Topics | Dangerous Minds (2024)

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Over the course of the past year I stopped buying recently produced vinyl, or at least most of it. A lot of vinyl these days is sourced from digital files. Some records are made right from CDs. Who would want that? Unless there is a promise of “mastered from the original analog tapes in an all analog environment” then you can count me out. Digital anything anywhere in the mastering chain defeats the purpose of records in 2020.Analog—or even more pointedly, avoiding any sort of digital contamination—is the entire point.

For a long time—decades—I thought digital was superior to vinyl. For several years I worked in a high end video post production house and there is a massive difference between analog video and digital video. So obvious as not to require any further discussion. The same seemed to be true of digital music, plus CDs had no crackles, pops or dust. I didn’t have a good stereo in the first place, so naturally CDs sounded better on my modest system. I sold off 98% of my home-invading record collection in the late 90s. Eventually I got into audiophile formats like SACDs, high resolution 24-bit files from HDTracks and 5.1 surround mixes on DVD and Blu-ray.

Cut to twenty years later and after I was gifted with a ridiculously beautiful turntable in 2016 (thank you kindly Alex Rosson!) I morphed very quickly from Digital Dan to Analog Andy. I immediately set about re-purchasing the creme of my former collection and more. Much, much more. (The night of the day that the turntable unexpectedly arrived on our porch, I spent so much money on Discogs that I realized I was going to be in big trouble when my wife—then sleeping beside me—got wind of it the next day, so I decided to spend twice as much to make my inevitable punishment worth it.)

Finally having a really good turntable totally changed my listening habits and I gained a great deal of sophistication as a listener that—unbeknownst to me, of course—I’d been sorely lacking. First, I find that I listen to vinyl for far, far longer than I ever listen to digital music. I will put on album after album after album late into the night. I seldom do that with CDs or streaming. I also listen to analog music a lot louder than I listen to digital music. In retrospect, I think that I’m fairly susceptible to “listener fatigue” with CDs. Albums sound better to my ears. CDs and streaming often have severely squashed range so they sound passable everywhere—in earbuds, in cars, on cheap desktop speakers, etc.—whereas vinyl mastering employs the antithesis of this approach and is often far more dynamic (except for the vinyl mastered from aggressively compressed CDs!) and “musical” sounding.

There’s just something inherently “better” about analog audio. Our ears seem to like it more, probably because it’s reproducing music as soundwaves, not snatches of zeros and ones. So this is why, as I was saying above, I stopped buying almost all newly minted vinyl. I got burned too many times on dead quiet—but lifeless—200 gram supposedly audiophile pressings that were sourced from digital files. HOWEVER when it’s done properly—the mindblowing all-analog mastered Jimi Hendrix reissues come readily to mind—then I’m all over it. Releases like that are few and far between, but easy to spot: When a label goes to the trouble and expense of AAA mastering, they will tell you all about it on a front cover sticker. I think it should be mandatory when possible. Which brings me to my intended topic, the recent-ish slate of Frank Zappa vinyl from the Zappa Family Trust via UMe.

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Oh man, you wanna talk about good-sounding vinyl? These reissues—of albums that in some cases have been unavailable on vinyl for the past 40+ years—are every bit as good as the Hendrix wax (a high standard indeed). Zappa has a well-deserved reputation as a studio wizard and these releases were mastered at Bernie Grundman’s. I knew they were gonna sound good. I just didn’t know they were gonna sound this good. They might even sound better than the original releases. I felt like I was listening to something much closer to the master tapes than the CD versions I’ve known for so long. Pressed at Pallas in Germany, they are pitch black quiet. The jackets are top quality.

I had no idea until recently that these albums were done with this level of quality control. I assumed—incorrectly—that they were sourced from the 2012 Zappa CD remasters and paid no mind until I was sent a review copy of Orchestral Favorites. It was a real knockout sonically and I soon picked up Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Absolutely Free at the record store. The next day I returned and bought Chunga’s Revenge and Burnt Weeny Sandwich.

Here’s my guide to the Zappa vinyl wot I have heard so far, more or less in the order that I first played them in:

With the advent of compact discs, Frank Zappa set about mastering his catalog digitally in the 1980s. Despite the fact that his hearing was no doubt pretty shot from years of touring, and the liberal amounts of digital reverb he added, the 80s Zappa CDs actually didn’t sound too terrible. For the most part. The master tapes for We’re Only In It For The Money and Cruising with Ruben & The Jets had sustained irreparable damage so Zappa enlisted drummer Chad Wackerman and bassist Arthur Barrow to help him recreate the damaged tracks. This didn’t sound right to anyone who grew up with these albums. Nobody liked it. And again with the digital reverb all over everything.

When the newly remastered Zappa Family Trust versions came out on CD in 2012 they righted several wrongs in the catalog. From the world-renowned audio engineering talent they hired, to the packaging, the 2012 CDs were uniformly excellent and they tended to sound much better than Frank’s own versions (some were his versions). The ZFT vinyl is done to a similarly high standard and everything—save for Freak Out!, WOIIFTM, CWR&TJ, and Uncle Meat—is sourced from the original two-track analog master tapes.

Setting those four aside for a moment, Absolutely Free is the earliest analog-sourced album and it sounds fantastic for something that was probably recorded in a four-track studio. There is a third side of extra cuts including both sides of the “Big Leg Emma”/“Why Dontcha Do Me Right?”single and some zany Mothers of Invention radio spots. The fourth side has no music but has been laser-etched with Frank’s face. The libretto that originally came with the album has been faithfully reproduced. I’m not sure this is an album a Zappa neophyte should start with—the satirical themes are more than a bit dated—but I’ve always loved this one and I’m glad I own it even if it’s not exactly something I would pull out and play that often. It sounds GOOD, though. Crazy good, I thought.

