehow influenced by Zappa. Faust, Caravan, Floyd, Tull, Genesis, VdGG, and Soft Machine were all influenced by Zappa and so are Thinking Plague, Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Mike Keneally, Beardfish, and many more.
So, lets go back to 1970. At this time, after Zappa left the MGM label and switched to Warner Brothers Records’ Reprise Records subsidiary, and dissolved the original 9-piece Mothers of Invention, claiming financial strain as the leading cause of the break-up, but also commented on the bands’ lack of effort, however some members of the band saw it as an example of Zappa’s perfectionism at the expense of human quality. The first three albums to be released on Reprise were “Hot Rats” in 1969 (see my review), and “Burt Weeny Sandwich” and “Weasels Ripped my Flesh” – the latter two being MOI posthumous releases, culled from outtakes from the previous few albums. The two collections (later released as a double record set entitled (“Two Originals of the Mothers of Invention”) form a interesting ‘Yin and Yang’ concept: “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” the more tightly composed, studio-oriented and classical and jazz influenced side of the Mothers, while “Weasels Ripped my Flesh” is the more avant-garde, improvisation, live side of the band. Both records are fantastic, both are uniquely Zappa.
“Burnt Weeny Sandwich” (so named after a favorite snack of Frank Zappa’s – a burnt Hebrew National hot dog between two slices of bread) is so named after the sandwich which makes the album. The album has two doo-wop covers that formed the ‘bread’ of the album – a cover of the Four Deuces “WPLZ” at the beginning and a cover of Jackie and the Starlites’ “Valarie” at the end, while the middle section, the ‘weeny’ part forms the meat of the album – Zappa’s compositions. And yes, as Ian Underwood states on the back cover, the whole thing is a “tasty little snacker”. The album cover – the “crucified on technology” sculpture, interestingly enough, was originally designed by Cal Schenkel in early 1967 in Zappa’s New York apartment, and was intended to be used for an Eric Dolphy album that was never released. To appreciate “Burnt Weeny Sandwich”, you must first get the idea of ‘songs’ out of your head. Like many Zappa and prog releases, this is not a collection of songs, but rather a 40 minute presentation with a beginning, middle, and end and conceptual continuity.
Side one of the original vinyl opens up with “WPLJ” (White Port and Lemon Juice) and pays homage to Zappa’s doo-wop influences. Here, the band is in full “Ruben and the Jets” swing (perhaps this is an outtake from the aborted “Ruben” sequel?) and from the start, the remaster shines. The drums at the beginning have an extra kick and the vocals sound clean and clear as a bell. The acoustic guitar in the left channel is much clearer and bassist Roy Estrada’s falsetto sounds like he is sitting right next to you. The horn section underneath has an added punch and the whole thing simply resonates with beauty in detail and life. Never one to cover something straight, Frank replaces the sax solo in the original with some Spanish talking, but otherwise the cover is more complicated than the rather straightforward version for 1955 (which has a certain charm of its own). The song ends with a woman saying “God this thing gets to you after awhile” – which I don’t recall being onthe Ryko version – before seguing into a short piece entitled “Igor’s Boogie, Phase 1”, which was inspired heavily by one of Zappa’s biggest influences, Igor Stravinsky. Here, the remastering revels a lot of detail in the horns and colors that the Ryko version was missing, before launching into “Overture to a Holiday in Berlin”. The piece is bit difficult to listen to, because, for whatever reason, the instruments are out of tune. Whether or not this was Frank’s intention or not, it’s kind of got an intoxicated feel to it. Perhaps a lot of heavy drinking was involved on a holiday in Berlin? Who knows? Next up, is “Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich” which has a lot more space than the Ryko remaster. The percussion, played by both Jimmy Carl Black and Art Tripp seems to drift around in your head, before a wah-wah’ed guitar solo enters with some Don Preston organ underneath and some bicycle-type percussion in the background after the guitar solo begins to sit comfortably in the back of your mind. Everything is treated with clarity and care and it is, as a big Zappa fan, a total joy to listen to. Ending in some solo percussion, it is quite a head trip to another realm. Next up, is “Igor’s Boogie, Phase 2”, which features honking sax and light clarinets on the top that sound like a bicycle horn … curious considering FZ’s appearance on the Steve Allen show! Next up is “Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown”, which opens up with some gorgeous dual piano playing once again, by Ian Underwood and Don Preston. The cymbals and drums sound clean and crisp and the horns are very clean. Everything has space in the mix. Everything breathes and is clear enough to be picked out. The sax solo in the middle is as beautiful as it is slightly sleazy. It is as beautiful as it is bizarre, as all good FZ/MOI music should be and launches into a guitar solo in the middle section with some spacey organ. As usual, Frank’s solo is as experimental as it is thoughtful, placing the perfect amount of space in between notes and sounds. This then segues into one of my favorite pieces of the album, “Aybe Sea”, a piano / harpsichord / guitar trio which is very hard to describe. Its a very serious piece and serves, like everything else, from the remaster. I can, for the first time, hear acoustic guitar! It ends with some solo piano from Underwood, which to me, seems to predict the piano solo at the start of Side 2.
