Frank Zappa, ‘Funky Nothingness': Album Review
Frank Zappa‘s estate has released material from the late composer, guitarist and singer‘s vault with such seasonal regularity over the past few years that it’s difficult to keep track of the ones that merit more attention. The 2022 Waka/Wazoo summary of sessions for 1972's Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, and a six-disc 50th-anniversary edition of his gonzo movie and soundtrack 200 Motels are worth digging into; mid-'70s shows from Pennsylvania and Yugoslavia are recommended to more-than-casual fans.
You can add Funky Nothingness to the keep pile. Culled from recordings made in 1970 with bassist Max Bennett, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, singer and violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris, and multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, this three-disc set centers on an album originally envisioned as a sequel to 1969's Hot Rats before the ever-restless Zappa moved on to something else.
Some of these songs will be familiar to Zappa devotees. "Chunga's Revenge," included in Funky Nothingness in three separate versions, was refigured as the title song from Hot Rat's follow-up, a cover of 1950s bluesman Lightnin' Slim's "I'm a Rollin' Stone" transformed into "Stink-Foot" from 1974's Apostrophe and Chunga's Revenge's closing song "Sharleena" is featured in an earlier 12-minute version.
Like so many of Zappa's albums, Funky Nothingness is hard to pin down stylistically. The opening title song is a tentative jam that runs less than two minutes; the next track, the 45-second "Tommy/Vincent Duo I," is even flimsier. (The later, second version runs longer but is more rehearsal demo than a song.) Those are followed by a violin-assisted cover of the Penguins' 1954 doo-wop cut "Love Will Make Your Mind Go Wild" and the 12-minute "I'm a Rollin' Stone," which is more profane than Slim's original version. There's also a bluesy workout on the R&B oldies "Work With Me Annie" and "Annie Had a Baby," combined for a medley.
The album eventually settles into a groove. The best tracks, whether on Funky Nothingness proper or the two additional discs of sessions and outtakes, are the ones where Zappa and his band are given the time to build to their showcase moments. An eight-minute, organ-driven "Khaki Sack," the 11-minute "Twinkle Tits" and an unedited 15-minute version of the two-part drum solo "The Clap" – originally a little more than a minute long on Chunga's Revenge – come as close to being the missing links between Hot Rats and Chunga's Revenge as anything ever will. The 1969 album remains a milestone record of Zappa's extensive catalog; this entry in his posthumous archival series bolsters both the catalog and his legacy.