Quickie: Frank Zappa – Absolutely Free (1967)
Amusingly, a song named “Absolutely Free” would appear on the next Mothers album, but that’s another story.
This one occupies an interesting niche between slightly hippified pop rock and the prog scene that would explode within the next few years. Frankly (pun intended?), Zappa was experimenting with rock/jazz/classical/musique concrete fusion at levels of ambition seldom matched at the time. Most of the songs here probably started out as poppy material, but there’s a lot of intentionally warped playing here – on the very first track, “Plastic People”, jangling, intentionally dissonant chords (mocking “Louie Louie”) and falsetto vocals enter the song, and someone informs us that a prune isn’t a vegetable – this will be “important” later.
It’s the beginning of the “Absolutely Free” suite, which for some reason is only half the album. It’s somewhat more ambitious than the second half (The “Mothers of Invention” American Pageant, which is more political, if just as surreal), and for some reason, the two major “suites” are chopped up into multiple tracks – I’m guessing this has something to do with an odd fact of LP royalties at the time- they were based on the number of tracks, as opposed to the length of the album. If you were someone like King Crimson, you made a lot of imaginary distinctions between sections of your songs and got more record royalties. Anyways, unless you enjoy an improvisatory frenzy like the one in “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin”, I think you’ll find “The Duke of Prunes” to be the peak of this half – I mean with lyrics like this…
I hardly recognize you, darling…
Oh, I’ll never forget you, darling …
Oh I suppose I will forget you eventually.
In fact, I’ve already forgotten you.
What is your name? Nice to see you again.
How could you go wrong with that? It’s buried in the cacophonous middle section of the song, but still.
Following this and “Call any Vegetable” are two parodical pop songs – more in the vein of Freak Out! than anything – Zappa described them once as “dumb music for dumb people”. Then it’s off to the second section, which as previously stated is more conceptually unified, and slightly “catchier” and more obvious. On songs like “Uncle Bernie’s Farm”, the vocalists can’t stop themselves from giggling occasionally. Outside the zany lyrics, this one’d be pretty typical were it not for the large amounts of harmonies and interpolated material in the middle. Then there’s “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”, which is overstuffed with musical ideas – the typical explanation is that it’s a 7-minute mini-musical, and it’s probably the most ambitious thing on here, with many sections of string quartets, lots of vocalists, and so forth. It’s bombastic as usual, and is (due to its scope) probably the best song on here. The entire thing is bookended by “America Drinks” – the first intentionally sloppy with a random bombastic section at the end, and the second taking place in an increasingly rowdy bar.
Due to the complex compositions balanced with the anarchic noise, this one is my personal favorite of Zappa’s earliest work with the Mothers. Culturally, it’s more of a jab at middle America than the rising tide of the hippies taking control of every digit of the 1960s – they too, in turn, would be blasted with satire… after a year.