Side 2 opens where Side 1 left off, with some exquisite playing from Ian Underwood. Gone is the drop off in volume from the Ryko; likewise – gone is that annoying warble in the sound. Here the choice of chords is everything and the balance of consonance and dissonance is what makes the opening of “Little House I Used to Live In” so interesting. You can clearly hear every resonance of the piano on this remaster. It then erupts into a thrilling melody from the band which sets up the epic piece, originally intended for Side 4 of “Uncle Meat”. Everything has much more pomp on this new remaster and it somehow seems more epic. Before some dissonant, air-horn-like sax, the thing launches into the circus-like melody once again, before stepping back at around the 4:14 mark to allow FZ and Art Tripp to share a guitar / drum duet. After slightly under a minute, Don “Sugar Cane” Harris’s unmistakable violin makes its presence known with his trademark sound, building the whole thing up into an epic jazz violin improv. Mood is everything here. Apparently, Zappa’s “Little House” was a strange and varied place or perhaps its not a literal house, but a reference to his influences. Beautiful jazz playing from everyone involved here, as Don Preston enters with some twinkling piano. A nice touch, lost in the muddiness of the Rykodisc version. In the middle, Preston’s jazz piano takes a short solo spot which is perfect for the piece and adds some variety in between violin solos. At about 10:45, there’s some pulsating rhythm from Jimmy Carl Black, before launching into another realm of jazz fusion with some more fantastic playing from Sugar Cane Harris. This is the nature of this section, a contrasting of pulsating rhythm and more cool, laid back jazz, all with Harris’ unique style on top of it. Before the whole thing comes to an epic end with rolling drums and ripping violin. Next, Underwood enters with some harpsichord and some electric guitar from Frank and woodwinds ontop. This is perhaps the most beautiful part of the album and one of the ones that sticks in my mind the most. Everything has added clarity and space. The live section, which follows, features a quote of “Aybe Sea” which is more evidence of my claim that “Aybe Sea” is considered an introduction to “Little House I used to Live In”. Here, Frank takes the organ solo and there’s some rumbling drums in the background. Let me say, this is the best I’ve ever heard this live section, sonically speaking. On the Ryko, it sounded very murky and here, it sounds more like a studio cut. The whole thing ends after a few minutes, before it is stopped and we hear applause. Frank banters with the audience here and we hear the famous FZ quote “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don’t kid yourselves” and we are promised an attempt to perform “Brown Shoes don’t Make it”, which to my knowledge, has not surfaced on any official FZ / ZFT live recording. After Frank silences a heckler, “you’ll hurt your throat, stop it!”, we are taken to the second doo-wop cover on the album, “Valarie”. This version is treated to a pretty straight cover ( by MOI standards) as opposed to the histrionic original by Jackie and the Starlites (a hilarious outtake version from the aborted Ruben and the Jets sequel is on “Greasy Love Songs” and proves to be even MORE histrionic than the original!) and has some wonderful rotary-style electric guitar on the right channel. The whole thing sounds like a new recording when compared to the murky Ryko version and is one of my favorite FZ doo-wop covers, made even better by this new reissue.
And so there you have it, my thoughts on the new “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” reissue. With these new releases, I’m beginning to feel like I’m repeating myself … they are all wonderfully done with such care by Joe Travers and simply breathe so much life into the genius, Frank Zappa’s, extensive catalog that it seems in most cases like an entirely new album. It’s amazing to me how well these old recordings hold up in 2012, whereas in many cases, FZ’s 80’s remixes sound more dated than the original recordings. Even though “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” is not one of the more altered members of the catalog, I decided to pick it up anyway because it, and its evil twin “Weasels Ripped my Flesh” are two of my favorite early Zappa albums. It’s truly been a joy listening to these updated versions, because it is like experiencing Zappa for the first time all over again, an artist which really meant a lot to me when I first discovered him.
Well, that’s all for now, folks. Stay tuned for more progressive rock and related reviews!
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