If there ever was a "chicken-or-egg" discussion concerning Frank Zappa's vast discography, it may well be: which came first, Lumpy Gravy or We're Only In It For The Money? Since both All-Music Guide and the official Frank Zappa discography list Lumpy Gravy as the third release from Zappa (as well as his first solo outing, albeit with the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony & Chorus), we will follow along those lines as well.
To be fair, it does seem like both albums were somehow in the process of being created at the time - snippets of this disc find their way into We're Only In It For The Money - but if Lumpy Gravy does anything, it finally gave Zappa a blank canvas on which to create his own musical vision. If only there had been a little more structure to it - though, perhaps, the lack of structure was Zappa's whole goal to begin with. Either way, this proves to be the most challenging release of Zappa's to this point, and one which, even after a decade of listening to it, I still don't think I've come close to understanding.
In this reviewer's eyes, the purpose of Lumpy Gravy was, first and foremost, to give Zappa a chance to "conduct" his music through a musical vein other than the Mothers Of Invention. In this regard, there still is a lot of a rock band feel to this disc and its two-part, album-long title track (recently broken up into sections that the layperson can follow) - check out the birth cries of "Oh No" and "Take Your Clothes Off" as proof of this. Even when Zappa does utilize the Abucneals Emuukha Electric Symphony, they seem to take the place of, say, a lead guitar in your modern teenage rock combo, though it's often interlaced well.
Throughout the various musical snippets, all of which dare to suggest that Zappa had a lot of musical ideas but few which, at that time, had come to fruition, a revolving storyline involving a group of people who live in a piano is told through their own dialog. Most of this is abbreviated nonsense, which had to have made sense to Zappa as he pieced everything together, but with only a few exceptions, it does very little for the casual listener, seeming like a whole collage of non sequiturs meant to keep silence from breaking up the individual musical ideas.
Does this make Lumpy Gravy bad? Heavens, no - though I will admit that the first time I ever listened to it, it confounded me so much that I kept it on the shelf for a long time and focused on other discs in Zappa's body of work. The older I've gotten, the more I've begun to appreciate the musical aspect of this disc, and while I'd have liked to have heard a few more completed pieces in lieu of constant bouncing in and out of different genres, they all do show the many facets of Zappa the artist.
Anyone who desires a more structured form of Zappa's music would do well to pass on this one and jump right into We're Only In It For The Money - but even by doing this, you'd be missing an important progression of Zappa as the composer and the musician. Admittedly, Lumpy Gravy isn't a disc for everyone, and it is rare if a listener will grasp everything Zappa meant to accomplish on a cursory listen or twelve. But it still has much merit, especially if you are interested in hearing the beginnings of some of Zappa's most popular selections from this phase of his career.
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