The ghost of Frank Zappa looms large over the latest project from ex-Wall of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway
"15 Choice Cuts For Your BBQ Party" announces the cover of Barbeque Babylon, the third album from ex-Wall of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway's new project, Drywall. I guess that pronouncement would be true... but only if you're inviting Tom Waits, Mike Patton, JD Wilkes, Captain Beefheart and the reanimated corpse of Frank Zappa to your BBQ, as much of Barbeque Babylon trafficks in the sonic pastiches, politics and general weirdness of those well-known, well-established weirdoes.
Ridgway and his Drywall compatriots Pietra Wexstun and Rick King have a knack for couching their harsh, cynical outlook on the world in silly, almost cartoony instrumentation. Opener "Goin' On Down to the BBQ" sounds like a fun invitation set to a zydeco beat, but Ridgway's Waitsian carnival barker hints at a dark underbelly to the festivities: "Tammy got a knife with a razorblade / She brought her baby with a burnt teddy bear / Lost her finger on a midnight swinger / Cook it up and like it medium rare".
If the music was as gloomy as Ridgway's dystopian vision of the world, Barbeque Babylon might inspire a rash of suicides. As it is, listeners get treated to everything from bossa nova ("Somewhere In the Dark"), jazz guitar ("Buried the Pope") and synthesizer workouts ("In Total Focus", "The Alibi Room") married to lyrics like "In Total Focus"'s "We are just fish swimming in a dirty pool". Ridgway and co's unique musicianship certainly helps the medicine go down; as such, much of the album plays like a politicized version of Mr. Bungle's genre-hopping swan song California.
And Ridgway's political stripe is this: He doesn't trust the government. The sea shanty "Abandon Ship", with its crashing cymbals, sinking ship and headstrong captain, could be read as an indictment of a certain current US president, while the Western-tinged waltz "Robbers and Bandits and Bastards and Thieves" paints with a broader brush, basically accusing anyone in power of corruption, greed and incompetence. If the powers-that-be could, sings Ridgway, "They'd lock us up and charge for the keys". Given the goings-on in the world today, can anyone begrudge Ridgway his cynicism?
Ridgway's biggest influence, far and away, though, is Frank Zappa. Both men share a healthy distrust of the government and a love of genre-hopscotching. And like Zappa's music, there's plenty on Barbeque Babylon to reward listeners, but it doesn't make for the best BBQ party soundtrack. The acid guitar of "Fortune Cookies" could easily have been found on FZ's Jazz from Hell; the looped audio clips and drone of "That Big Weird Thing" is cut from the same cloth as "Porn Wars" off Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention. Too, Ridgway is a fan of using disembodied voice sound snippets as pastiche, a technique Zappa often relied on (see Lumpy Gravy, Civilization Phaze III). On the lighter side, it's not hard to imagine Zappa, the satirist who penned such tunes as "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted", writing the old-age-is-creeping-up-on-me lament "The AARP is After Me". And the closing track about socioeconomic woe, "Something's Gonna Blow", feels like the grandson of FZ's "Trouble Every Day", right down to the ramshackle guitar riff, and Ridgway's breakdown command to "C'mon play that organ" is pretty darn close to Zappa's request to "Blow your harmonica, son". Your opinion of Zappa - who was not always an easy man to like or an easy musician to comprehend - will inform your opinion of Barbeque Babylon.
Not that all these styles and techniques are the exclusive domain of Zappa, but he's the one who synthesized them all to the greatest use over the course of his 30-plus year career; comparisons are unavoidable. Although Ridgway clearly invokes several of Zappa's eras, at its heart Barbeque Babylon is most akin to FZ's early albums with the Mothers of Invention; that is to say, it's a protest record, full of satire, brimming with musical ideas and pastiches, hoping for a better world but skewering the one we're stuck with. Not to sell Ridgway-the-standalone-musician short, but he makes for an excellent Frank Zappa torchbearer in a musical landscape that desperately needs one.