zdbd – Lumpy Gravy (1968) summary

Lumpy Gravy is a dynamic, ambitious album, and a dramatic entry to the field as a modern composer for Frank Zappa in 1968. There are a tonne of ideas throughout the record– muscically and otherwise. (Not least of which is idea of conceptual continuity and the Big Note.) The tunes and melodies are hooky, complex, and expertly performed by the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, and the more unconventional music — and dialogues — can be captivating in their own right.

A fascinating look at early Zappa’s mind, Lumpy Gravy is a weird album that takes some getting used to, but pays dividends to the persistent listener.

zdbd – Lumpy Gravy Part Two

zdbd – Lumpy Gravy Part Two

Lumpy Gravy Part Two, the 16-minute counterpart to Lumpy Gravy Part One, opens with a spaced-out guy speaking about the Big Note — “everything’s one note,” expounding on Zappa’s philosophy of the universe as extensions, vibrations, echoes of the One Note. This idea underscores his theory of conceptual continuity, which we’ll get to over time, I’m sure.

More anecdotes, enthusiastic, pile up, before exploding into a cacophonous, racking bout of laughter. If you’d zoned out for the dialogue, that screeching laugh brings you right back. The banter continues, punctuated by this shrill laughter.

At the four minute mark, instruments rumble back onto the record. A gong brings them in time, and the orchestra readies. They sync up, in time for discordant chords on keys, woodwind, strings. The entire song itches and writhes. Their synchronization is threatened, but holds — for only a moment. A perverse television jingle takes over at maximum volume, and again Lumpy Gravy launches us headlong into a conversation. We wonder if the dialogue is truly extemporaneous, or is some of it cleverly faked? I think I still lean toward the former, but I can’t be sure.

More thrusting, short-lived melodies of varying degrees of consonance follow. Melody soon gives way to free-form discord, however, as the orchestra weaves and cries. Zappa soon corrals them, though, for a languid, funky tune, with a muted horn section carrying the melody, descending the scale like it was a sunny afternoon. Halfway through Part Two, we suspect the moments of melody may be few and far between, as we return to the thumping, independent free-styling of the orchestra and the characters telling stories about kangaroos.

There is method here — the orchestra is by no means entirely discordant. The music is esoteric, challenging, and ever-shifting, but never becomes ‘mere’ noise (in, at least, the vast majority of cases…). Silence is given its space, its due as a musical tool, on this side of the record. Tricky rhythms on the drumkit, too, are featured heavily. The orchestra mixes, matches, slips and splashes across the back end of this effort. Abstraction and opacity dominate. All is not lost, though, as the instruments claw their way back towards synchronization and true melody, with much tension and strain. They resist, they fight back. The impossible is eventually realised.

A bassy, droning voice muses to himself — a beat or two of silence — and a chirpy rendition of what we’ll come to know as “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” carries us out of the song and the record. A deliberately happy, melodic note to conclude on, considering the challenging nature of this second half of Lumpy Gravy.

zdbd – Lumpy Gravy Part One

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.