Lumpy Gravy is the most curious album Frank Zappa has been involved in to date, and in many ways the music just doesn’t make it; as it says on the cover, “a curiously inconsistent piece which started out to be a ballet but probably didn’t make it.” The record was recorded in February of 1967, and Zappa conducts the “Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus,” which is made of stray Mothers and some of Hollywood’s top studio musicians. On the back of the album we are asked by Zappa, “Is this phase 2 of We’re Only In It For The Money?” but Lumpy Gravy is hardly a sequel in quality or kind to Money, although it does share some thematic material with the later Mothers’ group.
Lumpy Gravy carries to an extreme the protean, fragmented musical approach that Zappa favors, but on the whole the work is rather inert. The composition is liberally garnished with dialogues about everything from living in drums to pigs with wings, but most of these spoken sections seem rather artificially forced. There are several jabs at surfing music, and the record closes with an instrumental version of “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” that could have been arranged by the Ventures. In contrast some sections of Lumpy Gravy are so extremely chromatic that they verge on “atonality;” these passages are usually scored for strings and/or woodwinds, although towards the end of the second side an atonal passage for wind instruments is incongruously accompanied by a studio drummer.
Parts of Lumpy Gravy break down into cliched lush string writing, while other parts abound in burps and bits of electronic music not unlike sections of “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.”
Yet in spite of its varied tricks, Lumpy Gravy does not come to life; it is a strangely sterile recording, as though all the studio musicians reading their music could not do what a batch of well-rehearsed Mothers can do. Missing are the songs and the energy of the Mothers, with all their casually tossed off mistakes vocally and brilliance instrumentally; furthermore what Zappa has lost by not using the smaller Mothers he has not really gained back by using a huge orchestra. The texture of the music (and the scoring of the instruments, for that matter) is surprisingly conventional and even boring, especially if one is familiar with Zappa’s love of burps, aimless dialogue and certain kinds of electronic music.
Nevertheless Lumpy Gravy is an important album, if only because Frank Zappa is one of rock’s foremost minds. This album, recorded well over a year ago, demonstrates the problems that serious rock as a whole faces, as well as the compositional limitations (as of a year and a half ago) of one of serious rock’s leading voices. Lumpy Gravy can hardly be called successful, yet it points the way towards more integrated, formal protean compositions such as Zappa’s masterpiece We’re Only In It For The Money. It might be said that Zappa makes mistakes other rock composers would be proud to call their own best music; Lumpy Gravy is an idiosyncratic musical faux pas that is worth listening to for that reason alone.