Continuing the 40th anniversary celebration packages of Frank Zappa's "milestone" albums, the Zappa Family Trust issued the 3-CD set "Lumpy Money" in 2008. Actually, I guess the full title is "The Lumpy Money FZ audio documentary project/object", but I'll just go with "Lumpy Money" for ease of typing.
I was more than a bit disappointed that there was no 40th anniversary version of the Absolutely Free album, but perhaps there weren't that many rarities that could have been included with an expanded version of that album, aside from the Big Leg Emma single that was already included with the original CD.
But moving on, we get this triple CD set that documents the creation of the albums Lumpy Gravy and We're Only In It For The Money. The two albums have always been closely related, although the former is a Zappa solo album and the latter is a full Mothers of Invention rock album (originally intended as a answer to and parody of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album).
This set isn't quite as lavishly packaged as the Making of Freak Out set was, but it's still pretty nice. The cardboard "brick" folds out to a long horizontal strip with four parts, one to hold the liner notes booklet and three for the CD jewel cases. Each CD tray has a flap over it containing artwork from the original albums, as well as photos that become visible when the discs are removed from the clear plastic holders. The thick booklet contains a full track listing (which would have been nice to have on the outside of the packaging somewhere, but oh well) and lots of photos from the recording and artwork sessions, plus a lengthy write-up by David Fricke. And, of course, there's the usual rambling, self-indulgent, completely unreadable liner notes from Gail. I really don't know why she bothers - I only made it to the end of the first paragraph before giving up, and I'm betting most people don't make it that far.
As voluminous as the liner notes are though, they're fairly skimpy on details. Fricke's musings help put the albums in historical context and make it clear that he's a big fan, but don't tell much about the material in the boxed set. Things like why these particular recordings were selected for the box, or what exactly all those little bits on disc three are - those would have been nice to know, for us non-insiders who haven't made a life's work out of studying Zappa.
Anyway, on to the music... The set begins with a recording that had been circulating amongst bootleg traders for years, but it's nice to finally have an officially released copy with the best sound quality possible. Apparently the Lumpy Gravy album was born when Capitol records approached Frank and asked if he'd be interested in writing and conducting an orchestral album for them. Zappa was under contract with MGM at the time, but he figured that contract only covered the Mothers' rock albums, so he wrote and recorded an instrumental, mostly orchestral album for Capitol using session musicians. MGM got wind of it and stopped the release (although legend has it that a few 8-track tape copies of the original Capitol version somehow got released to the public, making them one of the rarest of the Zappa rarities). Zappa ended up re-working the material, adding surf rock, the piano voices, etc, and it eventually got released in the version that most fans are familiar with. But this boxed set kicks off with the original instrumental version recorded for Capitol. It sounds fairly different from the more well-known version - it's all instrumental and there's lots of orchestration. Despite the different song titles, many of the melodies (Oh No, King Kong, Theme From Lumpy Gravy) are still there and are, if anything, even more lush and melodic. But there's also a good bit of music that ended up getting dropped, making the Capitol Lumpy Gravy a very different album. At slightly over 20 minutes long though, it's hard to see how it could have been released as a full album.
After the revelation of the original Lumpy Gravy, disc 1 gets back to more familiar territory, although still a little different. In 1968, Frank created a mono mix of We're Only In It For The Money. The liner notes are very specific that this is not just the stereo master mixed down to mono, but a completely different mix. And if you listen really closely, you can pick out differences. There don't seem to be as many layers and as much going on, which makes it easier to pick out individual instruments and vocals and notice things that you might miss in the stereo mix. There might even be things in there that aren't in the stereo mix, but to my ears the differences aren't that great. The mono mix is interesting to hear, but not something I couldn't live without.
Nearly 20 years after the original recordings, when the albums were being prepared for their initial CD release, Zappa decided to digitally remix everything and even re-record parts (mainly the bass and drums). This lead to the much-reviled original Lumpy Gravy/WOIIFTM two-fer CD. Lumpy Gravy hadn't been changed too much, but fans howled at the revamped WOIIFTM. Well, it turns out that Frank had also made a radically different version of Lumpy Gravy, but wisely chose to release the original version instead. Disc Two of this set reveals, for the first time, the remixed version. It starts out very differently, with Ike Willis singing the song title "Duodenum" over the opening melody and even throwing in various Thing-Fish references. Kind of shocking to hear, and I'm sure it would have infuriated fans at the time. There are also re-recorded drum parts and just a lot more rhythm section, particularly noticeable at the beginning of part two but all over the album. This version of Lumpy is certainly interesting to hear, but then the other half of the disc is filled out with exactly the same re-mix of WOIIFTM that was on the original CD - I know that one's out of print now, but don't most Zappa fans already own it? This version might run a little slower (the original CD was often criticized for sounding like a "chipmunk" version of the album and rumor had it that it was sped up considerably to make both albums fit on one CD) but otherwise it's exactly the same.
Disc three starts out strong with a 25 minute mix that Frank had put together of yet another version of Lumpy Gravy. The beginning and ending melodies will sound familiar, but the whole middle section is completely different from any other Gravy, with jazzy jamming and other orchestral bits. I'm not sure where the title How Did That Get In Here? came from, but it aptly describes the piece - where did it come from? What was Frank planning to do with it? Why don't the liner notes mention it at all other than to note the date it was recorded and that parts of it appear on Lumpy Gravy? After that major revelation, the disc skips along jumping from various excerpts from the recording sessions to interview clips. It's interesting stuff, although like the MOFO set a lot of it seems like filler. And I wonder where a lot of the track titles came from.
All in all, I'm glad I got Lumpy/Money (especially since it was a Christmas gift and I didn't spend my own money on it), but I'm thinking that it could have easily been a 2-CD set for $30 rather than a 3-CD set for $50. Drop the 1986 mix of Money and some of the interviews and instrumental versions from disc 3 and you're there. Having said that, this review was written after my initial listen to the set. Perhaps with more spins I'll find more of that stuff on disc 3 to be essential and have to come back and revise this web page.