Monday, May 20, 2013

The Adrian Belew Power Hour #1 Sheik Yerbouti

In order to keep up with the ever-growing field of published music, Riff N' Ralk, Music Tock has expanded to the printed word to review music. Want Alex, Ryan, or Corey to write a lengthy, well-thought-out essay about your favorite albums? Leave a comment below, or write on our Facebook wall and we will give it a fair shot!

By: Alex Gomory

After scrapping a relatively meta review of an album review, I struggled with what I wanted to write next.  I tend to leave most new albums alone in case Ryan and I want to do them for the podcast which leaves me crate digging for older material that I think would be interesting to read about.  That thought in itself is rather pious as I am assuming people need an album review for a 8 year old prog album, a 40 year old disasterpiece or a punk album that just rubbed me the wrong way.  I guess I figure if you really wanted another review of The Knife's Shaking the Habitual you would go to Tiny Mix Tapes and read possibly the worst piece of literature I have read in 2013.  I have just now saved myself the trouble of having to review that piece of garbage album review.  The album itself, check it out if you have 97 minutes to waste and don't mind a lack of succinctness in your music.

So we come back to the original quandary of what to write about, and as I go through my shelf of records and my somewhat obscene collection on iTunes I seem to run into a repeating pattern: Adrian Belew.  If you are not aware of whom Adrian Belew is, there is a good reason.  The guitarist is not known for ever being the front man of any commercially successful bands, but he has been in just about every album and band you love and adore.  Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, and King Crimson have all had their Adrian Belew eras, with King Crimson being a long standing home for the balding virtuoso.  This is sort of the brilliance of Adrian, he ends up being in everything you like, but you just never realized it.  He toured with all the above mentioned bands, ended up on at least one of their records, and somehow sneaks himself onto so many other songs.  Remember the glorious Paul Simon single "You Can Call me Al"?  Those are not horns driving the song, it is just Adrian Belew.  From Nine Inch Nails to Mariah Carey, he's sort of the photo bomber of records, sneaking in places you never imagined.

Belew fans and lovers also know him for his completely insane guitar effects.  From elephants to birds, Adrian covers the lot of animal sounds, bizarre frequencies, and just general guitar insanity, which is also why I love his work so much.  I usually get excited by a guitarist when it seems their first instinct is "How do I get my guitar to sound like the exact opposite of a guitar"?  I could go on, but if you are interested in hearing more of his 6 stringed tom-foolery check out tracks such as Elephant Talk, and Matte Kudosai, from Discipline an album I will be getting to later.

As it is seems obvious at the is point, I am a big Belew fan, going so far as to think he is one of the greatest rock guitarists to ever take the stage.  Sadly though, as mentioned, he rarely gets the credit he deserves, instead standing in the shadow of more overhyped and underqualified guitarists who set their gain to maximum and wah pedal to "maximum erect cock".  The subtleties and insanities of Belew's style will likely never reach their level of proper recognition, which is why I decided on a little Adrian Belew album tour for the blog, for the next few posts I will be writing exclusively about albums that feature Adrian.  Now, it is important to note that just because he was on it does not mean he was a principle writer or composer, in fact, our first stop is Sheik Yerbouti which features as much Adrian Belew writing credit as possible on a Zappa album (Translation: as close to nothing as possible).  Still, my hope is that those gems in Belew's history get a little more attention than they have and he gets more credit he deserves.  Our four stop tour of Sheik Yerbouti, Ledger, Remain in Light, and Discipline will show Adrian progressively getting more and more writing credit until he is standing center stage as a lead performer.  Are you excited?  I sure am!

Stop #1 Sheik Yerbouti by Frank Zappa

I am always perplexed at how overlooked Zappa's musical catalog is.  Music journalists will gleefully go on and on about how much of a genius he was, mention Don't Eat The Yellow Snow, say something about how his kids have weird names, but then fail to mention any of his albums in any collection of great albums be it rock, 70s, or all time.  Now, I will admit that not everything Zappa does is golden, as Ryan and I have explored, but needless to say he has some near perfect items in his catalog that are often over overlooked for one reason or another.  It is easy to see why they are overlooked as well.  Zappa's style of rock was never exactly conventional, with many complicated interludes and dynamic style changes throughout his records.  His lyrics borderline offensive on a good day, cracking jokes about every group of people on the planet, which you could at least give him credit for his fairness.  His live shows too, were a strange carnival of antics, from cross-dressing Adrian Belew to Roy Estrada making out with a blow-up doll on stage....and that was just one show, not to mention he had a knack for hiring some of the ugliest people in music.  The combination was ripe for Zappa to always be a name people knew, but never his music.

