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Frank Zappa - 200 Motels CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



3.06 | 212 ratings

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4 stars Soundtrack album for the Mothers of Invention movie of the same name. One of the strangest low-budget weirdo films I've ever seen. Objectively speaking, the film is a piece of crap. It jumps around various subplots which are never explained and never developed. Ringo Starr and Keith Moon have prominent roles in it, and they provide some of the film's funniest moments. Personally, I love the movie a lot. But I certainly can't expect many other people to like it. You'd need to be very sympathetic to the cause to get through it. In any case, this review isn't about the movie.

The music, however, is indubitably excellent. Zappa had been composing orchestral music for several years in preparation for this project, and it's fantastic. There are a few rock band numbers which are extremely simplistic by Zappa standards; in part to offset the seriousness of the orchestral music, and in part to be playable by Martin Lickert, Ringo's chauffeur, who had to step in at the 11th hour as the band's bass player because Jeff Simmons quit the group mid-production, and he wasn't much of a bassist. He turned out to be a fine actor, though, playing the (big) part of Jeff in the movie.

So what does it sound like? The majority of the tracks are played by a symphony orchestra, sometimes with sung and spoken interjections by characters in the movie. All of it strongly reflects Zappa's affinity for composers such as Varese, Messaien, and Stravinsky - melodic, but refusing to adhere to any "classical" notions of orchestral music. A handful of the songs are performed as rock numbers by the Mothers of Invention, Zappa's band. Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (ex-Turtles) perform dual lead vocals that are kind of an acquired taste, encouraged as they were to let their freaky sides show. They are the dominant sounds in the mix, leaving the accompaniment sometimes lost in the murkiness of the recording (the music was performed live in the film studio, along with the orchestral parts, making this one of the least-labored Zappa productions in terms of sound quality).

But regardless of the technical shortcomings, the songs are crazy, well-designed, funny, and sometimes even quite touching. "Mystery Roach" acts as a boogie-rock show opener, total nonsense that nonetheless encapsulates the film's theme of "going crazy" perfectly. The suite of songs beginning with "She Painted Up Her Face" is a complex series of vignettes, a disarmingly sensitive portrait of a groupie preparing herself to go out and have a good time. "Daddy Daddy Daddy" is a simply adorable little piece of 50s R&B. And "Magic Fingers" is the big guitar feature you've been waiting for - too bad it only shows up on side four!

The soundtrack's fantastic, as I said, but it's also one of the worst-sounding Zappa albums, as it was pretty much recorded live in the film studio, in what sounds like a large, echoey room (I always thought it sounded like an airplane hangar). If you can get past that, and get past the sometimes sophomoric humor of the rock band pieces (topics du jour: getting high, getting laid, getting VD, and male insecurity in general), then there's plenty to enjoy. After many years and dozens of Zappa albums in my collection, this is still one of the albums I return to most often. I proudly award this album a 4/5.

HolyMoly | 4/5 |


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