Sheik Yerbouti: Album Review

By Maisie Sheidlower

Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti opens with his provocative, gravelly voice calling me “baby” and reminding me of the time we spent inside each other. A masterful lyricist and musician, Zappa can make any character the sexiest, most abhorrent person I’ve ever had the pleasure of learning about, and any riff the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful piece of music I’ve ever had the misfortune to discover. 

I dub this 71-minute collection, released March 3rd, 1979 by Zappa Records, an “after album,” meant to be listened to once a task has been completed. Turn on Sheik Yerbouti post-breakup, post-blunt, or post-barbershop. It’s an album to grieve with, to feel connected to, and to be flattered by, but it does require a level of concentration that Zappa veterans are familiar with. I worry that as background music, listeners might miss, for example, David Ocker’s jovial clarinet, or the flawless yet flippant one-liners in the instrumental songs (my favorite, found in the titular “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango,” being “Why don’t you take it down to C-Sharp, Ernie?” — a quip directed to saxophonist Ernie Watts).

My ears perked up when Zappa crooned about a person blowing in from “Sp-a-a-a-hain,” and my attention fully peaked when I learned of somebody else experimenting with “co-ca-hu-hay-hu-haine.” Was this pronunciation choice a nod to one of my favorite authors, Tom Wolfe? Probably. Was it, more specifically, a nod to one of Wolfe’s lesser known books, The Pump House Gang, one of my favorites of his? Likely, yes. Because Zappa makes you believe that every lyric on every song on every album is specifically engineered to make you think about who you are right in this moment, and who you were before you heard that lyric, that song, and that album. 

Zappa needn’t open his mouth to move me — though he has, of course, many times. I laughed out loud at his quick and droll delivery when I heard him mutter, in “Broken Hearts are for Assholes,” that 1950s actress and model Dagmar was “Without a doubt, the ugliest son of a bitch I ever saw in my life.” The plot of “Bobby Brown Goes Down” is brilliant. However there are five songs that contain little to no vocalizing, and one stood out undeniably among the rest.

I wish I could tell you that “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango” is the kind of blues that makes you go “holy f**k,” but that would be reputation-riskingly underselling it. It’s that kind of blues that barely gets 15 chords out before you go “&#%!@?!.” And then the chords don’t stop. 

It’s the kind of blues that allows me to stand by my declaration that this is an “after album,” because of the pleasure a person can get from listening to this song sans-distraction. The kind of blues that gives credibility to the etymological history of this genre as “blue devils.” The kind of blues that makes you want to bring up Zappa’s views on censorship at Thanksgiving. Most importantly, the kind of blues that makes you sheik yerbouti. And that I did.

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