There is no Record Store Day for me this Spring, on April 21st. Not because I don’t want to participate; I am usually one of the first in line waiting to get into my favorite stores when they open at eight a.m. on this semi-sacred holiday for music fans. But, alas, this year I can’t go as I’ll be recording in the studio with the band I’m in so that takes priority. However, having scoured the pre-release listing of special editions coming out at the official Record Store Day website, I knew there were things I was really going to want to get my hands on and eventually review for you, Dear Readers of Audiophilereview. Knowing that I would not be able to make it out to the stores this year I reached out to some of the labels who have kindly graced me with pre-release samples to review.
One of the top items on my list is the limited edition 12-inch 45 RPM presentation of Frank Zappa’s original 1967 orchestral recordings which became the back bone of the album Lumpy Gravy, released in 1968. This particular recording has not been issued previously, seeing its first time release under the title: Lumpy Gravy Primordial. In 2008, an archival collection of recordings from the period called Lumpy Money was issued and that set included a sequence of “tracking sessions” which led to this music. Those sessions were ultimately edited by Frank Zappa into a distinct quarter-inch analog master slated for an intended release in that form.
The genesis of this album is a complicated tale. In short: originally the music now heard here on Lumpy Gravy Primordial was commissioned by Capitol Records with Zappa appearing only as the composer and conductor of an orchestra assembled just for the project. However, Zappa’s then label to which he was contractually signed as a vocalist and musician –Verve Records (owned by MGM) — would not allow this and thus he had to re-think the entire project. This ultimately led to the creation of the version of Lumpy Gravy many of us know and love today. In the interim, the so called “primordial” orchestral-only version of the album was briefly released and quickly withdrawn on a now highly collectible four-track tape cartridge (yes, four track, this was before eight-track tapes existed). See… I told you it was a complicated story! You can click here for more information on what happened and here and here for more insights.
Back to the review at hand, whatever version you listen to, this music — and Zappa himself has stated Lumpy Gravy was his favorite album — still sounds fresh and innovative to this day. It is effectively the starting point for Zappa’s more long form, mostly instrumental / symphonic “serious” works. And, within the walls of these still quite avant-garde, John Cage-Meets-Edgar Varese-Meets-Stravinsky inspired orchestral gems are previews and hints of classic Zappa compositions to come. For example, much of the “Gum Joy” sequence here eventually saw the light of day as a pop song in the form of “Oh No” on the Weasels Ripped My Flesh album in 1970. Later melodic sequences in this segment turn up later still on the Roxy & Elsewhere Album released in 1974. Conceptual continuity in action…
This orchestral music — recorded in Hollywood with legendary Wrecking Crew musicians like Pete Jolly, Tommy Tedesco, Emil Richards, Shelly Manne, John Guerin, Jimmy Bond, Lyle Ritz, Chuck Berghofer and many others — is presented as a continuous suite, with one “song” per album side (akin to how the final Lumpy Gravy album is presented; the various musical sequences are not broken out into individual “tracks”).
This new limited edition Record Store Day edition of Lumpy Gravy Primordial comes to you wrapped up in lovely burgundy colored 180-gram vinyl, perfectly pressed at Pallas in Germany. Created from Zappa’s quarter-inch master tape using an all analog mastering process, the new LP sounds pretty fantastic in living Monaural sound. I half joke about the “Living Mono” concept but in fact this is one of those monaural recordings that is so rich and compelling it almost sounds three dimensional. I suspect this visual nature of how this recording sounds has something to do with the kid gloves treatment (if you will) no doubt put into its production; Lumpy Gravy Primordial received handle-with-care priority as mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering.
Lumpy Gravy Primordial on vinyl also looks quite fabulous. In fact, the physical disc is mastered in such a way that is appears on the final physical product, frankly, somewhat like a vintage brown shellac 78 RPM disc from the 1920s! There is a wide lead-in groove and plenty of “dead wax” before the fun picture labels. However, worry not audiophiles: unlike many noisy old 78s, this new 45 RPM high fidelity edition is dead quiet and well centered. The new album features Zappa’s original gatefold design cover art, lovingly restored (and decidedly different than the Lumpy Gravy cover).
If you can’t get your hands on the vinyl Record Store Day release of Lumpy Gravy Primordial right away, don’t fret. Until you eventually locate a copy, in the interim you can still enjoy much of the essence of this music on the Lumpy Money collection — that album can be heard (exclusively) in its entirety up on the Tidal streaming music service. And, of course you can buy Lumpy Money at your favorite retailers including Amazon and iTunes. The final version that is Lumpy Gravy can also be found up on Tidal in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz CD quality (and it too sounds quite good!) as well as at your favorite stores — Lumpy Gravy was reissued just last year! You can read my review of that and some others in the series by clicking here.
It is fascinating to hear this newly released Zappa-edited, orchestral music from Lumpy Gravy finally standing on its own. Lumpy Gravy Primordial is an essential listen for the seasoned Zappa fan.