It’s a short one this week – I was out last night until about 6 a.m., and only got a few hours of sleep, and I think I’m getting some kind of chest cold, so we’re going to keep it kind of brief.
Obviously, the big news for this week (not counting the crumbling Bush empire, the sweeping success of Democrats in the mid-term elections, and the none-too-soon exit of Donald Rumsfeld) is the release of Frank Zappa’s Trance-Fusion, after a 13-year wait. Well, okay, it’s big news in my world, and some may be wondering why I’m not going to review it this week.
The simple answer is that I’m planning something special soon, kind of a Frank Zappa buyers’ guide to navigate newbies through his daunting catalog. I hope to have that ready about the time that the third Zappa album of the year, the MOFO box set, ships. (Given the numerous delays on this collection, I may have more time than I need…) But because Trance-Fusion is such a big deal, here’s a brief preview:
Trance-Fusion is the first of the Holy Trilogy, three albums that Zappa finished before his death in 1993. I have no idea why the Zappa family has been sitting on these records since then, but Trance became the first to hit shops, with virtually no fanfare, last week. The cover is incongruous, but beautiful – it depicts a collage of dolphins in the shape of Zappa’s trademark (literally) facial hair. It’s a beautifully designed package, with loving liner notes (as always) by Gail Zappa – it’s a fitting release for this near-mythical album.
The record itself is Zappa’s third collection of guitar solos, culled mostly from his final tours in 1984 and 1988. If you’ve never heard a Zappa guitar album, here’s what they are – Zappa recorded every show he ever played, and later sorted through and found the best moments of guitar-band improvisation and stitched them together. Zappa was a guitar player unlike any other. His solos were often dirty and ugly, but could just as often be incredibly beautiful, and not even the man himself knew which would come out when he started to play. The solos really are little pieces unto themselves.
This is Zappa’s most focused guitar solo album, too – it’s confined to one disc, 16 solos in just over an hour, and it’s apparent why each one was included. For my money, Frank’s 1988 tone is unbeatable – he debuted this clean, spacey, almost brittle sound that’s crystalline and piercing, and the nine solos from that tour (his last) are the highlights. Frank’s son Dweezil duets with his dad on the opening and closing tracks, and it’s a sign of how much Zappa respected his son’s playing that the first solo you hear on Trance-Fusion is Dweezil’s.
In short, this is great stuff, especially for fans of inventive guitar playing. Those dipping their toes into the Zappa experience may not want to start with this, since there are no real “songs,” per se, and no lyrics. But for Zappa fans, the release of Trance-Fusion is a good omen, a sign that the vaults may be swinging open and the rest of Frank’s completed output may be available soon. (The other two parts of the Holy Trilogy, by the way, are Dance Me This, a synth-orchestra album, and The Rage and the Fury, a collection of Edgard Varese pieces that Zappa conducted.)
But I’m not reviewing Zappa this week, I’m reviewing this:
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The music biz is, at its best, completely random. The record companies may like cookie-cutter acts with similar sounds and images, but the best stuff, to me, always seems to have sprung from the earth fully grown, the product of a weird mixture of cross-pollenated seeds and freak weather patterns that created some oddly deformed, yet entirely wonderful thing.
Nellie McKay is such a beast. Men in suits could not have dreamed up McKay in a million years, nor would they want to. Imagine someone with the piano skills of Diana Krall, the voice of Doris Day, and the artistic temperament of Johnny Rotten, back when he was punk. Now imagine that girl grew up listening to ‘80s pop and Eminem, in equal doses with jazz balladry and Patsy Cline. And now imagine that she became a whiz kid in the studio, a record maker that recognizes no boundaries, takes no orders and produces her own stuff.
That description still won’t prepare you for what McKay actually sounds like. Her 2004 debut album, Get Away From Me, leapt gleefully from show tunes to piano-pounding pop to profanity-laced rap and back again, its 18 tracks spread over two discs like a traditional vinyl double album. It was quite unlike anything else on the stands at the time, and it still is – irreverent, obnoxious, arrogant and strangely brilliant.
