This week, I got to see the current incarnation of Zappa Plays Zappa take a dingy stage in Joliet, Illinois, and blow my fragile little mind.
I caught the inaugural tour in 2006, at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, and it remains one of the finest shows I’ve ever experienced. The current band is leaner – six players instead of eight, and none of the Zappa alumni who joined that first worldwide jaunt. (They included Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio and Napoleon Murphy Brock. Yeah, it was a great show.) In many ways, though, this latest tour is closer to Dweezil Zappa’s original vision – it’s all about the music, not the players. Dweezil himself is the most well-known musician on stage, and no one showboats – it’s all about Frank Zappa’s phenomenal compositions.
This time out, Dweezil and company have decided to play all of 1974’s Roxy and Elsewhere, to commemorate its 40th anniversary. Roxy was a live album, in as much as any Zappa album was truly live, but it was almost entirely new material. And what material – some of Frank’s most difficult and melodic songs are here, including the “Village of the Sun/Echidna’s Arf/Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing” suite, the amazing “Cheepnis” and the damn-near-impossible “Be-Bop Tango.” And after playing all of that, the band jammed for another 90 minutes, pulling out hidden gems like “Teen-Age Prostitute” and the never-played “I Come From Nowhere,” as well as chestnuts like “Cosmik Debris.”
My favorite moment, however, came with the first encore – a haunting, glorious rendition of “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” one of Zappa’s finest excursions on the guitar. Dweezil has fundamentally rewritten his own style for the ZPZ project, taking on many aspects of his father’s wildly unorthodox guitar playing. But “Watermelon” is perhaps Frank’s most straightforwardly beautiful piece, and Dweezil played the hell out of it. It was magical.
And in that moment, the true purpose of the Zappa Plays Zappa shows stood out – they’re a love letter from a son to his departed father. At the center of all these songs about penguins in bondage and terrible sci-fi movies and flim-flam gurus beats a loving heart. These songs are Frank Zappa’s legacy, and ZPZ is Dweezil’s celebration of it. For me, hearing music this difficult played this well is a treat. For Dweezil, it’s a heartfelt duty, making sure new generations can hear this music played properly and lovingly. It’s a living tribute, and a wonderful one.
And it made me think of Lost in the Trees.
Two years ago, that band released their second album, A Church That Fits Our Needs. It was written in the wake of the suicide of frontman Ari Picker’s mother, on the day of Picker’s wedding. It’s a lush, haunting work, full of love and pain – you could hear Picker working through this most impossible of heartaches before your ears. And while it’s a whirlwind of confusion and bewilderment, asking questions with no answers, it’s also a loving monument to a troubled yet beautiful woman. It’s a singular, astonishing work, a tidal wave of grief in 45 perfectly rendered minutes.
A Church That Fits Our Needs is a sterling example of forging art from pain, and particularly the pain of losing a parent. It was an important album for Picker to make, and I am beyond grateful that he made it – it ascended to the top of my 2012 list, and remains one of the most moving records I’ve ever heard. In some ways, though, it’s too perfect. It’s a closed system, an endless loop of mourning, and it offers no way forward for Picker and his band.
On some level, he must have realized that, because the third Lost in the Trees album, Past Life, takes several steps toward sustainability. The ghost of his mother still haunts this record, but that’s all she is here – a ghost, a memory, a beautiful and hazy piece of the past that is slowly, ever slowly letting go. And Picker is moving on. This album finds him stripping Lost in the Trees back to a five-piece, instead of the eight-piece that made the first two, and writing simpler, less ornate pieces to accompany the change.
In many ways, they sound like a band here for the first time. Opener “Excos” has ties to the old sound, all pianos, strings and horns, but then the title track glides in on a programmed drum beat and a chiming electric guitar and, well, little else. Picker’s high, distinctive voice anchors this new sound to the past, but otherwise, it’s a completely new Lost in the Trees. And that ethos continues throughout this record – songs are short and relatively simple, arrangements are still lovely but more minimal, and the music never reaches for the same otherworldly heights that Church ascended. It’s less cathartic, more grounded.
