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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Frank Zappa

Absolutely Free

Review by Julie Knispel

Released nearly 1 year to the day after Freak Out!, Absolutely Free was the second release by the Mothers of Invention. Led by Frank Zappa, the Mothers of Invention began moving beyond the nascent avant garde elements of their previous work to fully embrace a wider range of classical and jazz elements in their psychedelic lambastings of the society around them.

While in many ways Absolutely Free is a far more fully realized effort than Freak Out!, it is somewhat let down by the band’s occasional inability to fully achieve what Zappa might have been striving toward. Already the listener can see the distinct pieces of what would make up the majority Zappa’s later catalogue coming together, as the band will be in the midst of an intense and complex musical interlude, only to have the mood and tension broken by overwrought, theatrical lyrics and heavy breathing. Individually the group members show a major jump in musical skill, easily able to handle the more complex material thrown at them on this release. Ultimately Absolutely Free might well be a victim of its own development from the material on Freak Out!; it is neither as cynical as later material nor as innocent as the tracks on the previous album. The release is at the same time an important stepping stone in Zappa’s career and an uneasy listen as elements and styles continue to move toward fuller integration.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Plastic People
One characteristic seen time and time again in Frank Zappa’s material is his willingness to pillory his fan base for any reason whatsoever. Considering that most bands at the time were embracing the “cosmic brotherhood” of psychedelia, Zappa’s willingness to flip the proverbial bird at his audience via a song like “Plastic People” speaks of an arrogance and honesty that must be worthy of notice and mention. It is a theme Zappa would return to time and time again, including much of We’re Only In It For The Money, songs like “We’re Turning Again,” and much more.
The Duke of Prunes
This track opens with gently restrained, clean guitar, picking out chords as overwrought vocals regale the listener with a psychedelic love story, replete with surrealistic imagery. It’s odd to hear a Zappa love song, and this is a weird Zappa love song, which kind of fits together, when one thinks about it. Love is not a theme Zappa returned to very often, seeing it as less an emotional response and more the result of chemical reaction.
Amnesia Vivace
“Amnesia Vivace” arises from the mellow lounge jazz of “Duke of Prunes” to add in caterwauling vocals, keening horns, and a rapidly shifting rhythmic base.
The Duke Regains His Chops
The third movement of Zappa’s “Duke Suite,” this composition features a reemergence of the original themes, played at a much quicker pace and in more of a rock idiom. Elements of Zappa’s background in R&B are seen in the song’s climax, which builds in a very heavily Motown influenced cadence.
Call Any Vegetable
Almost punk in a way, “Call Any Vegetable” rocks out at a breakneck pace. The main melodic instrumental themes are eminently hummable and hook laden, while the lead vocals (either Ray Collins or Roy Estrada) really work at selling the lyrics. Spoken word interludes and severe shifts in musical tone and seriousness are the hallmarks of this piece.
Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin
Interpolating themes from Gustav Holst’s “Planets” suite, this seven minute instrumental shows the early Mothers in full on jazz fusion mode. A song like this would have fit in very well on an album like Hot Rats, and shows just how far the band had advanced musically in just over a year. The composition whips along, driven by Jimmy Carl Black’s relentless drumming, with Bunk Gardner’s woodwinds adding a great organic touch to the piece.
Soft-Sell Conclusion
Where the multi-part “Duke of Prunes” semi-suite had the reemergence of the piece’s musical themes played at a much quicker pace, the final movement of “Call Any Vegetable” sees the Mothers drop the pace down to a near crawl. Vocals are a bit more dramatic and theatrical, and in some ways “Soft-Sell Conclusion” ends up taking the force out of the monumental instrumental that precedes it on the album.
Big Leg Emma
This was the A-side of a single released in advance of the Absolutely Free album. On the CD re-release, Zappa placed the single between the two sides of the album, offering a brief interlude between the 11-minute “Vegetable” suite and the side long oratorio that filled side two of the album. “Big Leg Emma” is ultimately a bit of fluff, an entertaining enough song but in the final reckoning it is easy to see why it did not make the cut for final album release.
Why Don'tcha Do Me Right?
The B-side to the above-mentioned “Big Leg Emma,” this is another track that might be considered a bit of a throwaway. Relatively simple (though not a throwaway because of its simplicity), it simply does not have the musical or lyrical density or weight to merit more than the occasional listen.
America Drinks
The mix of ragged jazz beat on hi hat and slightly out of time bass is the perfect backing for the off-kilter lyrics and vocals that open side two of Absolutely Free, subtitled “The MOI American Pageant.” Lest one think the band is falling apart, the song soon shifts to a driving rock track with electric piano and harpsichord from Don Preston.
Status Back Baby
The second track on side two offers Zappa and the Mothers yet another opportunity to launch a broadside against the prep/vanilla/plastic society around them, via a pastiche of 1960’s high school life. While easily lampooning the people who would be listening to his records, “Status Back Baby” does make some insightful observations of what high school life was like, with status and notoriety earned and taken away for the slightest of things.
Uncle Bernie's Farm
Shifting his attention from high school, Zappa turns his lyrical pen on the nation at large, lamenting a country that glorifies violence and death and bloodshed at the cost of all else. This is another theme Zappa would return to over time, albeit not in such overt, almost innocent terms.
Son of Suzy Creamcheese
A brief bit of rock and roll freak out, this track is a bit of conceptual continuity tying this album to Freak Out! Featuring the return of that album’s titular protagonist, “Son of Suzy Creamcheese” is a bit of a shout out to a fairly wide range of Los Angeles freak culture elements, including Vito (“king” of the freaks), Canter’s (a deli where the LA police would arrest the counterculture), and more.
Brown Shoes Don't Make It
This is the other “serious” piece on Absolutely Free, a 7-plus minute rumination about the people who run the governments. It’s a song about hypocrisy, with the subjects being people outwardly living the WASP lifestyle, clean cut, wearing suits and brown shoes (the epitome of clean cut, conservative, “normal” society) while inwardly as corrupted and corroded as the people they are trying to rein in. The composition shifts through a plethora of moods and tones, including music hall sing along, avant garde classical, and straight up rock and roll. It is the most fully realized piece on the album, and shows off everything the early Mothers were capable of in one easy to digest segment.
America Drinks & Goes Home
The conclusion of the “MOI American Pageant,” as the second side of this album was labeled, “America Drinks and Goes Home” opens with some heavy musical complexity. Layers of orchestration and intensity build before pulling back to a small band in a club, the musique concrete sounds of an apathetic audience buying drinks (with cash registers ringing) adding to the mood. The piece is conceptual continuity at its finest, referencing bits mentioned on Freak Out! as well as setting the stage for the albums to follow.
 
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