You Are What You Is

Frank Zappa

Rykodisc, 1981

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


At some point in the early '80s, something happened to Frank Zappa. Maybe it was the constant upheaval of popular music, where substance took a back seat to image. Maybe it was a rebirth of pseudo-religious fervor, where the only god that spoke to some of these preachers were images of Jackson, Grant and Franklin. Maybe it was the fact that people still referred to Zappa as a musician - or, even worse, a rock musician - when he had tried hard to show people he was, first and foremost, a composer.

Somewhere along the line, Zappa changed from the quirky but funny artist he had been on discs like Apostrophe (') and Sheik Yerbouti, and became music's own curmudgeon. Thinking about it now, one could hear that change starting to happen on Tinseltown Rebellion. But no disc made the metamorphosis more obvious than You Are What You Is - and it occasionally is a bit uncomfortable to listen to what Zappa became.

A disc that seems like its motto could be "there is no such thing as overdubbing too much," Zappa and his band plow through 20 songs, some of which are indeed good (and rightfully became part of Zappa's ever-changing live set), but many of which just seem to be doing too much grousing. And, occasionally, the points that Zappa tries to make are lost due to an overreliance on studio trickery.

Things start off innocently enough. "Teen-Age Wind" isn't one of Zappa's better songs, but it does at least start the disc off on a pleasant enough note. It then kicks in to the one track I remember best from this disc, "Harder Than Your Husband," a pseudo-country number whose title is a bit, shall we say, misleading. (For once, Zappa's fascination with sexual humor works as the title is merely a tease, for the song is actually about breaking off an affair.) In fact, for the first couple of tracks, it does indeed seem like Zappa and crew are on the right path, creating tracks that may not have been standouts, but were at least enough that the listener could tap their foot to.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But things begin to take a turn when Zappa the social critic comes storming out of the box - and it's not that his commentary is unwelcome, it's that he seems to have a lot of disgust for a lot of things this time around, never actually able to filter any of it into a solidly written song. Whether it's his take on punk rock ("Mudd Club"), suicide ("Suicide Chump"), the dangers of being chased by needy plus-sized women ("Jumbo Go Away") or military service ("Drafted Again"), Zappa seems to be throwing darts wildly at the board, never really coming close to the bullseye. And from an artist like Zappa, that's a big disappointment.

Zappa's special target of scorn turns out to be religion - most notably the area of televangelism, something that Zappa would continue to skewer for the remainder of his career. "Dumb All Over" could have been a powerful song had the vocal not been totally obliterated by electronic "adjustments" (for lack of a better word); Zappa is sometimes so hard to understand that the power of the message is lost. In comparison, "Heavenly Bank Account" is a scathing look at televangelists, but had the two songs been equally clear, it would have been a one-two punch that would have sent Jerry Falwell running back to the arms of his prostitute lover for comfort.

In the end, Zappa comes off sounding like he's complaining just to complain, and the overall quality of the album suffers as a result of this lack of focus. Tracks like "Beauty Knows No Pain," "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing" and "Conehead" just fail to impress this time around. Part of the problem is also that Zappa continued to use studio trickery to pad the performances, making the vocals into something along the lines of the Phil Spector "Wall Of Sound," except without the positive result. Had Zappa cut down on the layered vocals and created a disc that sounded like it was recorded "live in the studio," chances are this one would have packed a more powerful punch.

In the end, You Are What You Is marked the beginning of a rather bland period for Zappa - a shame, since this would prove to be the last decade he would be making brand new music. This is one that's recommended for the fans only.

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: C

User Rating: B



© 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.