Friday, February 22, 2008

112. FRANK ZAPPA: Absolutely Free (1967)

A detailed analysis of the above work.
Absolutely Free (1967)
Zappa Records Release #2

Rykodisc RCD 10502
LP: The Old Masters, Box 1 (Barking Pumpkin BPR-7777-2)
The idea of using an archaic Baroque form such as that of the 18th century religious oratorio does not surprise nearly as much as FZ's amazing ability to paste his zany musical antics onto such an unexpected "rock 'n roll" template -- all the while keeping the arias, recitatives and choruses common to the traditional oratorio form intact with the performances of the Mothers of Invention. The singers employ a quasi-operatic style (loads of vibrato), but with an obvious tweak to such basic incongruity. In the end, FZ is successful. Only the inability of most of the then M.O.I. to truly engage themselves in these bizarre and difficult charts holds back the potential greatness of this release. Perhaps a better way to put it might be to say that -- in general -- it is easier to acknowledge the brilliance on display here than it is to bask in repeat listenings. Three stars.
Like Freak Out!, Absolutely Free was a gatefold cover (a folded double cover), even though it contained only one LP (a practice which, happily, FZ frequently followed). And like Freak Out!, the graphics were an obviously important ingredient to FZ's overall scheme (this is part of what we call "conceptual continuity"):
  • FRONT COVER. Immediate confusion! The front cover is printed at a 90° right tilt! In other words, in order to look at it correctly, you must turn the album cover 90° to the left! The group name and album title occupy less than a quarter of the far right (would be the top if oriented correctly). To the left (or below, properly oriented) is the photo from the
  • INSIDE RIGHT LINER, washed out (with some kind of nice graphic alterations), with Gail's stark white in contrast in to FZ's black hair! Smaller cut-out photos of band members on the far left (botttom).
  • INSIDE LEFT LINER. Main photo shows FZ lifting up his shirt while the Mothers lie at his feet. Ray Collins and Jimmy Carl Black clasp hands. To the right: "SEND money as much as you can get $1 minimum" (for the libretto). The Old Masters, Box 1 booklet has a big pink circle with the slash through the middle ("do not") and in small type: "*Absolutely {interesting choice of words here!} do not follow these instructions unless it is A.D. 1967." Directly below is the track listing is a curious "3" right below the huge bold-type "1" and "2" which indicate the sides, and: "PRUNE: RAY COLLINS. The MOTHERS OF INVENTION play all their own musical backgrounds. The only exception on this disc is BROWN SHOES DON'T MAKE IT where they have added 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 'cello, 1 trumpet and 1 contra-bass clarinet." The famous Varèse quote follows (with his name rendered as "Edgar" instead of "Edgard") with some additional thanks by FZ to his engineers.
  • INSIDE RIGHT LINER. The FRONT COVER photo, not washed out, but again with some very cool graphic alterations (FZ's right eyeball is highlighted with black concentric circles, for example). On Gail's face is printed: "MY PUMPKIN" and on Frank's neck, "The MOTHERS today" (Jim Sherwood's name appears last, in smaller type than the other band members).
  • BACK COVER. Like the FRONT COVER, tilted 90° to the right! Once tilted, at the top is another black & white photo of various Mothers, heads cut off, angles distorted. The bottom half of the cover, however, is in vivid color and is very cool and detailed -- stuff that you will simply not see on the CD! It is almost Hundertwasser-like with tightly-packed, colorful buildings shooting up to the red ABSOLUTELY FREE letters (four additional E's on "free"), and a bunch of tightly-packed cute little automobiles at the very bottom. Both the buildings and the cars are covered in little phrases in different typefaces and colors: "Buy America," "This tree is UGLY & it wants to die," "rrrm!," "Cromby Comrbly & Buy Some," "TV gyde," "chicken delete" (CC: "Chicken Delight" from Sheik Yerbouti: "Disco Boy"), etc.
The term "oratorio" which FZ uses to describe each side of the original LP (Oratorio #1 is tracks 1-7; Oratorio #2 is tracks 10-15; tracks 8 and 9 were originally released as 45-RPM singles and only included in the later CD release) is, of course, uncannily accurate in terms of the musical form here. The stop and start rubatos, the dramatic and/or ironic recitatives, the dandy choruses -- it's all very consistent with the classical oratorio form.

"ABSOLUTELY FREE" (1st in a series of underground oratorios)
"THE M.O.I. AMERICAN PAGEANT" (2nd in a series of underground oratorios)
10. America Drinks (1:53)
11. Status Back Baby (2:54)
12. Uncle Bernie's Farm (2:10)
13. Son Of Suzy Creamcheese (1:34)
14. Brown Shoes Don't Make It (7:30)
15. America Drinks & Goes Home (2:45)

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