Does Fun Belong in Music? Frank Zappa – Finer Moments
Finer Moments is a new release from the seemingly bottomless vaults of Frank Zappa’s music. It’s been very interesting watching some of the early response to this release, as available detailed information regarding the recordings included on this 2-CD compilation has been sparse. The hard-core fans are adulatory, of course, but I’ve also seen those predictable lukewarm comments to the effect that this is a release that is “only for the most serious fan.” Translation: ”I think this is crap, but hey, I understand that if you’re a serious fan of X, then you will even want X’s crap.”
If you see responses like that, do not be fooled! They come from folks who may appreciate some of Zappa’s work, but who do not really have the patience to plumb the sort of aggressively transgressive creativity that Zappa represented. The recordings on Finer Moments, mostly (but not all) recorded live, are from the years of the original Mothers of Invention, between 1967 and 1972. As with most of the best of Zappa’s output, they dance deftly along a fine line between composed and improvised. They display very effectively, to my ear, the way in which Zappa flourished as a composer (which was primarily the way he understood himself) and as a serious artist (with a sense of humor rivaling that of Erik Satie) within the (in those days) strange and evolving framework of the popular “rock band.”
Indeed, though there are no “funny songs” (read: off-color and/or politically incorrect ditties) here, my most profound impression on listening is that this music is “in your face” in simultaneously wholly serious and wholly fun ways. Listeners who love Frank’s orchestral and chamber works, and his work with synclavier, will be best prepared for what stirs in these early recordings. There is an ethos of music-making here which insists upon the compatibility of an aesthetic gravity with a philosophical levity. The enthusiastic involvement of the early members of the Mothers ensures that what Zappa called “the eyebrows” (what he noted was missing when he used the synclavier rather than live musicians) is amply manifested.
I’ve seen Zappa categorized as “Avant-Prog,” and whoever might want to argue in favor of that classification will find plenty of support on Finer Moments. But I’m inclined to say that what it shares with all of the best so-called “prog” is its humor-laced and fun-filled but rigorous refusal of categorization. Even if you don’t consider yourself a Zappa fan — perhaps especially if you don’t — give this a listen and see what you think.