Frank Zappa

Understanding America

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The two-disc compilation of alternative takes titled Understanding America is intended for devoted fans only. It's scattershot material, tied together loosely by one theme: Zappa's acerbic mistrust of American culture. Throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s, social satire made up a huge amount of his catalog, so Big Brother, media outlets, organized religion, and recreational drugs are all subject to attack here. The gold nugget is the unreleased 25-minute "Porn Wars Deluxe," a Negativland-esque collage that pairs together samples of music with clips from the 1985 PMRC Senate hearings, for which Zappa played an integral role defending against censorship. Purportedly, this release from the Zappa estate vaults is only one of a few compilations produced and sequenced by Frank himself, and his goal seems to have been to pool all of his high-shock-value outtakes and otherwise controversial material as a big middle finger to the Parental Guidance sticker. Thus, listeners are treated to early mixes of fan faves like "Dinah-Moe Humm," but also have to suffer some of the more indulgent experiments that fit the theme, like the lame rap attempt "Promiscuous." Similarly, the sentiments of "Thing-Fish" and "The Central Scrutinizer" may be good fodder for the war against Tipper Gore, but since they were originally narrative interludes on concept albums, they do not play well individually. While many of these tracks are far from career highlights, the recording quality is top-notch, and if nothing else, Understanding America gives aficionados an opportunity to compare the subtle differences between these versions and the ones they know and love.

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