You Are What You Is, by Frank Zappa
Suggested by Garf O’Loughlin
Before his untimely death in 1993 at the age of 52, Frank Zappa had released a whopping sixty-two albums. Since his death, he’s released another fifty-four.
One hundred and sixteen albums. If someone suggested them all for this project, that’d be more than a tenth of the thousand I’d need. Maybe once September rolls around I’ll kickstart my 116 Albums Project: The Collected Works of Frank Zappa.
On second thoughts, I won’t be doing that. There’s only so much smug improv a man can take.
I’ve a complicated relationship with Frank. I do like his work, in parts at least, and there’s no denying he was a creative powerhouse. But with such an extensive catalogue, it’s easy to compartmentalise your likes, fencing them away from anything you’d find more disagreeable. You can cherry pick the ten or so albums you like, forming an boat to access your personal island oasis in the Great Zappa Ocean, watching other Zappa fans who have no crossover with your tastes sailing by in vessels of their own. They’ll probably be too late to save that drowning witch, but whatever.
You Are What You Is represents a Zappa album I’ve not heard before, although that’s hardly surprising. It’s a double-album with a running time just short of seventy minutes, packed with twenty short sharp songs on a variety of topics. As with a lot of Zappa, the songs each have an irreverent and comic tone, and they largely all adopt his slightly sanctimonious brand of smug cynicism alongside some generic improvised twiddlesome soloing. It’s a hard rock sound, overall, but with the layers of instrumentation that you’d expect of the man, along with leanings towards prog excess that is sure to excite subsections of the crowd.
As for songs, we start well. Teen-age Wind is a fine skewering of the dropout student hippy trope which sounds incredibly dated today, and the faux-country song Harder Than Your Husband is a lot sweeter than the cheeky name suggests. Tracks such as Society Pages and I’m a Beautiful Guy continue the same Zappa schtick of cynical commentary about certain personality types, while his omnipresent and slightly misogynistic themes of aberrant female sexuality raises its usual ugly head in Goblin Girl, Charlie’s Enormous Mouth and more. There’s some full-on twangling oddity in Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear, a slight racist twinge to the title track You Are What You Is, and a sense of the circus sideshow comic in songs like Drafted Again. My favourite track is The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing, which feels more laid back than most but it still scathingly direct.
There’s more interest in the remaining songs (Suicide Chump? Coneheads?), but the above paragraph is a succinct example of my issues with Frank. He’s just so damn exhausting. Every song is a full meal, every album is a banquet, designed to fill you fit to burst and stretch your tired seams. Zappa is best consumed lightly, smorgasbord fashion, not to be gorged upon lest indigestion strike. And, to be frank (hah!), Frank’s voice is an acquired taste.
You Are What You Is gets 5/10 today. It’s just too much Zappa to handle. While I’m no fan of this album, I’ll surely find a gem somewhere in the remaining one hundred and fifteen.