The Yellow Shark
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/26/2005
It seems almost fitting that, after spending the final years of his career trying to convince the world he was a serious musician, the last album that would be released during Frank Zappa's lifetime was a disc featuring his works presented in an orchestral format.
Despite pairing up with other groups (such as the London Symphony Orchestra) in the past, Zappa never seemed pleased with the final results. Yet his pairing with Ensemble Modern, a group who, unlike the title of Zappa's third album with the Mothers, was only in it for the music, seemed on paper to be the best. This was a group who was passionate about the music - almost as much as the composer himself - even requesting pieces that Zappa thought were impossible for humans to play (such as the Synclavier piece "G-Spot Tornado").
The recording of these performances, The Yellow Shark, does indeed have some outstanding moments, but the inclusion of a lot of material unfamiliar to Zappa fans tends to blur the overall picture, leaving this disc almost calling for attention to what could have been.
Make no mistake, Ensemble Modern will earn no criticism from me; while I am no expert on classical music, their musicianship sounds superb, and they attack Zappa's compositions with the gusto that maybe would be only heard when playing pieces like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Unlike other orchestras who seemed like they were only playing the music placed in front of them because they had to, Ensemble Modern truly makes the pieces their own. Listen to them tackle pieces like "Dog Breath Variations," "Uncle Meat," "Pound For A Brown" or the previously-thought impossible "G-Spot Tornado," and hear for yourself.
Yet The Yellow Shark isn't so much a celebration of Zappa's music as it seems to be a springboard for a slew of new material. Regrettably, this proves to be the weakest portion of the disc. Granted, Zappa had written pieces like "Outrage At Valdez" prior to his work with Ensemble Modern, and even these have some level of interest and enjoyment to them. But newer selections like "Ruth Is Sleeping," "Pentagon Afternoon" and "Questi Cazzi Di Piccione" (yes, I know what that translates to in Italian) just never get the listener really interested in the music. Even a track like "Bogus Pomp," previously heard on Orchestral Favorites, would have been welcomed this time around.
This isn't to say all the new pieces are boring. Interestingly enough, the two featuring spoken-word performances, "Food Gathering In Post-Industrial America, 1992" and "Welcome To The United States," seem the closest to the performance pieces that Zappa became famous with when fronting the Mothers of Invention. As much as you don't really want to, you can't help liking these tracks, because they do capture the cynicism of Zappa better than a million musical notes can.
Perhaps the reason I've never warmed up to The Yellow Shark is that I've never been a fan of the school of classical music that spawned Varese and Stockhausen - not knocking them, just that I never got interested in them. Perhaps those who are more fluent in all tongues of classical music will find more to appreciate out of this disc - perhaps even more so than long-time Zappa fans. As it stands, The Yellow Shark seems appropriate on the surface, but doesn't really satisfy the way the final disc of a lifetime should have.