What does it sound like?:
People often ask me “Where’s the best place to start with Zappa?” With a catalogue of such daunting proportions it’s a reasonable question after all. These days all of Frank’s albums are numbered on the CD spine in order of release, starting with his 1966 Freak Out debut as album #1. When I tell you that The Crux Of The Biscuit is album #102, you can see the dilemma facing the novice Zappa listener.
The stock answer to the question is, of course, Hot Rats, or One Size Fits All, or maybe Apostrophe. Those were, after all, his biggest sellers from the early/mid 70s when the rock world finally achieved peak Zappa. But it’s a glib and lazy answer too. FZ covered so much ground over a three decade recording career that to narrow him down to just a handful of well-known albums would do the man a disservice. Classical, heavy rock, jazz fusion, comedy, avant garde, musique concrete, electronic, straight rock and god knows what else, Zappa did it all and he did it in style – and sometimes he did it all on the same album! His records are bursting at the seams with wonderfully diverse musical themes and rich concepts. Often a single Zappa song contains enough stops, starts, twists and turns to fill an entire album by a lesser artist, while a full album by Frank routinely features more musical ideas than most bands are able to come up with during their entire career.
Since Frank died in 1993, leaving a seemingly bottomless vault of unreleased material, the FZ Family Trust has issued a regular trickle of archive albums, some of them truly great, others so-so and a few not really up the high standards Frank set during his lifetime. Thankfully The Crux Of The Biscuit is a goodie. The title is a line from Stink-Foot, a song from the 1973 Apostrophe album and what we have here is a series of outtakes and early, alternate versions of tracks from Zappa’s most commercially successful record in the United States. An alternate Apostrophe album, if you will.
Cosmik Debris sounds great in slightly different remixed form (check out those unheard backing vocals and sound effects) and a second version appears minus Frank’s vocal, so we can hear exactly what that great band of his were up to. When he wanted to, Frank could write a catchy pop song as good as anyone and an outtake of Uncle Remus highlights that fine, hummable melody. Fortunately for his fans, Zappa could never bring himself to write radio friendly lyrics to match the tunes.
Frank tells the convoluted story of St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast/Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow on a 1973 snippet from Australian radio interview, before a live version from Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion brings it all to life. This is the only concert track, everything else is studio material of the highest quality.
Jack Bruce fans will find much to enjoy here, as the virtuoso bass player is all over this album. In true sardonic Zappa style, Frank once dismissed Jack’s thunder and lightning bass work on the Apostrophe title track as “too busy”. Well, he can be as busy as he likes as far as I’m concerned, this is great music. Jack takes control of what was essentially a jam session with Frank on guitar and Derek & the Dominos drummer Jim Gordon behind the kit and turns it into a thunderous instrumental tour de force. There are several extended versions and outtakes of the track (also titled Energy Frontier), some with a distinct prog feel to enjoy here too.
The album ends with a spoken word track titled “Frank’s Last Words”. Not, thankfully, his actual final utterances, but a happy sounding Zappa winding up a recording session with studio banter and “OK that’s the take” over the talk back speakers.
If you’re a fan of the Apostrophe album and Frank’s music generally from this period, then I can guarantee you’ll love The Crux Of The Biscuit. It’s the perfect companion to one of his most accessible albums. It may even be the ideal place to embark on your Zappa listening experience.
What does it all *mean*?
The Present-Day Composer Refuses to Die
Goes well with…
The other 101 Zappa albums
Might suit people who like…
some of the most inventive and diverse music of the 20th century