So this record by Frank Zappa called Sheik Yerbouti (as in “shake yer booty“) is a fun spin, start to finish. It is arguably one of his finest late period recordings and alongside Joe’s Garage (which I reviewed recently here on Audiophilereview.com), marks a sort of end to Zappa’s last golden era (if you will) musically and lyrically. There is a sort of unwritten, unmarked (and admittedly un-agreed-upon-by-all-the-fans) tipping point which occurred sometime around 1980 and ’81 for Frank’s music. At least for some of us, after that time, Frank’s music started to get a little bit colder, uglier even.
The musicianship was still there. The humor was still there too. But … it was apparent to those of us who’d been along for the ride with Frank for a while that a bit of his heart and soul seemed to fall by the wayside into the ’80s (perhaps due to his seeming churning out of product for different factions of fans…. but that is a different story entirely).
That said, if you want to hear what was on Frank’s mind in the late 70s, a time when he still seemed to be having fun in the face of adversity (he was in a lawsuit with Warner Brothers around this time), Sheik Yerbouti offers up a cornucopia of character studies. From the closeted mess of “Bobby Brown” to the comic-yet-controversial stereotyping of “Jewish Princess” to the surprise hit disco parody “Dancin’ Fool” (apparently, some fans of the song didn’t realize they were the focus of the joke), there is no shortage of scathing societal commentary. There are send ups of the emerging punk rock genre (“I’m So Cute”) and even Peter Frampton gets his time under Zappa’s central scrutinizer (“I Have Been In You”).
But Sheik Yerbouti is not all comic puffery. There is a lot of incredible music intertwined which — coupled with some of the most aggressive between song production/editing he’d done since Uncle Meat and We’re Only In It For The Money — makes the album holds together very well as an end-to-end listening experience. (In fact, to more fully appreciate this record you really should also listen to the music on Lather, music which was spread out on the three or four albums released before and after Sheik Yerbouti, records all cut more or less from that same sonic cloth in many ways, and very much representing Zappa’s late 70s sound and vision).
For the purposes of this review, I focused more on those more serious songs to get a sense of how the new remastered version sounds in comparison to my original pressing (which I bought when it first came out). The good news is that the new reissue sounds like Sheik Yerbouti, only perhaps a bit clearer. Now, I am not sure if my old LP copy is a little played out — it was, after all, in heavy rotation in my personal playbin especially from 1979 through ’81 (around the time that King Crimson released Discipline) — or if the original mix and original pressings had inherent sonic challenges. Whatever the case, the new recording is sounding mighty fine and especially crisp and clear, yet it does not sound wildly remixed or EQ’d or anything like that. Its a bit brighter, for sure. But there are points where it simply sounds clearer than my original pressing, perhaps due to the disc’s pressing quality or the different mastering approach.
While the pop oriented tracks on Sheik Yerbouti sound good and fun and all that, its the artier more experimental tracks which help Sheik Yerbouti to stand out. For example, the liner notes to “Rubber Shirt” are just daunting to read much less explain it to someone else (so I’ll just put in these liner notes verbatim as they have been kindly transcribed on the WikiJawaka site): “The bass part is extracted from a four track master of a performance from Gothenburg, Sweden in 1974 which I had Patrick O’Hearn overdub on a medium tempo guitar solo track in 4/4. The notes chosen were more or less specified during the overdub session, and so it was not completely an improvised “bass solo.” A year and a half later, the bass track was peeled off the Swedish master and transferred to one track of another studio 24 track master for a slow song in 11/4. The result of this experimental re-synchronization (the same technique was used on the Zoot Allures album in Friendly Little Finger) is the piece you are listening to. All of the sensitive, interesting interplay between the bass and drums never actually happened…”
Alternately, the following song, a title track of sorts called “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango,” is a pure live recording with no overdubs, recorded on a portable four-track Sculley recorder.
So for those of you who don’t think Zappa made a good album after Hot Rats or Roxy & Elsewhere — and I know you are out there because I’ve talked with and even met some of you — Sheik Yerbouti is a pretty complex record worthy of your reconsideration. Once you get your head around things like the sing-along-hilarity of “Broken Hearts are for Assholes” you’ll soon find yourself bopping along to Side Four’s final one-two punch of “Wild Love” and “Yo’ Mama.” The latter has a fantastic guitar solo section that has to be experienced to be appreciated, a unique jam even by Zappa standards.
Speaking of album sides, the new pressing offers a particularly significant physical improvement over the original pressings separate from the deep dark, dead quiet, perfectly centered 180-gram vinyl, and the fact that it was created from the original 1/4″ EQ Reference Analog Tape — with the disc master cut by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman (according to several retail websites I’ve located on the Interwebs).
This version is an improvement also because the producers sequenced the record for modern manual turntables: Side One is thus backed with Side Two, Side Three with Side Four. This may seem like a minor detail but its not; the original pressings were designed to be played on the then-still-popular automatic record changers of the day (Side One is backed with Side Four, and Side Two backed with Side Three) which was always a nuisance for those of us who like to (a) play the record in the order the artist wanted you to hear it in and (b) didn’t have an automatic record player.
I only have one nit to pick on the new reissue and that has to do with some wording added to the credits on gatefold liner notes. I’m not going to specify it but I will just let you know that there is some additional language used there which some long time Zappa fans may find petty and off-putting. Others probably won’t care.
According to the official press release for this reissue, Sheik Yerbouti has sold more than two million copies sold worldwide, making it one of the most popular albums of Frank Zappa’s extensive catalog. Maybe now its time for you to add it in your collection if you never owned it. Or, perhaps its time for you to have a fresh and great sounding copy to play on your spiffy new 21st century turntable.
Whatever … its certainly high time to shake shake shake….