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 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
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.
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
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.
Lennon worldview is a powerful potion. Believe me, I should
Wheel is available from amazon
*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
amazon.com and http://www.dabelly.com
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