FRANKLY SPEAKING

As the years went by, Zappa was more and more willing to throw bones to this crowd, and slowly the success of lowball efforts like "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" (from 1974's Apostrophe) and "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes" (from 1979's Sheik Yerbouti) began to overwhelm his better judgment. Even the three-volume rock opera Joe's Garage, issued in 1980, sank to these depths on occasion; Zappa's tale of a world in which music was outlawed would have stung far longer had he refrained from the sophomoric digressions of "Crew Slut" and "Wet T-Shirt Nite." Zappa saw those who criticized material like this as uptight and closed-minded: The name of his 1986 live album, Does Humor Belong in Music?, was not chosen by accident. But this take avoided the real point of the above gripes--that Zappa was better able to earn laughs and make listeners think when he didn't resort to pee-pee jokes. His best set from the early Eighties was the three-volume Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, in which he did a brilliant job of taking the title's advice.

As for Zappa's straight classical work, including a pair of recordings made with the London Symphony Orchestra and The Yellow Shark, the last disc Zappa put out before he died, they are perfectly listenable and sometimes inspired, but they give only a hint of what he could do when he wasn't operating within the constrictions of a particular form. Like a karate expert fighting with his hands tied behind his back, the classical Zappa used only part of his arsenal, and it showed. The same can be said about Civilization Phaze III, a two-CD set that's not part of the Rykodisc program (it's available from select stores or from Barking Pumpkin, whose phone number is 818-PUMPKIN). Composed primarily on the Synclavier, Civilization is not really classical, not really jazz, and not really fleshed out. Rather, it's a collection of familiar Zappa devices--sudden tempo changes, for instance--interrupted by random dialogue recorded for the solo disc Lumpy Gravy almost three decades earlier. It's not an unpleasant listen--and it might have been better if it was.

Of course, the circumstances of Civilization's release have prompted many Zappa-philes to overpraise it, as they have Overnite Sensation, Zoot Allures and other platters that can't compare to his peak performances. Because prime Zappa is incomparable--whether Time likes it or not.

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