Sleep Dirt

Frank Zappa

Rykodisc, 1979

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


The year 1979 kicked off quite possibly what was the most fruitful year of Frank Zappa's musical life. In a year that gave us the classic disc Sheik Yerbouti and the love-it-or-hate-it release Joe's Garage, things kicked off with a release that might surprise people with its quality.

One review ago, I referred to Warner Brothers's decision to axe the four-record set Lather and split it up into separate releases as a "fabulous fuck-up". That fuck-up was no more fabulous than with the release of Sleep Dirt, containing unquestionably the best material from the whole set. An instrumental collection (marred by the re-inclusion of vocal tracks - more on that in a minute) that challenged and excited the listener, this proved to be one of Zappa's unheralded masterpieces.

Kicking things off is a challenging track to get through, "Filthy Habits" - a track which contains many of Zappa's trademark style shifts when one least expects them. Yet this song proves to be charming in its own ways, leading into the absolutely fantastic cabaret-like pastiche that is "Flambay". Simply put, from "Flambay" on, Zappa can do absolutely no wrong. One cannot help but fall in love with the musical picture that Zappa and crew paint on "Flambay," while "Regyptian Strut" (another track that features more re-recorded drum tracks a la my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Cruising With Ruben & The Jets) is a marvel to behold, a song that pushes musician and listener to the breaking point without ever crossing any unspoken boundaries.

What makes Sleep Dirt unique is that the music contained herein gets Zappa's whole message across without a single note sung (the only "vocals" coming from an aside Zappa makes on "Time Is Money"). So, losing the "toilet humor" that Zappa would fine-tune to the point of brilliance on Sheik Yerbouti, Zappa is left to only his musical genius, which he makes the most of throughout this disc.

I did not expect to like Sleep Dirt, having had the cassette sit in storage for a decade. In fact, I don't recall liking it when I first bought the tape. Three simple words: I was wrong. Quite possibly forgotten due to the sheer volume of music that Zappa released in a short time - according to the timeline on Zappa's website, seven albums were released in a two-year span - Sleep Dirt remains a disc that demands to be heard, that demands to be respected, that demands to be revered. In all regards, its demands are quite reasonable.

The CD reissue, though, makes the only black marks I can find. No offense is meant to vocalist Thana Harris, but the three bonus tracks that include vocals break the whole pattern for me. These tracks, as Francois Couture mentions on All-Music Guide, may be closer to the vision that Zappa had when he first compiled Lather, but they dare to tamper with both the strength of Sleep Dirt as an instrumental album and the memories of long-time Zappa fans. (Not that Zappa ever had problems tampering with those memories before - back to the re-recording of drum tracks again.) As hard as I tried, I could not get into the vocalized versions of tracks like "Flambay" and "Time Is Money". The magic, simply, was sucked out of them.

Still, this is a minor complaint about bonus tracks, and when all is said and done, the original seven tracks that make up Sleep Dirt still prove to be one of Zappa's best releases in his career.

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.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 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 Rykodisc, and is used for informational purposes only.