Many people who know that I am a huge Frank Zappa fan are often quite surprised at my reply when they ask me what my all time favorite Zappa record is.... You know, that one Zappa record I return to most often... That one record I would take on a Desert Island if I could only have one Zappa record.
That record is not Over-nite Sensation (actually, that one is very far from a favorite, fun though it may be)... That record is not Roxy & Elsewhere ... Nor is that record Hot Rats or Sheik Yerbouti or even Freak Out. And no, the record is not We're Only In It For The Money.
No, that extra special Zappa record is called Uncle Meat and it was released in 1969 as a two LP set on Zappa's then new Bizarre Records label (subsidiary of Warner Brothers / Reprise Records). And now there is a three CD "audio documentary" -- third in a series from the Zappa Family Trust -- culled from deep in the Zappa archives called Meat Light which acts as a healthy supplement to your recommended daily requirement of Uncle Meat related music.
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
Why is Uncle Meat my favorite Zappa record, you ask?
Well, I've thought about this a bunch and I think it is, its own way, the best summation of what Zappa is all about. In some ways it is like a Zappa "Greatest Hits" collection without containing a single hit on it.
Consider that in one album you get ground breaking jazz fusion innovations ("King Kong"), avante-garde tape and studio experimentation (throughout the whole record, actually, 1950s Doo-Wop parodies ("The Air," "Electric Aunt Jemima") and little weird pop nuggets ("Cruising For Burgers," "Sleeping in a Jar," "Mr. Green Genes") and a bevy of very cool and compelling instrumental pieces ("Project X," "Dog Breath Variations," "Uncle Meat Main Title Theme").
Consider that you get to hear Zappa and the original incarnation of The Mothers of Invention at an early creative peak.
Consider also: where else will you hear "Louie Louie" played on the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ?
One of the things I really love about Uncle Meat is how it features a lot of Acoustic guitar on it, something we really didn't get to hear Frank Zappa play much of in years to come. So while there are plenty of his trademark bizarre soundtrack-like sequences and plenty of percolating xylophones and vibraphones, they are complemented by gorgeous acoustic guitar work that at times is really quite haunting.
Uncle Meat also marks, pretty much, the end of an era for the original Mothers of Invention. I mean, yes, after this two fine like-minded collections were released (Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Burnt Weeny Sandwich), but we never really again got the level of intensity of production and sequencing from Frank to create an end-to-end album listen quite like Uncle Meat.
After this Frank did is solo album, Hot Rats, a ground breaking jazz fusion record (essentially) and then embarked on a different sort of journey with an equally talented but very different incarnation of The Mothers featuring Flo & Eddie of The Turtles on lead vocals. By 1973 or so, Frank very much focused his efforts on commercially viable recordings that could possibly be played on the radio, particularly college radio (which isn't a bad thing but it is a different thing). Even Lather, as great as that work is, didn't quite have the attention to micro detail like Uncle Meat.
All that said, the concept of the Meat Light album is a noble one. I did have to go back to the label to ask exactly what they meant in naming the album "Meat Light" as it certainly isn't a trimmed down or "lite" interpretation of the recording.
The idea apparently was to shed more light on Uncle Meat so... thus the title.
GRADE A PRIME
Meat Light -- appropriately -- starts out with a straight single disc presentation of the original vinyl mix for Uncle Meat, presented uncut and in its entirety. This is a big deal because prior to this, there was just this odd version of the album which Zappa himself produced in the early days of CDs, adding in much dialogue from the unfinished movie of the same name. Most fans didn't mind the new material but that it was put in the middle of the album messed up the listening experience for most fans of the record -- people like me who love the album's pacing and sequencing.
The flow of music on Uncle Meat is quite remarkable. So now you can hear this in all its digitized, 44.1 kHz, 16-bit ... ummm... glory. Ok, snark aside, the CDs sound quite good but there are inevitable shiny edges inherent to the format. So your vinyl source will probably still be the preferred "go to" version for critical listening of this fine album; I have not received a new edition of Uncle Meat yet from Universal Music Group (which has kindly sent me a bevy of the new FZ reissue for review, full disclosure) but I suspect it will sound quite good once I do get it (perhaps a separate follow on review to come!).
The original vinyl was always a very good sounding record. That said, the CD does have some advantage as it feels a little less compressed in some ways -- a certain amount of compression goes into the physical LP mastering process (which is part of the sound of the LP ultimately) so there is a difference here. Some instruments sound a bit more distinct at times (especially things like the xylophones and such). I admit that we're talking hairs-splitting stuff here folks, but it is something worth at least mentioning for those of you out in audiophile-land who care about this sort of thing (like I do!).