I think that’s an important step for Picker and his band, and Past Life is a necessary record for them to have made. It’s almost unfair to relate it to the prior efforts – they stand as monuments to a time, a place, a feeling, where this one has more modest aims. It’s still very good, even if it isn’t trying to move you in the same ways. It does achieve its own kind of transcendence – witness “Lady in White,” a song literally about being haunted. Its delicate piano melody and Picker’s spectral voice lend it a ghostly quality, which is quite appropriate: “Always, your eyes always are repeating white light, always, you always meet me in the next life…”
Many of these songs, like “Daunting Friend” and the bare-bones “Rites,” feel like Picker’s version of pop, built around small, repetitive riffs and melodies. But while Past Life may seem less immediately impressive, it is still achingly beautiful. Listen to “Glass Harp,” built on a feather-light ripple of pianos. “It’s not your fault, be still in my arms, it’s not your fault,” Picker sings, as the subtle horns provide airy accents. “The earth has overgrown, the sea, it will part, it’s not your fault…”
Once again, Picker ends an album with a bit of an anticlimax. “Upstairs” is a short, barely-there piece played on electric guitar and little else. But emotionally, it’s the right conclusion. “And where will I go now, when my world is cold and broken,” Picker asks, before pleading, “Don’t let me fall apart.”
Past Life is about answering the first, and ensuring the second. It’s about providing his band a foundation to build upon, and himself a way past the crushing death of his mother. She’s still here, around the edges of this album, but for the first time, you can see how the band can move past her and live on. While it’s not nearly the achievement Church was, it’s in many ways more important, more vital. It accomplishes something remarkable – it remains a tribute, while moving forward, slowly and surely.
* * * * *
While we’re on the subject of tributes to departed parents, let’s talk about Jonatha Brooke.
For a singer and songwriter of her caliber, Brooke has spent far too long on the fringes. From her days in The Story to her expansive solo career, she’s never made a bad record. She writes literate, mature folk-pop that never disappoints melodically, and sings it with grace. Most recently, she turned in the best of the slew of Woody Guthrie projects, in which she wrote new music to some of Guthrie’s unused lyrics. Hers was called The Works, and it was remarkable.
That was six years ago. In the years since, Brooke has been taking care of her mother, who suffered from cancer and Alzheimer’s. She kept her company and comfortable in the final years of her life, and while doing so, she wrote a series of songs about the experience. And now she’s assembled those songs into a new album and a one-woman play, called My Mother Has 4 Noses. Stripped of context, this title is terrible, but when you know where it comes from – Brooke’s mother was a Christian Scientist, and refused treatment for the cancer that spread across her face, reshaping her nose as it ate away at her visage – it takes on a new dimension.
I haven’t seen the play, though it’s drawing raves. But I have heard the album, and it’s one of Brooke’s very best, a deeply personal yet fully accessible set of tremendous pop songs. Brooke provides short notes with each tune, but you won’t need them. The songs make their intentions plain. And mostly, they’re about remembering the joys, living through the pain, and pleading for more time.
The album is bookended by “Are You Getting This Down,” in which her mother calls her by her nickname “Boolie” and encourages her to write the very play the song opens. “Are you getting this down, these dark and crazy scenes, are you getting this down, the laughter in between…” It’s a perfect note to start on, as Brooke weaves a story of watching her mother drift further from her, and then, in 2010, pulling her closer, moving her into Brooke’s New York apartment. “What Do I Know” is the most clever and haunting use of that phrase I’ve heard, exploring what it means to lose one’s memory, and “What Was I Thinking” relates the move to New York with dark humor.
There is anger in “My Misery,” but pure longing in “How Far You’d Go for Love.” The album gets more honest and painful as it goes, and I don’t think Brooke has written a more achingly beautiful song than “Time,” her prayer for just a few more days with her mother. “Please don’t come today, tomorrow’s not good either, ‘cause I know it will mean forever,” she sings, over a rolling percussion line and a deep and subtle string section. By the time she gets to a song her mother wrote, fittingly called “Mom’s Song,” it’s almost too much. Yet there is hope – Brooke sings of starting again in “Scars,” and lives out her mother’s legacy of love in “Superhero.” “Could it be you who rescued me,” she sings. “Surely nothing up your sleeve but love…”
Brooke has always been terrific, but this album is something special. It hurts like no other record she’s made, and likewise rings out with more joy and hope than anything else she’s done. I wish she’d picked a different title, since most people will probably dismiss it (and the amateurish cover) without really listening. But you should really listen to this. I’ve been a Jonatha Brooke fan for almost 20 years, and with My Mother Has 4 Noses, she’s moved me in ways she never has. It’s a lovely remembrance, and a wonderful piece of work. Her mother would be proud.
See you in line Tuesday morning.