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Review

Frankly better than Zappa

  Jacket of Nigey's dream CD

Nigey Lennon's long-awaited album shows that her lyrics are less laboured, and less silly than Frank Zappa's. And her melodies are hauntingly beautiful

Reinventing the Wheel
Nigey Lennon

 

Nigey plays with styles seamlessly -- from pop to reggae, and existential cowboy blues and sophisticated operatic house to avant garde, bizarre bossa nova, not to speak of straight-ahead blues and big band swing.

She melds them together into her own larger sound, where she uses the different styles like the raw material for her own music, sort of like Bartok did with folk music. I'm not sure I would compare her to Bartok, but Nigey has some quite incredibly brilliant moments and they are there on this CD. Her love of Zappa is apparent right from the beginning, with Please help me get to the bottom of it all. It's a quick beautiful mantra that seques into a more comical, loopy work entitled Tit-Elation. Victoria Berding sings this, and like Victoria herself, who I introduced to Nigey, the material is intimate and luscious and just plain lusty from the beginning. A swingy bass clarinet riff, with Nigey doing some of her best keyboard work, ensues, followed by a deliciously FZ inspired guitar solo by ex-Zappa sideman Mike Keneally.

It's just a black guitar features Nigey collaborator John Tabacco on lead vocal. Nigey writes about the myths surrounding electric guitar players. Anyone who's ever been in a music store will quickly recognize the kind of cacophony that invariably dwells in the guitar section. There is a lot of that sound in this tune, intentionally, of course. Candy Zappa sings her brother's classic, Anyway the wind blows, and then comes Just another third rate clown, a swipe at Mike Davis, a then-Los Angeles writer who Nigey once had dealings with and came to intensely dislike. "He's a radical fart -- a brilliant upstart," she writes. This song went through many permutations. It was originally called, Just another third world town with lines such as I may not be smart, but at least I'm all white sung to what sounded like a drunken Mexican marimba street band. I remember that the song in its original version made some literal-minded people uncomfortable, but when it was played on radio station KPFK, the radical left-wing station in Los Angeles, most people understood it for what it was.

Candy does one of her best solos on Messin' in the kitchen, with cheesy big band arrangements, and Nigey doing some real nice blues slide guitar work. Yes, this track is full of double entendres, and makes mouth watering erotica in its own way. The voice you hear interspersed throughout the album is that of author David Walley, who wrote the basic Zappa biography, No Commercial Potential. Walley was always hurt that Zappa, who had extended himself when he was gathering material for his biography, made snide remarks about it.

Lennon and Walley hung out with Zappa about the same time, so there is a lot of resonance to their mutual Zappa obsessions. They know well their hero's feet of clay, but that only adds to the enjoyment of it all. In the end, like most everyone on this recording, all bow to Zappa like they were bowing to mecca. Nigey also was a biographer of Zappa, although a different kind than Walley, so they have a lot to talk about. And on this CD, that's an almost constant refrain. Walley provides the punctuation with a sinister laugh as Can you do it? begins. Berding's operatic training from her Midwest upbringing shows here, and with some beautifully jazzy chords, she belts out the song. As usual she is sexy as hell. But there is also an underlying sadness, as she sings, I'm your whore at the end of each hook.

Can you do it is the succinct story of an aging prostitute, now facing the results of her brutal and unappreciated life. Teddy Kumpel does a middle section, spewing forth wonderful erotic riffs. The avant garde bossa nova entitled Calle sin nombre (Street without a name) follows. It's hard to say if this is a Steely Dan-influenced piece, or a parody. Tabacco's solos are more Fagenesque than Fagen. It's a song of urban reality, sleazy, drug-infested urban decay. Beneath the bossa nova styling are voices that might be from Haedes. The journey then moves into something totally unexpected.

The pirates of Old Northport is a sea shanty. A drunken group of would-be sailors has a go at this authentic sounding shanty, complete with accordion and "Hey ho". It probably is not just coincidence that this song is here because Frank Zappa loved sea shanties. Then a toilet flushes, and we go from a drunken gang of sailors to the explosive introduction to Jihad. Like Zappa, Nigey is sensitive to the dangers of religious cults. Accentuated in an Ali Baba's camel motif a la the Bonzo Dog Band, this dark, intense piece is deeply troubling.

I remember a rabbi who heard an earlier version of this song was deeply offended, because Nigey gives no corner to any religion. It must be a cigar, co-written with John Tabacco, is the only answer to Jihad. Nigey began writing this piece in the R70s, as a homage to FZ's classic guitar piece Twenty small cigars. She writes of it in her book Being Frank, and it turns out to be a fluid, jazzy waltz with atypical parallel guitar harmonies and a tasty George Duke type synthesizer solo played by Tabacco. It's the lightness after the darkness.

In Brain tap shuffle, Nigey's arrangement ties together her fondness for Zappa and Steely Dan. Brain tap shuffle is a polished version of an unreleased Becker and Fagen demo written before they were called Steely Dan. Like all Steely Dan material, the lyrics are cryptic, sarcastic and the twisted chord progression supports a typical catchy Dan melody. Tabacco and Lennon share the vocals. Jim Dexter plays the 'Beckerish' guitar solo and the piece ends on the chorus: "Let your mind snap - mash your knee cap - rock and roll crap" and then plummets into an hysterical, hyper FZ meltdown.

Nigey begins to wind down this tour de force by asking to "get to the bottom of it all" followed by Candy doing Yer wife don't like me. Here we have a comical blues number dealing with the conflict Nigey obviously had with FZ's wife Gail. Sample lyrics: "Round midnight last Tuesday she's seen me sliding out the basement door ...I felt the ground shake just like an elephant as she jumped off the sofa, turned off the TV and grabbed hold of her old forty four!"

She reserves the final spot for the final curve ball: the existential Mesmerized Cowboy. It features Mike Keneally and Nigey taking turns reading a dada-esque poem written by Urban Gwerder, an old Zappa aficionado from Europe. The piece ends by getting sucked up in a vacuum cleaner that dances in wild abandon in the moonlit night of the forest.

I always told Nigey I thought she was better than Zappa. Her lyrics were less labored, less silly and less juvenile than Zappa's. Her melodies could be hauntingly beautiful, which was also true of her mentor as well, of course. And I think she ha
s a depth that he never had. She has recast her mentor in a whole new way.

The Nigey Lennon worldview is a powerful potion. Believe me, I should know.

Lionel Rolfe 

*Reinventing the Wheel is available from amazon and http://www.dabelly.com


*Rolfe writes more about Nigey in his new ebook Death and Redemption in London and L.A (http://www.deadendstreet.com) and Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground, available from amazon.com and http://www.dabelly.com


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