Absolutely Free, Zappa’s second record, is another great effort, pushing the boundaries of complexity in composition, as well as his trademark sociopolitical satire. Consisting largely of catchy, poppy numbers, laden with satirical lyrics, Absolutely Free features the Duke of Prunes medley, the experimental Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin, and of course, Brown Shoes Don’t Make It. The record is neatly divided into two halves, with bookended leitmotifs, with a lot of short, punchy tunes, and a couple of longer, complicated ones. Though it’s not as long as 1966 Freak Out!, it offers a palpable evolution of Zappa’s style, and presages much of the avant garde lunacy to come.
The conclusion of Absolutely Free is a reprise to America Drinks, presented fully-polished and oozing with reprehensible charm. The style, sound effects, and happily-chatting voices layered throughout sell the idea of a conclusion to a music-hall performance. The voice, and irregular rhythm of the lyrics, is fantastic, and the jazzy drumming, with brushes, no doubt, gives this short tune a driving force.
After the lyrics conclude, the voice speaks aloud to the various patrons of the music-hall, directing them to future events, soliciting feedback, playing the gracious host to a T. “Caravan with a drum solo” is addressed, and he sarcastically says they’ll do it. He scats a bit to close out the tune, and the album ends with a “Night all,” the clinking of cash machines, and the delighted shouts of a rowdy audience at last call.
A monster of a tune. A whole music-hall musical in 7.5 minutes. Throughout this epic, we’ll be introduced to a number of ‘normal Americans,’ as well as an array of instruments and rhythms. Hardly two lines go by before the whole song changes.
We open on a funky riff and a chorus of voices, including, if I’m not wrong, Captain Beefheart’s, before a weird plinking verse. Soon the song incites us to “be a jerk / and go to work,” perhaps Zappa’s most damning invective against doing something you don’t enjoy.
Soon enough, with a literal breaking point, a thumping, eerie verse takes over: “a world / of secret hungers.” Dissonance with multiple voices and slithering instruments grows and grows as elements drop out. A voice hacks and spits in isolation until warped and warbling brasses creep in.
Deep in the psyche of City Hall Fred, everything is twisted. Alice in Wonderland is referenced and inverted in with one choice word.
Lethargic guitar accompanies our return to the real world, while strings follow the fantasy.
Throughout, different people and voices sing and compete with one another, telling conflicting tales simultaneously.
A grand fanfare with strings and trumpets takes over, but its energy and celebration can’t be sustained, and soon power done. A smooth lounge-lizard takes over on the piano, winking at the audience. A big chorus takes the stage, and you can practically see them kicking like the Rockettes.
A theremin-type sound reminds us that things are not all so grand, and an oily voices muses that “if she were my daughter, I’d…” but his not-to-subtle trailing off is picked up by the voice of a young girl asking “what would you do, daddy?” The musing grows more lecherous before another fanfare breaks out, in a cheesy, country-western style. City Hall Fred’s imagination is running away with him. All the same, the rhythm of this part is undeniable, with sticks and spoons and cowbell.
We circle back to characters from the opening of the song, and some of the musical themes are revisited with embellishment and evolution. The end of the tune is a charging, dramatic affair, with pulsing strings and echoey reverb. Instruments from throughout the piece clatter and conflict, screeching and competing for audiospace.
Inevitably, the fantasy collapses.
This song comes in under 2 minutes, and throughout it’s an energetic, aggressive, bassy affair with an undeniable hook. I love the falsetto “yeeah-yeeaah” that occasionally punctuates the chorus, and the unyielding thrust of the verse carries me through the 93 second runtime.
Almost reminds me of some of the more upbeat Desert Sessions tracks.
Also, the hook is a direct parody of another famous song, I think, but I can’t place it. I want to say Louie Louie, for all of Zappa’s fondness/distaste for that riff, but I don’t think that’s right. Leave a comment if you know! (And if it’s not, then man, Zappa really knows how to write a riff.)
Uncle Bernie’s Farm jumps right out of the gate, building on the strong finish of Status Back Baby. Zappa sings this one, in his speak-sing style, and the content — a peculiar, warped suburban America — recalls Let’s Make the Water Turn Black.
Halfway through, the bouncing tune stops for a quick bridge, then returns to the verse. “Plastic” is a recurring theme, and Santa Claus is characterized as “the creep who makes the toys.” Commercialism, childrens’ playthings, bombs and brass knuckles all jumble together.
Another 50s nostalgia piece about teenage problems in suburban high school. The beach-rock vibe of the tune sells the content, and the array of rhythmic changes, led by the bouncing bass lines, keeps the song fresh over its nearly 3 minute runtime.
The song is about a student trying to reclaim his status at the high school — his “high school spirit’s / at an all-time low,” and he tries to rectify this.
There’s a short instrumental break with another wailing guitar solo silhouetted by jabbering vocals and a coach’s shrill whistle, which soon gives way to a drawn-out collapse set to tambourine, and then a strong, dissonant series of guitar chords. Another quick whistle and we’re right back into the chorus again, no questions asked.
The protagonist casts foreshadowing to Bobby Brown (“a handsome football star”) who we’ll meet in, oh, another ten years or so.