Favored Nations Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: Matthew Turk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/10/2001
My first reaction, upon putting this disc in the player, was "Dweezil Zappa hasn't released an album since 1996 and it only has 39 minutes of music on it?!" Sure, he did that show with Ahmet on USA, and he's been showing up randomly to play with Lisa Loeb, but from such a seemingly endless font of Guitar Prowess at the Dweez, I expected more.
Automatic certainly starts off in the right direction. "Fwakstension" is his first step away from the stereotypical "Dweezil's rippin' off Eddie Van Halen again" style. It dips in and out of what I call the Rotten Tooth tone quality, and messes with some of his dad's style, and plays with the tapping & zipping around style he used to be so fond of, but somehow it melds them all together and creates something entirely original. No longer do we have Dweezil the derivative Guitar Wanker - we have Dweezil who can create Melody and Rhythm and Style.
"Automatic" is another experimentation with style and tone. The melody is distinct and musically intriguing, and Zappa manages to pull off just about everything he tries. The beginning of my disappointment began to creep in when the covers started. "Hawaii Five-O" is good - totally orchestrated for guitar - but more of a novelty than something I want to hear. The Grinch song, which was supposed to be in the Ron Howard flick, is amazingly good, despite somewhat weak source material. (Ok, ok, it's good source material!) He manages to make it his own without resorting to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes style mangling of the original intent. Ahmet Zappa covers vocals ably on it, the only part of the entire CD with a true vocal part, although it is still a cover tune on a CD that is one-third cover tunes.
"Therapy" is difficult to describe. My knowledge of guitar is somewhat limited, but I can tell that this piece features loads of guitars on top of each other. It succeeds, although it seems a bit directionless at times (which may very well part of its charm.) The tone sounds a lot like one that Frank Zappa used to cull out of his guitar on occasion, although Dweezil is certainly not mimicking his father at this point. The disconnected, disembodied notes forced out of a distorted electric guitar work well, jarring the listener back and forth.
"12 String Thing" and "Secret Hedges" continue the polished-solo trend."12 String Thing" has a hook that sounds like a leftover from "Therapy," but it's underneath weird sound effects and some very intriguing playing. The melody is a bit more melancholy, more thoughtful, than the other tunes on this album, and shows that Dweezil's emotive side is certainly out in full force. It does sound like it ends before it hits its mark, but that works with the context.
"Secret Hedges" plays with the lower tones of an acoustic guitar. The album notes say that the electric guitar on top was improvised, and overall it combines to a very moving sound, despite being a bit short. "Habanera" and "Les Toreadors" are both good, but again, somewhat novel rather than interesting. "Shnook" sounds like the title. It's very loose, and evokes in the listener's mind all the connotations. I get the image of a big giraffe with a loose neck, wiggling all around on top while very firm and sure-footed on the ground. The guitar sounds distant, alone, and almost like a bit of a throwback and tribute to his father's style. If anything on this disc sounds like Frank, it's this tune.
"Dick Cinnamon's Office" is great - deceptively complex and "deranged" guitar parts played as hold music while Lisa Loeb annoyingly keeps Dweezil in waiting for his manager. The final track from the album, "Purple Guitar," has evidently been around for a while, played in concert and whatnot. This track alone is worth buying the album. It features the Rotten Tooth guitar tone - oodles of it. I can't help but find my fingers reaching toward an air guitar when I hear this piece - it's got a great drum part; probably improvised to some extent, and an amazingly well-done guitar hook. The transitions really excel, however, dropping into minor and major and going all over the scale. This track is ten minutes of excruciatingly painful joy.
This album has 30 minutes of the most beautiful guitar I've heard in a very long time. The time during which it was recorded is difficult to tell; since as near as I can find, Mike Keneally and Dweezil haven't had a working relationship since 1995 - and Dweezil and Scott Thunes haven't worked together in even longer. But whenever the tunes were recorded, they are heart-wrenching, heart-felt and meaningful in a time when the guitar seems to be an overlooked and even scorned art-form.