Hot Rats

Frank Zappa

Rykodisc Records, 1969

http://www.zappa.com

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/17/1997

When you have a catalog that spans over 60 albums and 30 years, how do you choose one item to highlight?

When your subject is the late Frank Zappa, this isn't an easy question to answer. I could have dug out the token "best-of" collection, Strictly Commercial, but that's basically just a primer for those wondering what Zappa was all about.

So why not start with an album that many Zappa haters would be surprised to find they would like - the jazz-tinged, mostly instrumental my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Hot Rats from 1970? If there was any album that truly defined who Zappa was as a musician, this would be it.

The opening number, "Peaches En Regalia," is a perfect example of the mastery Zappa had over the guitar, his backup band and the studio. Over 25 years since it was released, it still sounds as fresh today as when the record first came out. Ian Underwood's one-man horn section adds to the track, as does the frantic drumming of Ron Selico. ( Hot Rats features an incredible array of musicians, including Jean-Luc Ponty and Shuggy Otis.)

And let's not forget the now-sadly-neglected Captain Beefheart, who contributes the only vocals on the album on the song "Willie The Pimp." Never mind that you probably wouldn't understand him without a lyric sheet, the rawness of the vocals (and whoops and screams) actually add to the song. Zappa's guitar lines are incredible on this one.

For the Zappa-literate, the track "Son Of Mr. Green Genes" will be a flash from the past; the song is a slower, more drawn-out version of "Mr. Green Genes" from the classic album Uncle Meat. Again, Underwood's wind section contributes a mood to the track that can't be described.

The remaining three tracks are good, but do not stand out like the first half of Hot Rats. You may need to break up listening to the almost 17-minute track "The Gumbo Variations" into two or three listens, but it's worth the effort. "Little Umbrellas" is also an interesting change of pace on the album.

Hot Rats, along with the remainder of the Zappa catalog, was remixed shortly before his death in late 1993. My version is the 1987 remix (I'd update it, but the NEA cancelled funding to the Pierce Memorial Archives. See if I ever vote Republican again), but purists may still find decent copies of the original mix floating around used record stores.

Zappa's catalog is quite varied, and not everything will appeal to everyone. Hot Rats is probably the one exception, and is worth adding to any music collection.

Rating: A-

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© 1997 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 Rykodisc Records, and is used for informational purposes only.