Lumpy Gravy opens with dialogue and then a surf-rock Mexican video-game theme – sounds like an 8-bit opening screen, with a chugging, rumbling, steam-engine locomotive bottom end. It’s more dynamic in its changes than the typical game theme, perhaps, but it’s got SNES vibes in its electric piano-led instrumentation.
Soon enough, this part fades into looping obscurity, and another, much gentler tune takes its place. Ponderous and light, Lumpy Gravy becomes a brief jazz exploration before launching into a driving, vibraphone-led motif, which we’ll come to know with lyrics somewhere down the line. Here, though, the upbeat melody is taken over for a turn by a spindly guitar (maybe?) until the tune shifts slightly, riffing on the original melody in a faithful but exploratory way. An explosion of horns foretells a final riff before another countrapuntal passage gives way to a “bit of nostalgia for the old folks,” a brief recapitulation of the opening theme of Part One, and then an array of jarring noises and murmured dialogue.
We’re four minutes into the 15.5-minute behemoth that is Lumpy Gravy Part One, and it’s wild. Welcome to Frank Zappa’s first solo record, as composer and conductor. His first two albums were released with the Mothers of Invention, and consisted primarily of poppy tunes with eclectic jazz influences. In Lumpy Gravy, we get our first taste of Zappa at his most unrestrained, with jazz fusion and modern studio editing techniques clashing and co-mingling.
“Darker and darker,” a woman says. “How do you get your water so dark?” a man asks. Reverb swallows the details of speech.
A brassy, high-tempo horn riff blares. Suddenly a tiny carnival has come to town, and we’re watching it on fast forward. After a single turn, the tune’s brushed percussion gives way to a clatter on the drum kit, and the Lynchian noise-scape continues. Clips and snatches of tunes intermingle; a tune that sounds “almost Chinese” is played for around 8 bars. Hints and recapitulations of past, and forthcoming, themes do battle for airspace, in new and re-imagined orchestrations.
“Oh No” takes over for an extended period, now, lest we’ve forgotten that Lumpy Gravy consists primarily of ‘actual’ music. The theme is adhered to almost like Ravel’s Bolero — with a few more variations. Different sections of an immense orchestra take precedence in incredibly precise intervals. Energy builds and crescendos. The tune ends with a classical flourish.
A young man with a California drawl tells a charming anecdote about giving up his own jobs at a couple of different gas stations, for his brother who had to “feed his kids and that.” Luckily, our hero goes on to make a “hundred and a quarter a week” welding aircraft parts. He continues on about his torn-up Oldsmobile, as a chirpy hippie drumbeat fades in over the story. When the sharp, electric guitar stabs, and distorted harmonica crash in, we’ve been so hypnotized that we’re shocked and alarmed.
Opaque and dark landscapes, littered with the graves of ruined instruments, gradually overtake us. Everything here is wet, black-grey, weakened by some unknowable blight. Soon, we’re lost entirely.
But now — a resurrection, of sorts. Plinking, nylon-stringed guitars. Gentle strings swell, with horns behind. Serenity doesn’t last, and gives way to madness. Digital drums and keys mash and mangle one another in an orchestral mosh pit. Drums and piccolos whine. The piano hesitantly offers the beginnings of a melody — tinkles up and down, commits to nothing. The sympathetic strings take up the challenge, and though the sky is grey, it’s far less dark than it was… until a cloud of stinging strings coalesces like a swarm of insects, and won’t let us go.