“Genius In France” by “Weird Al” Yankovic – Amazon Advent Calendar day 17

Album Art

Genius In France

“Weird Al” Yankovic

Poodle Hat

Genre: Comedy

Today’s artiste is a callback to two previous Advent Calendar selections.

I’m seriously convinced that at some point, “Weird Al” Yankovic talents will be fully appreciated. He’s most famous for his straightforward song parodies and he’s so successful at it that when choosing an example, I immediately think “No, not that one; everyone’s heard of it. Not this one, either” before settling on “Trapped At The Drive-Thru.”

As terrific as his song parodies are, nobody can build a successful 35-career in music just by piggybacking onto current hits. He’s a legitimately talented musician and performer. Long, long ago, my favorite tracks on every “Weird Al” album stopped being the song parodies: instead, I look forward to the style parodies.

Like this one. I’ll get the crass part of out the way first: this is a nine-minute song and in terms of metric tonnage per dollar, there are few greater values on the Amazon MP3 Store. The true selling point, though, is that it’s a masterful attempt to write a new song based on Frank Zappa’s musical DNA.

It sends you scrambling to see if the song is actually based on a Zappa original. I can easily be fooled like that. Even when I was 18, I wasn’t really plugged into what 18-year-olds were listening to at the time. When “Straight Outta Lynwod” was released, I didn’t even recognize “Trapped At The Drive-Thru” as an R. Kelly parody until months later.

What marks “Genius In France” so immediately and unmistakably as a Zappa style parody? Hell if I know. I lack the music geek’s vocabulary as well as the musicalolologist’s suede elbow patches. I can’t do anything more than cite the heavily-layered melodies and the sudden downshifts in tempo.

More than anything, though, it has Zappa’s sense of play. The song isn’t out to tell a story or establish a mood so much as it wants to bat around an idea for several minutes.

Here’s the thing, though: Yankovic does this on every album. DEVO frontman (callback #2) Mark Mothersbaugh once claimed that Yankovic recorded the best DEVO song ever: “Dare To Be Stupid,” from the album of the same name.

Just as with “Genius In France,” this is a clean hit. It seems like it’d be cheap to even call it a “parody.” Yankovic lifts nothing — it kind of evokes the back-melody of “Big Mess” — and exaggerates nothing. Yankovic just has a highly-refined ear for a band or composer’s signature elements, and enough chops as a composer and an arranger to articulate those concepts into brand-new pieces.

He’s as legit as they come. I’m tempted to compare him to a Brill Building composer. He’s definitely capable of hearing during breakfast that Phil Spector was looking for an uptempo number for the Ronettes and then writing something perfect for that group by lunch. Or maybe he’s like Sir Arthur Sullivan (of “Gilbert And…”) fame. Sullivan would be staring at the libretto for “Iolanthe” in front of him and think “You know, this score could really use something sort of Mendelssohn-ey right about here.” And off he’d go.

But “Weird Al” Yankovic’s true musical ancestor is Carl Stalling. He scored nearly every cartoon that Warner Brothers produced during its Golden Age. Every seven-minute opus had to mix original themes, popular melodies of the day, and flatly functional phrases to underscore that Wile E. Coyote has just spotted the Rocket Boomerang circling back towards him.

I’ve always wanted to see what Yankovic would do with a movie score. I bet he’d be excellent at it because the task seems to call for the same unique talents he puts into play on all of his original composition. Writing music that’s both Original and Evokes A Familiar Tone is like holding both Tea and No Tea at the same time…but that’s how you win the game.

Above and beyond all of that: I just flat-out love this song. If I didn’t know who Zappa was, I’d still be humming “If I were any dumber/They’d have to water me twice a weeeeek” after fishing crushed-up iPhone parts out of the garbage disposal.

“Weird Al” Yankovic: a real goddamn musician. So long as he keeps making albums, I’ll always find money to buy them. That’s been the case since way back when I bought cassettes with paper-route money. I don’t think any other performer has maintained that position in my musical tastes even half that long.

Listen to “Genius In France” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, this link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. If you click it, anything you buy during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits…which I shall spend foolishly and extravagantly on fun things.

“G-Spot Tornado” by Frank Zappa (perf. by Ensemble Ambrosius) – Amazon Advent Calendar Day 9

Album Art

G-Spot Tornado (arr. E. Lievonen)

Ensemble Ambrosius

Zappa Album (The)

Genre: Classical

This track proves two things.

