Frank Zappa – Sheik Yerbouti (1979)

Zappa_Sheik4.5 out of 5 Stars!

I state unequivocally, I love this double-album collection by the legendary Frank Zappa for three main reasons…

#1: To me, Zappa became a musical GOD the moment I first heard the album Hot Rats. The man not only shredded on guitar, churned out fresh and typically above-average material on a shockingly regular basis, and was a musical genius when it came to songwriting and scoring in a wide variety of genres. He was, in a word, brilliant.

#2: This collection of tracks is one of Zappa’s most creative and, in all cases with his music, is wonderfully performed by every musician involved.

And #3: Personal amusement…and now, it’s flashback time…

Way, way back in 1979, I was working at a local record store (remember those, folks?) and one day we received a shipment of albums marked “PROMO,” including Sheik Yerbouti. The general rule, as my annoyingly prudish manager (so tight-assed you couldn’t pry a needle out of her butt even when using a tractor) had drilled into my head and those of my co-workers, was to immediately take ALL new “PROMO” albums (regardless of our personal musical tastes) and, throughout the week, play them repeatedly over the store’s sound system, thus encouraging customer purchases. (This rule was—and I quote her exact words—”A MUST! No excuses to do otherwise or face the consequences!”)

So I did as I was ordered, and during one of my shifts, promptly placed this album into the usual “weekly rotation.” Well, imagine my manager’s already pale face when the track “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” came blasting out of the wall speakers during prime shopping hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Well, let me tell you, I about pissed myself freaking silly when she actually wobbled on her skinny legs when hearing the most sardonic (okay, wickedly crude) Zappa lyrics. Needless to say, she was NOT happy with me or the other employees for “following HER rules,” and for that utterly delicious moment in my personal history alone, I placed Zappa at the top of my “Music To Freak Out The ‘Suits'” Category, and (miraculously) adored him even more than I thought humanly possible.

Therefore, this album, which contains not only the hilarious “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” track, but other zany, satirical, and classic ditties such as “Flakes,” “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” “City of Tiny Lites,” “Dancin’ Fool,” “Jewish Princess,” and “Yo Mama,” plus stunning guitar showcases such as “Rat Tomago,” will always hold a special place in my heart since it not only displays Zappa and his group at their creative best, but instantly brings to mind that magnificent Saturday afternoon at the record store.

By the way, a quick FYI…remember that store manager I mentioned? Well, she finally recovered from her shock at hearing the “A” word, then canned every single employee (including myself) several weeks later, turned the shop into a “religious-music-only” store while hiring fellow church members to replace us, and ultimately put the store out of business within two short months. Karma’s a bitch, and Zappa Rules! Oh, and most importantly, I swiped that “PROMO” copy of Sheik Yerbouti from the “to be returned” bin when I picked up my final paycheck and have cherished it ever since.

And RIP to the magnificent Frank Zappa (1940-1993), who is sorely missed.

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Wishbone Ash – Just Testing (1980)

WishboneAsh_JustTesting4 out of 5 Stars!

After the release of 1973’s impressive Live Dates (one of my favorite live albums of all time), Wishbone Ash entered a second phase in its career, with the band not only hiring a new guitarist in Laurie Wisefield (replacing founding member Ted Turner), but also experimenting with its overall sound/style. Although the change in line-up proved more or less successful, since the talented Wisefield fit it nicely, the latter change—the experimentation—resulted in mixed results.

Thankfully, the band’s initial album with Wisefield, 1974’s There’s the Rub, was a noticeable step forward from the previous Wishbone Four, which lacked some of the band’s earlier energy and passion. But now with the band operating at full steam again, showing that the change in personnel had no initial negative effects, the musical evolution slowly began.

Unfortunately, several albums during this phase ended up rather lackluster and sterile, with a noticeable drop in heat and quality. But a few stood out to me, with 1980’s Just Testing being one of them.

On this release, rocking tracks such as “Living Proof,” “Helpless,” “Pay the Price,” the acoustic and electric hybrid “Master of Disguise,” the ballad “New Rising Star,” and the more Progressive “Lifeline” occasionally harken back to the band’s early days, featuring inspired fretwork, with plenty of Blues influences and the band’s signature twin-guitar riffs on glorious display. Whereas a handful of other tunes, such as “Haunting Me” and “Insomnia,” add sound treatments and production techniques often associated with other genres, including New Wave—subtle additions for sure, enough to show the band toying with genre boundaries, but not too far out of the norm as to create an incohesive collection of tunes.

In fact, the general cohesiveness of the tracks, the enhanced production, as well as the sterling performances of each musician and the overall catchier songwriting are what sets this album apart from several of its predecessors during this era of Wishbone Ash. So although Just Testing is not a perfect album, not quite worthy to share the pedestal with classic studio albums such as Argus, in my opinion, it’s still one of the better platters in Wishbone Ash’s vast catalogue.

And sadly, Just Testing also marked the end of this second phase of the band’s history, with long-time bassist/vocalist Martin Turner exiting shortly after this album’s completion. The band’s next release, despite John Wetton joining the line-up, ended up (due mainly to the absence of Martin Turner’s recognizable voice) being a bit too different in sound/style for many long-time fans of the group, including myself, and therefore also marked the end of my further interest in Wishbone Ash’s subsequent albums.

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Bad Habit – After Hours (1989)

BadHabit_AfterHours4 out of 5 Stars!

Way back in 1989, on a lark, I picked up Bad Habit’s full-length debut album, knowing virtually nothing about this Swedish band, but seeing the “big hair” on the cover, I expected perhaps some passable Hard Rock.

What I discovered, however—and to my pleasant surprise—was a group that delivered some solid and engaging Hard Rock/AOR music in a similar vein to my favorite acts in the genre, such as FM, Shy, Boulevard, Strangeways, Bad English, and Toto.

The singer, Bax Fehling, has an impressive range comparable to vocalists such as Fergie Fredericksen, Tony Mills, or Terry Brock, while the guitarist, Hal Johnston, delivers solos as impressive as Steve Lukather or Neal Schon. Lush and occasionally “pomp-sounding” keyboards, thanks to Doc Pat Shannon, feature heavily on many songs, while the memorable choruses on tracks such as “Play the Game,” “Rainbow,” “Rowena,” “Don’t Stop,” “Coming Home,” “Living on the Edge,” and “Winner Takes It All” are loaded with grand and rich background vocals.

About the only letdown I experienced when hearing After Hours is the band’s recording of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” which, although passable, comes shy of matching the sheer power of the original. Therefore, with the group obviously possessing fine songwriters in its midst, I’m unsure why Bad Habit decided to include just an “okay” version of a cover tune on its debut, especially when it’s not being offered with reworked instrumentation, or at a different tempo, or from an entirely new musical perspective, but remains basically a carbon copy of Boston’s version. So having this song close out After Hours is perhaps not a horribly misstep, but certainly a lost opportunity for the band to have included another of its original compositions.

Regardless, despite some personnel changes through the years, Bad Habit went on to produce five additional albums of the same high quality as After Hours, the last appearing in 2011. I’m unsure if the band is still in existence, but any of the group’s releases are deserving of inspection by fans of the genre.

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BadHabit_AfterHours