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Points of Entry

Frank Zappa
Threesome No. 1 (Rykodisc)
Threesome No. 2

These two contrasting three-disc sets, Threesome No. 1 and Threesome No. 2, distill Frank Zappa’s enormous catalog to some of its most essential titles. Each set offers three complete albums, together in one slipcase (and now offered at a midline price!).

Threesome No. 1 consists of the albums Freak Out!, Absolutely Free and We’re Only in It For the Money. Released from 1966 to 1968, these effectively toppled the applecart of then-current conventions, sending pointed barbs in the expected direction of the establishment, but more importantly, also exposing the hypocrisies and smoke and mirrors of the counterculture/hippie realm. Zappa was a synthesizer of varied existing forms (making it little surprise that he devoted much of his later decades to using actual synthesizers for all or part of his compositional and performance processes). Throughout these albums there are strains of doo-wop, L.A. soul, post-bop jazz grooves, 20th-century classical experimentation and rock & roll ditties. The one distortion is the absence of the name Mothers of Invention on the front cover of this package (it is the only name that appeared on the covers of the original releases). Their legacy became Zappa’s legacy, but there was significant input from the other participants (this has been a bone of contention for some former members over the years).

Threesome No. 2 marks the dazzling emergence of Frank Zappa’s primarily instrumental jazz-based music during the period from 1969 to 1972. Drawing on a range of largely Los Angeles-based players, the music is by turns formal, loose, serious, comical, bold and brash, subtle and confident. The three albums, Hot Rats, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, both draw on his previous work and point the way toward his future excursions.

In total, these six albums are a celebration of some Zappa peaks, as well as a solid introduction for those uncertain of how and where to enter his sprawling domain.

—David Greenberger

Peter Stuart
Propeller (Vanguard)

Former Counting Crows back-up singer Peter Stuart served as principle songwriter and frontman for the late dog’s eye view, who toured heavily and issued two very well-crafted albums (Happy Nowhere and Daisy) in the mid-’90s. While dog’s eye view never veered too terribly far from Counting Crows- flavored fare, their take on the sorts of thoughtful pop-rock in which Adam Duritz and company specialize was fresh and vibrant—leaving at least this critic holding high expectations for Stuart’s first solo disc. Unfortunately, however, those expectations were dashed fairly quickly, as Propeller sounds more like a marginal B-level Counting Crows cover act than anything dog’s eye view ever released. Where Daisy rocked and Happy Nowhere grooved, Propeller just sort of . . . sits, a victim of middle-of-the-road tempos and tepid arrangements that make it hard to even find, much less focus on, the songs beneath them. Which is dismaying, because Stuart has it in him to be a powerful singer, an insightful lyricist and a melodic master. Somebody get him a band, and quick, since this solo thing isn’t bringing any of those assets to the fore.

—J. Eric Smith

Commencement (DreamWorks)

Deadsy are a self-proclaimed entity created to “purify and primify the human solution of sound and vision,” and have even printed up a wordy manifesto to identify what I assume they view as the “problem” with today’s music. After a dozen spins through the band’s debut, Commencement, however, it is clear that they have not arrived at a solution, but have ironically created the exact nature of the dilemma. I won’t mince words. The CD is not frightening. It’s not inspiring. It’s not depressing, moving or funny. It doesn’t make you want to fight, dance, fuck or smoke cigarettes. And if these things are in fact problems to be remedied in music, I’m baffled.

Oversaturated with gratuitous synthesizers and fartsy guitars, forgettable hooks and just downright generic Goth moaning from Elijah Blue, this relatively emotionless stuff probably is aimed at the Trench Coat Mafia crowd, but really just comes off sounding like bad Human League. Any of these tracks could have appeared on The Breakfast Club soundtrack (if they were produced better). I kept waiting for Judd Nelson to appear out of nowhere with fingerless gloves to offer me a hit from his joint, particularly during the whimsical “Brand New Love.” Unconvincingly somber, technologically elementary, neither heavy nor ethereal . . . after a while, I just wanted to turn it off. Even Brian Eno, who cowrote the murky “Winners,” couldn’t save this effort from inflexibility and fatigue. What’s worse, they have this whole “each guy assumes an identity/ideology” thing going on, which is barely appealing even for bands who manage to pull it off.

To be fair, Blue’s lyrics are decent enough, even at times insightful and provoking. Indeed, there is something good to be said for attempting to convey ideas that are a little less obvious than standard fare, and Blue tries his tortured best to show us that a rock & roller can be articulate, well-read and awake at the wheel. But somehow, “in league with Poseidon” doesn’t sound nearly as cool as “in league with Satan.”

—Bill Ketzer

Kremerata Baltica
George Enescu: Octet, Op. 7 & Quintet, Op. 29 (Nonesuch)

If you saw the Kremerata Baltica at their recent Union College performance, you know part of what to expect from this recording: a tight, energetic ensemble who play with fire, in both senses of the phrase. The big surprise here is the repertory, which comprises two works by the Romanian composer George Enescu (1881-1955).

Worse than the obscurity of having posterity treasure none of your work is Enescu’s dilemma: His Romanian Rhapsodies are so popular that little else of his is programmed or promoted. This recording rectifies that with an electrifying performance of his little-known Octet for Strings and the debut recording of his later Piano Quintet.

Written in 1900, Octet is a moody work that seems to bridge early (tonal) Schoenberg and Shostakovich, featuring sinewy melodies and crunchy textures. The four-movement work, here presented in an arrangement for string orchestra, shimmers throughout between the very big sound of that orchestra and an intense give-and-take among solo instruments. The feel of the piece overall is found in its opening, which throbs with a rhythmic figure in the low strings over which sounds a lush, minor-mode melody that impressionistically turns hauntingly sweet from time to time. Not surprisingly, given the amount of time Enescu spent in Paris, it also throbs with a Fauréan lushness. But the voice is uniquely Enescu’s, drawing as much from music of his native Romania as anywhere else.

The easygoing opening of the Quintet comes as a surprise after the intense Octet finale, but the later piece (it was written in 1940) confirms the passion and uniqueness of Enescu’s voice. Here he seems even more in Fauré territory—if Fauré had suffered from clinical depression. Not that the music is depressing, but it travels a path through such fits of darkening intensity that when it does emerge from the clouds it seems all the brighter.

We’re accustomed to a level of extremely competent playing these days. The performances here go beyond that: You can hear the risks that are taken, and the payoffs are all the greater for it.

—B.A. Nilsson

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