The room where the giant fire puffer works
And the torture never stops
The torture never stops
The torture, the torture, the torture
The torture never stops
So, this album starts with a real disaster of a track called Wind Up Workin’ In a Gas Station ad I was about halfway through it and I just sighed very heavily and thought, “Oh, great, it’s one of THOSE Zappa albums.” But I was wrong. I stand by my assessment of the first track, but once that one gets out of the way, you find yourself in a stripped down, wonderfully produced suite of atmospheric instrumentals and memorable songs. In my opinion, this album features some of Zappa’s very best vocal work; when he gets way down in his register and way up on the mic, he can exude a sleazy kind of menace like no one else and The Torture Never Stops is evocative, brilliant and both his guitar work and his vocals are dead-on target. Black Napkins and Zoot Allures are both great instrumentals, not as immediately striking as some of his more memorable stuff, but Zoot Allures in particular is worthy of notice because it’s a very sedate tune that seems genuinely interested in, of all things, beauty. It’s a “pretty” little piece and how often do you say that about something on a Zappa album? The other songs don’t live up to The Torture Never Stops, but they have a nice edge on them, more of a hard-rock sound than anything since Chunga’s Revenge, I’d say. They have actual catchy hooks and melodies and lots of energy. Stripping things down to a simpler palette really reinvigorates Zappa here and he sets aside the more experimental stuff (for the most part) in order to focus on songcraft, an area in which he rarely gets the praise he deserves. I will say that Disco Boy suffers simply by the inescapable comparison to Dancin’ Fool, a far superior song on a similar subject. If you can get past Disco Boy being a dry run, it’s fine, but that’s hard. Zoot Allures is a smaller album in Zappa’s discography; it doesn’t have the epic sweep or the grand overarching statement of a lot of his albums. But it’s almost entirely successful. Is he taking it easy here? Yes. Is he challenging himself with this album? No, I don’t think so. But among all the failed epics and the flawed masterpieces, there’s also room for a good solid rock album. This one won’t change the world, but they don’t all have to. This one’s a win. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – stripped down album isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a solid, entertaining rock album; some of Zappa’s best vocal work and a renewed focus on songcraft elevates this one. 3 ½ stars.