Does Humor Belong In Music?

Frank Zappa

Rykodisc, 1986

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


For the longest time, Does Humor Belong In Music?, the 1986 release that documented Frank Zappa's band circa 1984 in the live setting, was not available in the United States, but the reasons for its absence have been forgotten by your trusty reviewer. It was only after Zappa's death in 1993 that this disc finally saw domestic release, with different cover art and a few additional, albeit minor, bonuses.

If one was forced to answer the question posed by Zappa in the album's title, then humor most definitely belongs in music. If only there were a little more humor evident among the band members, all of whom seem to be going through the motions with very little spontaneous creation offered up for the enjoyment of the audience.

Take a song like "Tinseltown Rebellion," one of Zappa's more recent (for 1984) attacks on the music industry and the flavor-of-the-month mentality that still permeates it. It's a testament to the band that they can pull off the complex chord and tempo changes so flawlessly - but sometimes, the performance becomes so second-nature that it sounds mechanical. The only real "humor" can be heard when Zappa breaks out laughing during "What's New In Baltimore?" - and while it's good to hear this one with vocals intact, there's still an air of humanity missing in it.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

It's not that Zappa doesn't try to give the performance more life. Who else could get away with doing a song like "Cocksucker's Ball" and dedicating it to the music industry? (If anything, this track seems far too short - but, then again, maybe the whole point was get in, deliver the message, get out.) Who else could deliver a 16-minute instrumental (up until at least the last minute), "Let's Move To Cleveland," and have the audience hanging on every note, even when the piece begins to grow a bit languid? And who constantly proves they belonged in the higher echelon of guitar gods with his buzzsaw soloing?

Still, Does Humor Belong In Music? feels sterile at times. Tracks like "WPLJ" and "Penguin In Bondage" almost feel glossed over, as if their importance in the litany of Zappa's backcatalog isn't worth considering. Meanwhile, "newer" tracks - or, they'd have been new if this disc had been released as scheduled - like "Hot Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel" hold out the most promise, as they show Zappa's indignance matching his creative spark. Even the cover of "Whipping Post" doesn't quite have the same spark as the version on Them Or Us had.

Technically speaking, Zappa's 1984 band was one of the best he had assembled. But Does Humor Belong In Music? suggests that they didn't have the most amount of humanity. (The video of the same title does not feature all the same songs - and sometimes, seeing the band performing these numbers gives them a kick that the live CD, no matter who the group is, just fails to deliver.)

2005 Christopher Thelen and "The Daily Vault." All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of the Zappa Family Trust / record label, and is used for informational purposes only.

Rating: C

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© 2005 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rykodisc, and is used for informational purposes only.