Sheik Yerbouti was released in 1979 and is pseudo live album.  The audio is a combination of 4 days of concert footage mixed with loads of studio overdubs.  The end result is an odd hybrid of studio and live with audio quality that fluctuates pretty frequently between songs.  You can in fact hear one of the original concerts, which was released 2 years ago titled Hammersmith Odeon.  It is a three hour epic, but well worth the investment for Zappa fiends.

Sheik also has the luxury of having arguably one of the greatest Zappa line-ups; featuring, as mentioned, Adrian Belew, Terry Bozio, Tommy Mars, Patrick O'Hearn, Ed Mann, Peter Wolf, and a few other vocalists in the studio.  Although maybe not the most complex of his line-ups I always felt this was one of his most exciting groups, and easily the heaviest rock oriented.  That is not to say they could not change styles, but this group definitely had a more visceral sound than the 80s line-ups that while impressive were way too clean and "perfect".  I think this particular line-up was slightly less abraisive enough than his early 70s late 60s line-ups to not completely alienate the audience.  It was a brilliant line-up that sadly lived all too shortly due to members being caught using drugs, which was banned in Zappa's touring groups, but we'll talk more about that later.

To briefly explain, Adrian ended up on this touring line-up and album through word of mouth.  Frank's limo driver informed him that the band Sweetheart were worth checking out, while he was in Tennessee.  So Frank did, liked what he heard from Adrian, offered him a one year touring offer, and the rest is history.

Sheik is a brilliant collection of rock songs, both semi-serious and comical with some brilliant instrumentals peppered into between.  Starting off with the ever charming I Have Been In You, Frank swoons the listener with a story of how he's just been in you, and is going to do so again and again and again.  To the Zappa novice your ears might already be crying bloody murder at the audacity of Frank's serenade, but to the Zappa familiar this is simply Tuesday.  Frank, is no stranger to controversy, but at the same time his songs have some sort of meaning to them and aren't typically just a collection of fart jokes with complex music behind them.  I Have Been In You is no exception either, being a jab at Peter Frampton's I'm In You.

Frank's typical joking manner progresses into Flakes, a song about Union workers who don't do what they are supposed to which features one of the finer moments on the album, Adrian Belew's Bob Dylan impression.  During the bridge you can also hear what would become a somewhat typical Adrian Belew guitar solo filled with bird noises and whammy swells.  It is a bit clearer on Hammersmith Odeon, but it is still plenty audible and you can tell Adrian is already figuring out some of his signature sounds.

I Have Been In You and Flakes seem like one large introduction to the trio of hard-hitters Broken Hearts Are For Ass-Holes, I'm So Cute, and Jones Crusher, the latter most also being sung by Belew.  The three are their own little jokes about one subject matter or another, with Broken Hearts ending with a chant of "It's going right up your poop chute" which may lead it to be one of those songs you choose not to blast with your windows down. The lyrics may make you chuckle or cringe, but the music is what really shines in these Zappa pieces.  His ability to create a unique rock song with hammond organ stabs, and even some xylophone is a skill known to so few.  Broken Hearts also showcases Frank's knack for seemingly not taking himself too seriously.  While Led Zeppelin was singing about Greek and Norse Mythology and The Who were making epics about pinball wizards, Zappa was singing about the concept that a relationship can go so badly it would turn you homosexual.  You could go on to analyze the lyrics and determine how many times around the irony scale we have made or just shrug, accept it, and go.  Respectfully this has always been the biggest issue with Zappa's music; swallowing the pill of offensive. To be honest most times he is not just pointing and laughing at people who are not him in some Adam Sandler style way, but just making weird Zappaesque observations.  Either way, the trio works as a great hard rocking break from the ballady introduction.

The middle portion of the album Whatever Happened to All the Fun in the World, Rat Tomago, Wait a Minute, Bobby Brown Goes Down, Rubber Shirt, and The Sheik Yerbouti Tango is, like the three rock tracks, one big suite, a combination of odd spoken word and noise pieces, instrumental solos, and smashed in the middle Bobby Brown Goes Down a deliciously satirical piece about how the white male norm thinks they can do whatever they want and be considered great for it.  The song was oddly enough a smash hit in Scandinavian countries where the listeners were not aware of the lovely lyrics such as "I can take an hour on the tower of power/So long as I can get a golden shower."  The rest of this section is easily the most difficult to absorb in this album.  Weird combinations of layering solos on top of other solos, or jams can come across as a difficult to absorb for a more casual listener.  More musically adept individuals may appreciate the layers of different time signatures, but even then it can be a tougher pill to swallow compared to the straight forward, albeit absurd, first third of the album.  Still, those who are willing to take the plunge will not be disappointed as the performances are fantastic and they are as close to a live performance as you will get on this album.