First, that Frank Zappa was manifestly a composer. He was destined to spend his life hunched over a clavichord, a quill in his hand, sheets of foolscap under his quill pen, and a bottle of claret within reach. The fact that Zappa was born a couple of centuries too late to be a contemporary of Mozart didn’t deter him in the least. He was a man of drive and determination: he simply made do with the meager tools that were at his disposal in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

I’m fumbling for a way to explain the statement “Clearly, he was a composer.” Well, duh: Zappa squeezed all of those tunes out of his head and into a form that could be filed with the Copyright Office. But somehow, you don’t think of (say) the person who wrote “I’m Too Sexy (For This Song)” as a Composer. You think of him as a “Songwriter.” Maybe as “That weird bald valet guy who wouldn’t stop talking about this hit song he says he wrote twenty years ago, and who almost made me miss my plane.”

Zappa? Oh, absolutely. He was laying down a blueprint for a musical work that was designed to be played live by a great many different groups for centuries to come. This music has layers, it has textures; it’s in no way tethered to the times in which it was created. It was originally composed and performed on a Synclavier and (if Wikipedia is to be believed…for Heaven’s sake, why shouldn’t it?) Zappa pretty much assumed that it was so complex that it could never be performed live, by actual humans.

Hah! Well, here’s a semi-famous orchestral interpretation of “G-Spot Tornado,” conducted by The Man himself. The choreography is by Human Steps.

In fact, the composition is so ambitious that the Amazon MP3 Store lists three different orchestral and baroque arrangements. There’s even a whole band that named itself after this song…with something like two dozen tracks available for download.

Which brings us to Point Two: withholding your catalogue from digital download stores almost never works out well for the Artist’s legacy. The Amazon MP3 Store and iTunes can sell you these weird renditions of “G-Spot Tornado,” but they can’t sell you the Zappa’s original recording, or any other track from 1986’s “Jazz From Hell.”

If you want the Zappa version, you’ll have to buy the CD from Amazon or wherever. But that’s certainly not how people discover new music these days, is it? We come across these things in blog posts and in YouTube videos. We get the itch, we spend 99 cents (or, ugh. $1.29) and we hear the full track. After one or more trips to the download well, maybe we’ll buy the whole CD.

But ordering the disc sight-unseen? And then having it…couriered over? How disgustingly analog! And even if you’re OK with waiting a couple of days to get it, should you gamble $13 on the basis of a single track that you might not even like?

Answer: yes. “Jazz From Hell” is an awesome album. But that’s not the point. The point is that we’re being forced to buy our Zappa via the same mechanism we used way back in the (goddamn) Nineties, when “Full House” was still on the air and they let Pauly Shore make movies. Let’s not go back to those dark and wicked days.

If much of the Zappa catalogue isn’t available on iTunes or Amazon, then that’s obviously the result of a deliberate choice and not a clerical error. It’s also a damned shame. Every time I hear of a high-profile artist whose work is unavailable for (legal) download, I respect that artist’s choice but I wonder if they aren’t overlooking the simple need to keep their music alive for future generations.

I mean, The Beatles could afford to take that risk. There was never any real chance of The Beatles’ “Revolver” ever being forgotten. But nearly twenty years after Zappa’s death, one of the most exciting composers of the late Twentieth century is in danger of becoming just a familiar name, instead of living on as an exciting list of familiar tunes.

Oh, wait…it’s even worse: it’s entirely possible that the very last Zappa tune to fade from memory will be his greatest popular hit. I still cringe whenever I hear a late, great actor listed as “Raul (‘Street Fighter’) Julia.” What a terrible shame it would be for our cultural consciousness if one day Frank Zappa was remembered mostly for “Valley Girl.”

And why? Only because there wasn’t enough of Zappa’s work to go around. With every year, the lesson becomes more clear: if you keep your music out of the iTunes Store or Amazon MP3, it can only mean that keeping these tracks alive is something less than your #1 priority.

Listen to G-Spot Tornado (arr. E. Lievonen) on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, all Amazon music links are embedded with my Amazon Associates code. If you click it, any Amazon purchases you make during that session will result in a small kickback to me in the form of Amazon gift credits…which I shall spend foolishly and lavishly on things I’ll enjoy.