When discussing Zappa, I’ve noticed that people overlook some of his key albums. They (whoever “they” are) tend to focus on We’re Only In It for the Money, Hot Rats, his juvenile “comedic” material from the 70s and 80s, and maybe his guitar playing. However, I think the last three albums of the original Mothers of Invention tend to get overlooked. The trilogy consists of Uncle Meat, Burnt Weendy Sandwich, and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. I personally think this triumvirate represented Zappa at his creative peak. Here, he was able to combine his compositional ambitions, free jazz spirit, and absurdist humor to maximum effect. They also, thankfully, lack his juvenile sexual “humor,” as found on later releases, except for a few snippets on Uncle Meat.
(Hot Rats is also a masterpiece. However, it can get bogged down in endless guitar solos, and lacks some of the more absurdist aspects of the aforementioned trilogy. But still worth checking out)
My favorite of this trilogy is definitely Burnt Weendy Sandwich, and it vies with We’re Only In It for my all time Zappa favorite. This album focuses almost entirely on Zappa’s jazz/classical/rock fusion, and cuts out most of the flab found on the other two (like the annoying voice snippets from Uncle Meat).
The musicianship, aside from Frank, Ian Underwood and Sugarcane Harris, is somewhat wanting, but I think the album possesses a rawness that his later, slicker material lacks. For example, the assortment of out-of-tune instruments on the “Holiday in Berlin” songs actually makes things more interesting and unique. Also, the clutter of percussion on the title track helps spice a decent, but not great, guitar solo. And the two short “Igor’s Boogie” pieces are humorous odes to Igor Stravinsky.
The album’s centerpiece is the almost 19 minute song, “Little House I Used to Live In,” which still stands as one of Zappa’s crowning achievements. Here, he is able to effectively combine elements of jazz soloing, classical composition, rock rhythm, and even a little comedy (the audience banter at the very end). The song starts with a great, evocative piano solo by Underwood (probably his best performance with Zappa). It then shifts gears multiple times, generally focusing on a lengthy electric violin solo by Don “Sugarcane” Harris. I’d normally grow quickly tired of such a long solo, but the underlying rhythm changes enough to keep me interested. Finally, the two doowop covers work nicely to bookend the more serious compositions. They grant the proceedings some levity and keep Frank’s pretensions a little in check.
I think this one of the best albums Zappa has to offer, and it’s a great starting point for getting into his fusion/classical stuff.
As a final sidenote, I think Zappa peaked pretty early, with the original Mothers of Invention. Although his ambitions would grow, and he’d attract better musicians, his 70s and 80s stuff is a little too slick, self-consciously goofy, and occasionally too mean-spirited and dumbly offensive for me. There are bright spots, but overall I prefer his sixties material. I’m not sure why this is; maybe it was just the creative zeitgeist of the era, maybe it was Ian Underwood’s imput, or maybe the other members held him in check. Who knows.