The next suite, is easily my favorite, and filled with some of Zappa's best songs.  Baby Snakes, Tryin' to Grow a Chin, City of Tiny Lights, and Dancin' Fool are fantastic tracks on their own, but as one short string , each building off the former, it is some of the best rock music you will ever hear.  Baby Snakes a cute, short jingle about short penises, or snakes, or something is a charming welcome after the dense The Sheik Yerbouti Tango.  The music's sudden 180 degree shift from complex musicianship to high pitched singing is startling at first, but never unpleasant.  Tryin' to Grow a Chin, sung by Terry Bozio, has a rough and ready rock sound, like a 50's juke-box jam cranked to eleven, or a punk song parody.  Terry's scream-like tendency fits perfectly with the chanting of "I want to be dead/in bed please kill me/cause that would thrill me."  It is also a plus to have a song that you can play in front of your parents in the mix here.  Like Baby Snakes it is short, but perfectly so.  City of Tiny Lights is arguably the best of the quartet and features our hero, Adrian Belew on vocals.  The catchy Bass pattern is one you'll catch yourself humming to yourself days after, and not to mention Adrian's Cookie Monster impression.  The guitar solo crashes with a ferocity that has been building since Baby Snakes started, with live versions of the song featuring much longer guitar solos and even keyboard solos as well.  Part of you wants to wish the rhythm would last another 5 minutes, but another part realizes this is not a Phish concert and we need to get on with this album.  Dancin' Fool wraps up the section.  Being one of the few Frank Zappa songs to get any sort of commercial recognition, a statement that needs to be recognized in the context of Frank Zappa, Dancin' Fool is a critique of the disco culture, but not without being a fun dance song on its own.  It was also nominated for a Grammy, and helped Frank get banned from SNL.  The song's end features some gloriously awful pick-up lines which have some brilliant, albeit subtle references.  

The final trio, Jewish Princess, Wild Love, and Yo Mama create a pleasant come-down from the music high that was the previous set.  Unfortunately, however, we have to deal with the subject of Jewish Princess.  Now, musically amusing (Who does not love a Kazoo?) Jewish Princess steps beyond the realm of typical Zappa satire into a realm that could easily be considered bad taste.  Frank, as was apparent in this album, was never the sort to shy from controversy or raunchy lyrics, but throughout his career he tended to be craftier about his word choice, and avoided straight forward statements such as those in Jewish Princess.  Even as a lover of Zappa I am hard pressed to defend the song, and can only really make the statement "at least the music is good."  Sadly, Jewish Princess would be the continuing trend for Zappa in his later career as he seemed to write lyrics more so to piss off the PRMC than for his own artistic endeavors.  His slightly more tongue-in-cheek or subtle commentaries would become replaced with blatant, bold faced claims that didn't really work well at all, but that is for another day, one where I feel the masochistic need to relisten to Man From Utopia.  Wild Love's synths and grandeur bring the album back from the awkward listen of Jewish Princess.  For some reason it is the one song I have the hardest time talking about, it has the unfortunate problem of being wedged in between the controversial Jewish Princess and the powerful concluding Yo Mama.  It is a great item, but it is like the middle child in between two siblings.  Yo Mama is an amazing conclusion, with a soft airy beginning with barely any music besides Ed Mann's percussive works.  Some comical backing voices carry Frank's humorous, but fortunately not so raunchy lyrics.  Perhaps he had exhausted his vulgarity during the first 60 minutes, it is hard to say.  The song then ascends into a guitar solo driven jam for quite a few minutes, bringing the whole band into the mix at the end, before coming back down to its beginning.  Frank introduces the band and thanks the audience for coming to the show before closing out the listen.  It is a fitting listen after an exhausting album, and as the listener you almost feel as if he is thanking you for sticking with him until the end.

It is a crime that Sheik is ignored by critics and not placed on any 'best of' types of lists.  Yes, it is hard to deny the vulgarity and general insanity, but to say that it does not compose a brilliant listen is somewhat insulting.  Frank's quirky musical stylings fits together quite nicely in this package and introduces the listener to many great songs from Frank's daunting catalog of music.  Many other brilliant tracks from the era would have fit in quite nicely here; especially songs that were lost in the L├Ąther fiasco such as Punky's Whips, but that would result in the removal of other material, which would have ruined the near perfect balance of this album.

For those unfamiliar with Frank's carnival of eccentricities this is a fantastic starting point, as it gives the listener a musically tame, albeit lyrically offensive, sample of Frank Zappa's exhaustive work.  I would argue this is a must listen for anyone, especially those who fancy themselves classic rock experts of the highest order.  Lovers of simpler pop music may be taken aback by the complex song structure and daring nature of the album, but as I have mentioned before it is good to be challenged by your music, and this is a perfect album to do it with.

Next time: David Bowie's Lodger