Tentative Review #141

Frank Zappa
Sleep Dirt

(released 1979)

1. Filthy Habits *****
2. Flambay *****
3. Spider Of Destiny *****
4. Regyptian Strut *****
5. Time Is Money ****1/2
6. Sleep Dirt ****1/2
7. The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution *****




Sleep Dirt, the 25th Frank Zappa album, has something of a convoluted history.

The album was originally issued by Warner Brothers in 1979, to Zappa's displeasure. While the chronology of events for this time period is still somewhat unclear (see Mike Dawson's web page for details), a few facts are clear: Zappa wanted to use some of the material on Sleep Dirt for the release of an ambitious, eight-sided project entitled Läther. Warner Brothers blocked the release of this project, and issued three works (the other two being Zappa In New York and Studio Tan) covering much of the same material. Dawson has argued that, contrary to legend, Sleep Dirt and Studio Tan were recorded and arranged by Zappa in the form in which they were originally released -- he does not dispute, however, that Zappa only reluctantly turned these recordings over to Warner Brothers.

The album was released in 1979 as an all-instrumental work. Upon its CD reissue in 1991, however, Zappa enlisted operatic singer Thana Harris to add vocals to "Flambay", "Spider Of Destiny" and "Time Is Money" (the lyrics to which address the semi-obscure "Huntchentoot" saga, Zappa's tale of cosmic conquest by a monstrous spider). The original drum tracks, moreover, were replaced by overdubs from Chad Wackerman. This review considers only the CD reissue.

Given the album's history, it is perhaps not too surprising that the All-Music Guide has referred to the album as "little more than musical fragments". This assessment, however, misses the real value of the work. While Sleep Dirt may not be the most coherent or culturally-relevant of Zappa's albums, it does contain some of the best music of his career (the 13-minute "The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution" easily ranks as a career highlight). Some might lament the relative lack of humour on this album; for those who weren't entirely enthralled with the more juvenile aspects of Zappa In New York, however, Sleep Dirt might be the perfect cure.

Some less-than-hardcore fans might wonder if this album is still important today, now that a fair degree of its material has finally been released on the 3-CD Läther set -- Studio Tan, after all, has been rendered almost completely superfluous by the more recent release. This reviewer would argue that it is -- and that, moreover, Sleep Dirt presents the material in a better manner than does Läther. Harris's vocals, if anything, only add to the merit of the three tracks which she appears on; moreover, Läther edits about 5-6 minutes from "The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution", a track which deserves to be heard in its entirety. Buyers on a budget might not need to acquire both albums at once, but, for serious Zappa fans, Sleep Dirt is unquestionably still a necessary purchase.

The album begins with "Filthy Habits", a seven-and-a-half minute guitar-solo/instrumental. The solo combines impressive moments of "picking" and melodic development -- fusing the progressive and blues-centred aspects of Zappa's past into a fairly coherent whole (I just wish it had gone even longer...). The bass and drums interplay is top-rate as well, and the addition of a bit of electric piano at the end of the end of the track is a nice touch.

"Flambay" is a truly odd creation -- an authentic-sounding classic jazz track with Ella Fitzgerald-esque vocals from Thana Harris, this work tells of the matriarchal hero's love for Huntchentoot, the spider destined to control the known universe (the string bass fits perfectly, Ruth Underwood's xylophone work in the "Huntchentoot my love" section adds a bit of additional absurdity to the situation). This track then segues into "Spider Of Destiny", a progressive-inflected track (featuring another of Zappa's guitar solos) wherein Harris abruptly switches to a more violent vocal tone, demanding that her beloved spider continue his destruction of all earthly creatures. Musically, both tracks are very impressive.

"Regyptian Strut", later recycled as the opening track of Läther, is a somewhat less absurd number, combining a somewhat Hollywood-inflected pompous introduction with lead melodic performances by Fowler and Underwood. The bass and drum playoff drives the track forward, as one might expect in a track of this title. "Time Is Money" doesn't stand on its own quite as well as the rest of the album, but it's still interesting to hear Harris's vocal line develop in the manner of the traditional Zappa instrumentation (what has she been doing since this album, anyway?). "Sleep Dirt" is a bit of a strange aside, a guitar duet by Zappa and Youman which once again fuses blues and classical influences in a fairly impressive manner (ending only when Youman's fingers get stuck in the strings).

These tracks, however, pale in comparison to "The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution", an amazing number which shifts from chaotic acoustic strumming (at "RDNZL" levels of speed!) to a section combining shared leads from the electric, acoustic and bass guitarists (following the bass line of this track, incidentally, is a very rewarding experience; it was Patrick O'Hearn's debut with Zappa, and it's a good showing). This, on its own, would make the album worth purchasing.

Sleep Dirt never gets rated too highly in lists of Zappa's best albums, but those with a serious appreciation of his music should find it to be among his better releases of his career. It's certainly better than the overrated Sheik Yerbouti, the album which immediately follows it in Zappa's chronological catalogue.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 31 Jan 1999)

[ Tentative reviews home | index by artist | Previous | Next ]