Sunday, April 3, 2011

April 3: Frank Zappa, "City Of Tiny Lites"

Artist: Frank Zappa
Song: "City Of Tiny Lites"
Album: Sheik Yerbouti
Year: 1979

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There is perhaps no term more frequently used in an incorrect manner within the world of music than when fans and critics so quickly toss out the work "genius" in reference to an artist or band.  Though there are certainly a few cases where such a description is fitting, it seems that the standard for such drops drastically with each passing year, and in modern times, anyone who doesn't auto-tune is worthy of this praise.  Yet when one looks back on the entire history of recorded music, there are three, perhaps four individuals who truly embody what it means to be a musical genius, and it is these few who show that along with exceptional instrumental talent, there must be a completely unique vision and approach to set them aside from their peers.  It is with this in mind that one can argue that it would be quite difficult to find any musician in history more deserving of the label of "genius" than the great Frank Zappa.  For nearly three decades, Zappa was able to define his music by only his name, pushing the boundaries on what could be accomplished musically, and in the process paving the way for thousands of later performers.  Due to his massive accomplishments, it is impossible to even narrow his catalog down to five or six songs to be considered his "best," so in many ways, it comes down to personal taste.  With this in mind, to quickly understand why Frank Zappa is held in such a revered status, one need look no further than his mind-blowing 1979 recording, "City Of Tiny Lites."

Coming off of his nearly flawless Sheik Yerbouti album, "City Of Tiny Lites" went somewhat unnoticed upon its initial release due to the high controversy of some of the albums' other tracks.  However, in retrospect, the song offers everything that makes Zappa's music so fantastic, as well as one of his most brilliant musical compositions ever.  After a noise-filled opening, the song moves into a fast-paced groove, led by the dancing bassline of Patrick O'Hearn.  Behind his playing, the almost sci-fi keyboards from Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars add a completely unique feel to the song, and the offbeat pacing that they find is likely due to the "conducting" of Zappa himself.  This in itself is where Frank Zappa sets himself apart from his peers, as often times, he would not play on a track, but "lead" his band through his complex arrangements, making changes on the spot.  Terry Bozzio's drumming seems to be pushing closer and closer to sheer chaos with every passing moment, and it is in his performance where the soul of "City Of Tiny Lites" lives.  Yet one cannot overlook the absolutely mind-blowing guitar solo, and on this song, it is a dual-solo from Zappa himself, along with the legendary Adrian Belew.  The guitars seem to take on an uncanny sense of movement, as one can feel them veering around tight corners and cresting with an amazing sense of drama.  It is in this solo that any questions of Zappa's musical ability come to an abrupt end, and there are few more impressive musical pieces than one finds across all of "City Of Tiny Lites."

However, while one can make the case that many of Frank Zappa's most impressive moments live within his instrumentals, it is impossible to deny the brilliance he showed through his singing and lyrics all across his career.  While he certainly recorded a number of very controversial and amusing songs, "City Of Tiny Lites" takes a different approach in many ways.  First off, Zappa himself only performs a small part of the vocals, with Belew handing a majority of the singing.  Working across the entire vocal scale, there is a very unique sound within the singing, and it perfectly mirrors the tone and mood set by the music.  Right before the solo, Zappa jumps in, and there are few voices that can even remotely compare to his deep, almost hollow voice, and it is in this moment that his distinctively light-hearted mood is most clear.  Yet following the solo, Belew jumps back in with full energy, and there is a raw, almost unhinged tone in his voice that gives "City Of Tiny Lites" an attitude like no other song in the Zappa catalog.  Along with the music and vocals, the lyrics here fit in perfectly with the rest of the song, though they are not nearly as confrontational or lewd as a majority of the Zappa catalog.  Showing his more imaginative side, as the words paint an amazing picture of a town in the distance, and one can feel the storm clouds overhead.  It is in this moment where one can understand the inspiration for the music, as the lyrics point out why there is such a sense of movement throughout the entire song.

The combined effort that is "City Of Tiny Lites" is so far beyond anything else being recorded at the time, and in the thirty years since its initial release, it has yet to be matched in any way.  The way in which Frank Zappa was able to spin together so many different sounds and tempos, whilst keeping things tight and together is what defines his career in many ways, and it was rarely more obvious than one finds on "City Of Tiny Lites."  Furthermore, one can argue that the lineup of musicians on Sheik Yerbouti was the finest that Zappa ever surrounded himself with, and it is their amazing abilities that make the entire album such an iconic musical achievement.  It is on songs like "City Of Tiny Lites" that one can gain a full understanding of the need to "listen" to your fellow musician on stage, as it is clear that the song is an exceptional exercise in both musicianship, as well as group chemistry.  Aside from the solos, there is no point where any musician is "playing over" another, and the way in which they move as a single unit is truly uncanny.  It is this selfless approach to song that one can find across the entire Zappa catalog, and it is yet another way in which one can explain just why he is so deserving of all of the praise he has garnered over the decades.  Truth be told, if one gives the title of "genius" to Frank Zappa, then it is not right to give it to any other, as his musical approach was so unique and mind-blowing, that no other performer in history has even come close to his level of musical mastery.  Scattering dozens of legendary songs across his career, it is truly impossible to cite a single track as his "best," but one can quickly understand and appreciate the status he holds to this day by experiencing Frank Zappa's masterful 1979 recording, "City Of Tiny Lites."

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