Stravinsky, Titties and Beer

Läther, a simultaneously exhilarating, hilarious, frustrating,

and indulgent project, is a mammoth, three-disc, two-and-a-half hour piece

of work originally conceived by late iconoclast Frank Zappa in the late

'70s, but has disemboweled and repackaged as a series of separate

recordings; now, for the first time (save for a pirate radio show FZ

dee-jayed at a particularly spiteful moment one Sunday in December '77)

the album is available in its completion. More than any other single

recording, Läther both contains and fully explores facets of

virtually every style that had cause to pique Zappa's ceaselessly

voracious musical curiosity: orchestral compositions; guitar-hero

histrionics; Dr. Demento, locker-room antics; lounge posing; and

fast-and-furious rockabilly boogies-- just to name a few--tied together by

a connective tissue of group virtuosity. With his split-second shifts of

mood and style, Zappa is sometimes (rightfully) accused of letting his

imagination wander a little too much: instead of exploring the

nuances of a certain style, he'll do little more than show off a riff-like

fluency before hyper-kinetically moving onto something else.

Not so on Läther. While Zappa characteristically moves with

frenetic speed from violin scores to spastic synthesizers to a host

sardonic wise-cracks, from live to studio recordings, from sputtering

xylophone explosions to mournful guitar cries, Läther takes

care to fully explore the many approaches it attempts to tackle, and in

doing so is one of the most satisfying, full, and complete work of

Zappa's seemingly endless oeuvre. Indeed, it's not hard to see why

Warner Brothers refused to release Läther as a four-record set

(most of the material Zappa intended for the album subsequently appeared

on Live in New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and

Orchestral Favorites).

There were four albums worth of peak Zappa work on the table, so why waste

them all with a giant concept package, the size of which had never been

attempted before? Rearranged and pieced together by Joe Travers,

according to what he interpreted to be Zappa's wishes (Zappa died in 1992

of prostate cancer), Läther shows Zappa at both his musical

and post-modern best. Stravinsky pops up as frequently as titties and beer

in the frequent asides that are sprinkled throughout, and Zappa seems much

more aware of other modern composers and artists than of pop's mind-frame:

always exploring methods of cutting and pasting, Zappa, taking clues more

from Glass (Philip) more than Glitter (Gary), brings his lifelong

obsession of the blurring of lines between "high" and "low" art to its

most satisfying conclusion on Läther. (Indeed, I've often

wondered if Zappa's self-consciously juvenile, if not ironic, were a

pointed attempt at proving that despite his compositional sophistication,

Zappa was determined to keep his feet firmly planted in both camps.)

Still, as is the case with all of Zappa's best work, despite all of its

theoretical implications, the heart of Läther lies in its

musicality. Recorded between 1974 and 1976, Läther contains

some of the best musicians to play with Zappa and the Mothers: drummers

Terry Bozzio and Chester Thompson (who also made their mark with Missing

Persons and Weather Report, respectively), keyboardist George Duke, and

brass-brothers Randy and Mike Brecker are just some of the better-known

names that comprise Läther's personnel. While some reviews of

Läther have used the not infrequent sexual asides that seem to

come naturally to Zappa and Co. whenever they're not smack in the middle

of a mind-boggling jam (and occasionally when they are) to once again

accuse Zappa of everything from violent mysonginism to plain stupidity,

Läther, much like fellow Zappa masterpieces Apostrophe

and Overnight Sensation, must be appreciated for the musical

heights it scales. (As for the accusations levelled against Zappa, his

critics, as always, fail to take notice that regardless of musical

content, Zappa incessantly employs irony, and, while he might not be a

Lenny Bruce when it comes to social commentary, Zappa's trying to say as

much about sexually depraved men as the women who become their victims in

songs such as the Don Pardo narrated "The Illinois Enema Bandit.") Most

spectacular of all is Zappa's consistently startling guitar playing.

Longtime Zappa fans will recognize elements of his best album in

Läther--the boogie-down fun of Apostrophe and

Overnight Sensation, the jazz-funk aspect of Hot Rats and

Waka Jawaka, the on-a-dime recombinant shifts of Thing Fish.

Many of the tracks are pieced together by manic drum and synthesizer

spurts or snippets of conversation squeezed so tightly into the mix that

they often float in and out of a person's subconscious before they can be

fully retained.

Also, a number of longtime Zappa collaborators will be recognized: raving

vocalist Ricky Lancelotti ("50/50 Chance") and deadpan gross-out man Ray

White (featured on the Live at the Fillemore East

prominent appearances, as does long-time percussionist Terry Bozzio and

keyboardist George Duke.