The same could be said of her real-life antics, which earned her the hard-to-shake label of “difficult artist.” Her contentious relationship with Sony Music reached its peak last year, when McKay delivered her second effort, Pretty Little Head. She envisioned another double-disc affair, this one 23 songs and 65 minutes, but the label wouldn’t hear of it, and against her will, they edited it down to 16 songs and 48 minutes. This pissed McKay off, and depending on who you ask, she was either dropped from the label or left of her own accord. And she took Pretty Little Head with her.
It’s a Ryan Adams-style rock star story the likes of which some artists would kill for, but it naturally leads to an important question – is the album itself worth all the fuss? Pretty Little Head was finally released last week in its full two-disc form, on McKay’s own Hungry Mouse label, and dolled up in a fab little package, likely a nicer presentation than Sony would have given it. Everything is the way McKay wanted it in the first place, so it’s a perfect opportunity to see if the full Pretty Little Head was worth sticking up for.
To start off, Head is another remarkably odd album. McKay has largely abandoned the more jazzy and Broadway-leaning material of Get Away From Me in favor of quirky piano-pop, but she once again leapfrogs genres and sounds as if she’s compiling a mixtape. The record is more sedate and, dare I say it, mature than her debut, but it still includes a sweet gay marriage anthem (“Cupcake”) that name-checks Gertrude Stein, a rant against animal cruelty (“Columbia is Bleeding”), and a rap about her mother (“Mama & Me”) that ends with her screaming for a suicide pill.
It also includes lovely ballads like “There You Are in Me” and “Long and Lazy River,” and surprisingly effective duets with both Cyndi Lauper (“Beecharmer”) and k.d. lang (“We Had It Right”). As with her debut, these songs are all over the place, and never quite cohere into a solid album, but each track has something to recommend it, and by the time it’s over, Pretty Little Head has delivered a fairly comprehensive picture of Nellie McKay’s wonderfully warped mind.
For those who have been following the saga, special attention will no doubt be paid to the seven songs that Sony cut from their version of the album, the numbers McKay demanded they include. By themselves, they don’t seem all that worth going to court over. Four of the seven are less than two minutes long, and most of them are silly little ditties. “Yodel,” for example, is a brief piece based on (you guessed it) a yodeled chorus, and “Pounce” is 56 seconds of McKay imitating a cat. The best of them, the small but striking “Swept Away” and the sung-in-French “Lali est Paresseux,” could be b-sides next to some of the finer material here.
But that’s not the point. Those seven tunes add so much character to this album that McKay would argue (and I would agree) that cutting them saps Head’s personality. Cutting these songs is like telling McKay to behave herself and act lady-like in public. Sony’s version is a serviceable collection of quirky pop songs, while McKay’s is a more complete picture of what she offers. The album would survive without the not-so-magnificent seven, but it wouldn’t be as sprawling, as strange, or as much fun.
Also, Sony’s version ended with “Tipperary,” a cute little tune, whereas McKay’s ends with “Old Enough,” a brief yet heartbreaking statement of peace that provides a much more satisfying conclusion. “Never thought I’d live to be old enough, to be old enough to feel like this,” she sings, and you may need to remind yourself that she’s barely in her 20s. In fact, this whole remarkable album sounds like the work of someone much older, with many more productions under her belt.
So few artists develop such a complete self-concept over their whole careers, never mind by album number two, which makes McKay a rare breed. Any record that gives a fully rounded picture of such a magnificently weird and dazzlingly talented human being is worth fighting for. I can’t say that Pretty Little Head is a surprise – it’s just as good as McKay’s debut, and if she can keep standing up for her own delightful perspective on life and music, then she’s bound for a rewarding career, and we’re in for a fun ride.
Next week, probably Joanna Newsom, among other new records.
See you in line Tuesday morning.