REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/13/2005
The final single-album release that included the tracks from the now-legendary 4-LP set Lather, Orchestral Favorites is a release that not many Zappa fans probably get on the first listen. Or the second. Or the tenth, for that matter. Yet, if one really thinks about it, it's a disc that was the natural next step for Zappa the musician and composer, and a step he would revisit several more times in the next decade of his work.
Originally recorded in 1975, Zappa took a 37-piece orchestra and combined older selections from his catalog with some newer material, showing that Zappa was more than a rock musician, he was a composer, and one who wanted to be taken seriously. For the most part, Orchestral Favorites succeeds, though it's often with the more established material.
The opening track, "Strictly Genteel," is one of two selections culled from Zappa's 200 Motels soundtrack, and one that is almost perfectly designed for the full-blown orchestra treatment. In fact, it seems like such a natural fit that it dares to blow away every version of "Strictly Genteel" I've heard before this period, and every one that followed. Zappa definitely set the bar high - I'd say for this project, but this was never designed to be a solo disc.
What makes this disc unique (and successful) is the way that Zappa was able to work other portions of 200 Motels into one mammoth selection, "Bogus Pomp," yet another slice of evidence that adds fuel to the belief that Zappa was primarily a composer, not a rock musician. Individually, these works in their original format tended to be a little challenging (if not repetitive and benign); as one composition, they all flow into a cohesive unit that even Zappa himself probably couldn't have imagined would work so well. Almost lost in the shuffle is "Duke Of Prunes," an orchestral version of the Absolutely Free disc that isn't quite as powerful, but one that has its own redeeming qualities that makes it enjoyable.
Of the two remaming tracks of newer material, "Naval Aviation In Art?" is far too brief to make a lasting impression - too bad, 'cause I'd like to have seen how this one developed a little more. The other track, "Pedro's Dowry," is far more challenging to get into, taking on Zappa's own eclectic manner of placing sounds that might not normally work together into the mix. It's not as intoxicating, and I admit this one hasn't grown on me in the same ways the other numbers did. Maybe "Pedro's Dowry" is one of those tracks that requires some serious study - but as it is, it's not a bad track, just not an outstanding one.
That Zappa would embrace orchestral work is not surprising - he did so in a smaller scale on his solo debut Lumpy Gravy, and the work on Uncle Meat and 200 Motels almost dared to be placed in the same setting (the latter finally meeting the dare on Orchestral Favorites). Zappa's fascination with the symphony was merely beginning - both London Symphony Orchestra and The Perfect Stranger would revisit this musical arena. Orchestral Favorites may not be as toe-tapping as, say, Sleep Dirt, but it still is worth checking out, though maybe the newcomers to Zappa's musical world would do better to leave this one as a later stop on the journey.
2005 Christopher Thelen and "The Daily Vault." All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of the Zappa Family Trust / record label, and is used for informational purposes only.