To paraphrase the composer himself, Frank Zappa isn’t dead. He just smells funny to a lot of posthippie pundits who claim the master Mother made his point with Freak Out, Absolutely Free and We’re Only in It for the Money before descending into the depths of pornographic cheap shots and jazz-rock redundancy for most of his next twenty odd albums.
As the first release on Zappa’s own label, the four-sided Sheik Yerbouti won’t change everybody’s mind, but it reaffirms (at least for the faithful) Zappa’s chops as a bandleader and rock & roll wit who doesn’t have to be socially relevant to get a laugh. The opening salvo, “I Have Been in You,” is a marvelously snide sendup of Peter Frampton’s wimpiest hour (“I’m in You”) that does for putzy love songs what “Dancin’ Fool” does later for uncoordinated nerds with fatal John Travolta complexes. Indulgent scatological exercises like “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes” and “Bobby Brown” (in which the artist unleashes a few zingers at record companies) continue to raise the question of Frank Zappa’s lyrical gift and just what’s left of it. But even when Zappa and crew come on like the avant-garde answer to Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, they do so with such self-parodying panache (“I’m So Cute,” “Jewish Princess”) that you’re just as likely to laugh with them as at them.
Instrumentally, Sheik Yerbouti is a refreshingly straightforward record. Zappa refrains from pulling too many doo-wop gags or musique concrète tricks, instead conducting his tight, punkish ensemble through hard-rock operettas (e.g., “Flakes,” “City of Tiny Lites”) that actually score points over some of his clever concertos of yore. Despite his cynicism and classical pretensions, Frank Zappa is still a first-class rock & roll musician, capable of peeling off on a hot guitar solo (the live “Yo’ Mama” here) and penning a riveting riff. If this LP does nothing else, it offers proof that, ten years after his supposed heyday, this sheik can still shake it.