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Next up was the album that many would recommend to someone new to Zappa, 1969’s Hot Rats. One of the first albums to feature A LOT of multitrack overdubs, Hot Rats in this late 2019 pink vinyl incarnation is nothing short of magnificent in the audiophile department. It’s a wow from start to finish and something begging to be played on a good hifi. But here’s where I will point out a distinction between this album and other Frank Zappa records: Hot Rats was recorded entirely in the studio. Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, like Uncle Meat before them, are comprised of a mix of state-of-the-art studio tracks and live recordings.As everyone knows, Zappa was a studio wizard, but how much control could he realistically have had over his live stuff considering he was onstage himself? Even if he was relying on skilled audio technicians—and he was—live recordings have a certain sound about them. I won’t say it’s jarring when a carefully produced studio number is followed by a live track—and with Zappa this might happen in a single song as he would frequently edit things that way—but the studio created material just sparkles pressed in the grooves of such high quality black plastic. “Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula,” for instance, knocked my socks off after listening to the CD version for so many years. “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” has never sounded better.

Chunga’s Revenge is what I picked up next and it’s also a mixture of live and studio. I’ve never felt like this was a particularly strong album, but it ends with “Sharleena,” which is one of my all time favorite Zappa songs—and holy f*ck does it sound great here—so I had to have this one. Your mileage may vary on Chunga’s Revenge, but for me it was worth buying for just that one song.

And now I want to backtrack a minute because the next analog Zappa that I heard was a near mint copy of Uncle Meat that I bought from a Russian Discogs dealer. The master tape for that album is no more, so the current ZFT vinyl is sourced from a digital transfer made in the 1980s. As Uncle Meat is easily my favorite Zappa album, the ZFT analog wax I’d heard thus far had convinced me (because it was so good) that I needed to hear the original pressing. It took forever to get here, but the wait was worth it. The studio material on Uncle Meat sounds positively mind-blowing. If you’re used to hearing the CD version läthered with digital reverb, it’s like it was wiped down with Windex. I played Uncle Meat to death when I was a kid and this is the way I remember it sounding. Like all Zappa recordings, the drums sound amazing. My entire body was grinning with pleasure on a molecular level as I played it and I resolved to track down archival copies of Freak Out!, We’re Only In It For the Money and Cruising with Ruben & the Jets. [I should note here that I have not heard the ZFT/UMe release of Uncle Meat. I’ve read several reviews that say it sounds fantastic and the golden ears of Michael Fremer rate the new version as superior to the 1969 LP, but I had to have an original.]

As luck would have it, I came across a pristine copy of Cruising with Ruben & The Jets just a few days later at a local record store for a fraction of what I’d have been willing to pay for it on Discogs. This album—which many people consider a lesser Zappa album, IT’S NOT—sounded as good as Uncle Meat. In fact being fully a studio creation, it sounded even better. I obsessed over how brilliantly layered the voices were. The Mothers’ mutant doo wop was positively holographic as heard in the original pressing. I re-doubled my resolve to grab an original Freak Out! and WOIIFTM, but there was still plenty of classic analog-sourced Zappa vinyl reissues that I had not heard. Fab Jason Reynolds at UMe filled in some of the gaps with a box o’ records that included the mono Lumpy Gravy Primordial,Finer Moments,One Size Fits All,andApostrophe.

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Lumpy Gravy Primordial, mastered at 45rpm, is not a long album, but it’s aninteresting orchestral piece—essential for any Zappa freak to own—and it sounds fantastic. What you get here is the early, withdrawn version of Lumpy Gravy before the surreal conversations were added. Finer Moments is a two record set of studio and live odds-n-sods and there is the same disparity in sound quality as on some of the earlier collections. It’s actually something Zappa himself prepared for release but never did. Finer Moments has got some very good stuff on it—some released elsewhere—but it’s a set more for completists than casual fans or curious new listeners.

Which brings me to the two final analog Zappa albums that I played during my several day Zappa vinyl listening marathon. By the mid-70s the sound quality on Zappa’s albums took a great leap forward as studio equipment caught up to what he wanted to do with it and he had more money to put into the creation of his music. Both Apostrophe and One Size Fits All represent still-to-this-day next-level audiophile recording and mixing techniques and the ZFT wax capture all of those albums’ cartoony underground comix nuances. Regardless of what one thinks about lyrics describing the necessity of not eating yellow snow or being blinded (temporarily) by the husky wee wee (I mean the doggie wee wee)—and I’m not going to stick up for it—the astonishing virtuosityand dexterity of the band (the so-called “Roxy group” and the final cast of musicians to be called the Mothers of Invention) is something unique to behold. Has there ever been another band this tightly rehearsed in all of the rock era?

In summation, I haven’t heard all of the ZFT vinyl yet, but I’m sure that will happen in short order. And I’ll still be looking for original pressings of Freak Out! and WOIIFTM. Does it sound like I’m recommending all of it? I suppose it does. This is top quality, best-in-class heritage rock vinyl done up to the highest degree. If that kind of thing is important to you, do look into the Zappa vinyl. You won’t be sorry.

“King Kong” with the original Mothers of Invention on the BBC’s ‘Colour Me Pop’ TV show in 1968.

        Dangerous Minds (2024)
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