Sweltering Hot Rats
Frank Zappa- Willie the Pimp and The Gumbo Variations
From: Hot Rats [Bizarre Records, 1969]
With the sweltering heat wave coming through the Pacific Northwest region as of late, temperatures are set to average between 95-100 over the next several days in Portland. With that said, I plan on writing this post as quickly as possible while not sacrificing the quality of the review.
I have never been the biggest Frank Zappa fan, mostly because the material I had heard up to that point was of the hokey parody variety, and it didn't sit quite right with my tastes at the time. Over the past couple years, I've grown an appreciation for the skilled musicianship and innovative ideas contained in much of Zappa's recording output from '66 to'72, especially Chunga's Revenge and Freak Out. Considering this, it's odd that I had yet to give Hot Rats, one of the most critically acclaimed records in Zappa's discography, a true listen until this past week.
Obviously I knew that I couldn't go wrong with "Willie the Pimp," the epic, head-spinning Captain Beefheart/Zappa collaboration, but the rest of the album was uncharted territory. The opening track, "Peaches in Regalia," immediately peaked my curiosity with its orchestral flourishes and perfectly placed horns. It sounded like a slightly off-kilter version of theme music from a classic 70's TV show with a strong jazz influence. But nothing could prepare me for the aforementioned deep cut "Willie the Pimp". It's the only non-instrumental song on the entire album, with Captain Beefheart's guest appearance, but the vocal section of the song only takes up a small section of the song. Zappa's insanely majestic guitar solo dominates the track, with blistering fretboard runs that rival some of the best to ever sling an axe. The next track, "Son of Mr. Green Genes," starts out slow and easy only to erupt into another of Zappa's fiery solos within the next minute-and-a-half. Rather than being a song consisting a long guitar solo, this one mixes in horns and orchestral bits to even out the sound a bit. Make no mistake though, this track is still cooking with grease!
I like the way "Little Umbrellas" starts with a cool little bass and piano groove, but as the track goes on it loses steam. "The Gumbo Variations" really flexes its jazz muscle well with some complex, agile saxophone solos that are the focal point of the track. Let's not forget the phenomenal rhythm section that keeps the proceedings moving along nicely along with the violin and sax solos for the duration of the track. My favorite part of this track is at the 12:20 mark of the song when the drummer starts playing out of his mind right as Zappa's electrifying guitar solo begins. There's even a great drum and bass break at the end of the song that goes on for close to thirty seconds to pull in the hip-hop crowd. As far as I'm concerned, it would have made sense to end the record on this high note, but they chose to close it with another slow number akin to "Peaches En Regalia." All in all, I'm glad that I was finally introduced to the greatness of Hot Rats.