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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

29 in 2009 - Frank Zappa: "Over-Nite Sensation"

Frank Zappa:  Over-Nite Sensation
Originally Released:  September 7, 1973
Genres:  Rock, Comedy
Rating: 4 out of 10

I had just gotten onto a bus in high school when I noticed my friend Justin motioning for me to come to his seat.  I walked back a few rows and sat down next to him.  He was wearing headphones and listening to a portable CD player (kids, that's like an olde-timey MP3 player).  He took his headphones off and handed them to me, saying, "Dude, listen to this," with a wide smile on his face.  I eagerly put the headphones on to hear what was being offered to me.  It turned out to be a random Frank Zappa song off of a random Frank Zappa album.  I don't remember the name of it, or any specifics about the song.  I do remember that the lyrics were quite dirty, but humorous.  This is the primary reason why Justin showed it to me.  I laughed, took off my headphones, and let him continue to listen to his latest musical discovery.

That was my first and only run-in with Zappa before last week.  I kinda wish it would've stayed that way.

Truthfully, Frank Zappa has some amazing skills as both a lyricist and a musician (that guitar...whoah).  I have the lyrics to "Camarillo Brillo" in front of me right now, and it reads like a short story, not song lyrics.  That's quite an achievement for any artist, much less one like Zappa who I have to assume didn't take himself too seriously.  I mean, if he did, maybe his lyrics wouldn't enter the gross-out department so often; or perhaps he would release an album maybe once every few years as opposed to several a year as he did for much of his career.

But my biggest problem with Zappa isn't the shoddy nature of the work, but more just how everything comes together.  I'm all one for having fun in music, even if that fun is quite juvenile.  But too often the lighthearted comedy of Zappa's lyrics don't flow well with the mastery of his guitar, or the brilliant rock work of the rest of his band.  To me, it feels like they're clashing, constantly battling for supremacy until I ultimately just lose complete interest.

This is clearly an album that is not meant for all audiences.  Some will get it, others will not.  Zappa's so renowned in the rock world that it leads me to believe that I simply don't understand exactly what he's trying to accomplish with Over-Nite Sensation.  When you have such an extensive catalogue, as Frank does, I would think it'd be difficult for me, let alone anyone, to fully grasp the concept without at least listening to 2 or 3 albums.  That theory alone makes me question whether or not this can be considered a classic album.  Assuming I'm entirely wrong, what makes this one classic?  Is it the fact that it was his commercial breakthrough, or is it really just that good?  Let's discuss this in the comments, because as disappointed as I am by Over-Nite Sensation, I'm not entirely ready to give up on Zappa yet. 

Verdict:  Overrated


Anonymous said...

I'm personally a Zappa fan. But I'm also quite interested and intrigued by my own interest and have spent a fair bit of time considering the value that might be found in Zappa.

Although I think when it comes down to it you're not going to enjoy Zappa unless you listen to it quite a lot and over a long period of time. The long period of time is a least relevant to my experience of getting into Zappa. The only other way is if you got lucky in finding the right album to suit you as the Zappa repertoire obviously is extremely diverse.

I think In Zappa there are a number of key features that you might find and enjoy to different degrees. Theres the rock pop element (as abstract as it may be from most people's conceptions of pop-rock; I just mean simple short tunes with a catch basically), theres the jazz element, which in itself is allowed to get pretty messed up without Zappa's help, as your Bitches Brew review attests. There is also the 50's doo-wop and R'n'B element, a classical element, and finally, what can only be the Frank Zappa x-factor all on its own.

This last factor might have the potential to tie all these dynamics together nicely and coherantly. Really though, such an endeavor is pretty unrealistic in its scope. You can put them all together, but you've got to give up at some point in trying to do it systematically to create a coherant whole that fits togther nicely.

Of course Zappa probably came at it from the other angle, with the aim of pushing the rough, amalgam structure to its extreme. That doesnt take away from the final product and the fact that it actually is an extremely combinatins of style.

All this is merely to say that you shuldn't give on Zappa. That "roughness" which comes under the Zappa factor in my conception, is something that tends to grow on the listener and only needs to be one of many different attractions that might be persued first.

Having said that, it sounds from your reviews like you're partial to a nice coherent album, consistent on its own, which might make the task even more difficult. Zappa considers his entire body of work as a continuing kind of tapestry. There is a name for that style of making art, but I forget what it is. It basically means that he tends not to give a single bloc of songs that is meant to feel satisfactorally complete with beginning and end.
I'd say have a look at the Dub room special for a nice round portrayal of his work.

Cale said...

First, allow me to thank you for writing what is probably the most thoughtful comment I've ever received on this blog. You're clearly a person that knows your stuff, or at least your Zappa.

Without responding in a similarly epic manner, I'll say that Frank Zappa is a guy who has always intrigued me, even without being fully introduced to his music.

My biggest disappointment with this one, and you're right on this, might be the lack of coherency with the album. It seems to be all over the place at time, exploring different sounds and styles without warning. Still, Zappa is an amazing artist. There's no denying that. This is why I'm still interested in hearing more from him.

I'll take your recommendation to heart and hopefully I can come out of it with a better appreciation of his music. This particular album, however, just didn't seem like a good place to start.