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Frank Zappa

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Definitely a Project, Hardly an Object: Frank Zappa,
The Crux of the Biscuit: An F.Z Audio Documentary Project/ Object

The liner-note author, Simon Prentis, explains that this Project/ Object originated from Joe Travers, the “Vaultmeister,” as he is known in the Zappa-archive operation, discovering an alternate early sequence of the album, Apostrophe ('), with ‘Down in de Dew’ and the track ‘Apostrophe'’ linked together, forming part of a larger entity named ‘Energy Frontier’. This two-part work apparently was to follow ‘Cosmik Debris’ and ‘Uncle Remus’ on the album's side A, quite a difference from the final Apostrophe ('), where ‘Cosmik’ ends side A and, while ‘Remus’ and ‘Apostrophe'’ are tracked together, the former comes after the latter.

Compelling, so far... But The Crux of the Biscuit starts with a version of ‘Cosmik Debris’ that Prentis notes is the same version—same mix, no less—as the album version, but with the addition of a short introduction that Zappa excised. Short, as in less than 10 seconds. Next up, an alternate mix of ‘Uncle Remus’, moreover with more than a minute of extra material, mostly (fortunately!) George Duke on the keys and placing the vocal contributions of the Ikettes, in their rare single appearance in the Zappa oeuvre, more prominent in the mix. This is labeled a “mix out-take”... that is, an alternate mix, but also with material from the same session that was ultimately cut.... Maybe? The third track—following the alternate sequence of tracks, ‘Down in de Dew’—is labeled an alternate mix (as it was eventually released on Läther in 1996), except that Prentis notes it has an extra 20 seconds. Does that not make it a mix out-take? The following ‘Apostrophe'’ is labeled a mix out-take. This seems appropriate, as it is nine minutes, considerably longer than the final album version. Another take of ‘Apostrophe'’ is confusingly given its apparent original name ‘Energy Frontier - Bridge’, though Prentis has told us that whatever the track was supposed to serve as a bridge to is unknown. If the larger proposed ‘Energy Frontier’ never came to fruition, why name this alternate take of ‘Apostrophe'’ as ‘Energy Frontier - Bridge’, especially when two further alternate takes of ‘Down in de Dew’ are titled ‘Energy Frontier’? You have to read the notes to understand that both ‘Down in de Dew’ and ‘Apostrophe'’ are being called ‘Energy Frontier’ on this release alone, leaving the hapless consumer thinking that there is more here than there really is. The complexity of the naming and description of these tracks at this point becomes a parodic realization of critiques that many miscreants make about Zappa's music generally. Furthermore, you have to read reviews to know that the drums on ‘Down in de Dew’ come from the ‘Apostrophe'’ backing tracks, as Zappa had removed the other portions to create a new piece of music (an early example of Zappa's Xenochrony compositional/recording method).

A big chunk of Crux is still to come: an example of the ‘Don't Eat the Yellow Snow’ medley, which in its varied forms includes a sampling of the first-fourth tracks of Apostrophe (') and became a popular feature of Zappa's concerts in the 1970s. It features an excellent, short-lived version of Zappa's band that, speaking of “bridges,” can be said to link the Wazoo bands that toured toward the end of 1972 and the smaller ensembles that Zappa used in the years, 1973-1976, that is, until the one-off New York concerts documented on Zappa in New York, where the number of musicians grew again. In other words, on one hand you have Sal Marquez on trumpet, multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty; on the other, bass guitarist Tom Fowler and drummer Ralph Humphrey; plus a few present during both periods: percussionist Ruth Underwood, trombonist Bruce Fowler, and Duke. In (more) other words, a band you would like to hear more of. This track, being a concert recording isolated on a record filled with studio leftovers, impels editorial/ curatorial critiques. As is always the case in the world of the Zappa archives, more live recordings exist—perhaps, simply, by this point too many had been released. While Road Tapes, Venue 2, which documents this particular band, does not include another performance of the suite, a hodgepodge of material, One Shot Deal, which has no reason for existing in the form that it does, includes the performance from the next day. Yes, the next day, at the same city, Sydney, at the same venue, the Hordern Pavilion. Several other bands have performed their own versions, easily available on disk, notably You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 1. However, as Prentice points out, the ‘Yellow Snow’ medley would remain in Zappa's sets for several years. There are surely more performances available. Why not include one to compare against this performance?

The remainders? A mix out-take of ‘Excentrifugal Forz’ “no more than a hair-breadth from the final edit.” Two out-takes (one from the basic tracks, one from the session—what are we to make of that distinction? the latter seems to be “alternate” material, the former not) of ‘Nanook Rubs It’, each less than a minute; an alternate take of the basic tracks of ‘Don't Eat the Yellow Snow’ and an alternate take of the basic tracks of ‘Cosmik Debris’ (the latter a non-vocal rendition); a Zappa interview excerpt that explains the origins of certain aspects of the Nanook/ St. Alphonzo's Breakfast story; and a few seconds of studio chatter/ ambiance. Another concert recording of the ‘Yellow Snow’ suite would certainly have been a better choice than these scraps.

We must also note another alternate version of the ‘Yellow Snow’ suite, of sorts: the seven-inch version of ‘Don't Eat the Yellow Snow’, which actually consists of portions of the album versions of ‘Don't Eat the Yellow Snow’, ‘Nanook Rubs It’, and ‘St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast’. Given that this version in the current Zappa Records official discography is grouped with a bunch of album tracks on Zappatite, a compilation that as such is worthless to those who already own the albums on which those tracks are included, why not repeat the ‘Yellow Snow’ 45 on this C.D? A better question, given commercial trends: why not release these tracks as part of a larger digital download, or as part of a streaming-service subscription?

–Justin J Kaw, February 2020