Friday, February 19, 2010

Frank Zappa - Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982)

I'm beginning to think my rating system might not be 100% accurate. I'm not just talking about the inherent biases I have - I'm well aware, thank you - but I'm wondering just how an album with less tracks will fare against something with, like an average Beatles album, maybe 14 tracks?

In all unfairness, I am selecting an artist I tend to bias in favor of, no matter what sort of guy he was in real life. In fact, the more I learn about the guy, the more I'm glad I never had an inkling of a chance to meet him - he died when I was 6 going on 7 - because we would not have gotten along. He wasn't nuts about punk music, he was a staunch pseudo-Libertarian capitalist, he ran his bands like workhorses, and his attitude from about 1980 was a painfully bitter one.

He's the reason I try to warn people to not be consumed by negativity and become cynical towards everyone and everything. Conan O'Brien was right, it is not an attractive characteristic to be had by anyone, and too much of it just as a listener and you'll find yourself falling victim to it. I can say some pretty harsh words about music, artists, and writers that I don't like, but these are rather trifling discussions about art and the various approaches to writing criticism.

Believe it or not, I am an optimist. I see the good in most things, I hope for the best, but I'm also not a blind idealist.

I'll save all that deeper material for my other blog, which is somehow even more vapid and dumb than this one.

At some point with Zappa's dense, labyrinthine catalog, you have to understand that studying each record's genesis is something best left to the experts. Considering he'd pretty much always been the boss since day one, and definitely since he disbanded the original Mothers in 1969, it's a fair assessment that Frank was a one-man unit behind all of these albums. He wrote the songs, he produced them, and after 1981 he began recording them at his own studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen.

With other bands, it's not incredibly difficult to delve into artistic intent. Not really my favorite subject, either in criticism or "serious" analysis, it's made all the worse that the one guy who could explain his artistic intent has been dead since 1993. (Like he would have given his secrets away? He wasn't a fan of critics or I said, we probably would not have gotten along. At all.)

Another thing with Zappa is that any preconceived notions you may have about live versus studio recordings needs to go out the window. He recorded (allegedly) every concert he put on since 1972, with plenty before getting taped as well. When he wanted you to hear a live album, he would let the sound of audience applause appear on the multi-track mix. When he wanted you to hear some fantastic material laid down in real time with a shit-ton of overdubs, he would mix out the audience as much as possible.

Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch is a half-studio, half-live album, at least in terms of where the songs were recorded. The live side is all-new material, so the ambient sounds of the audience is pretty much mixed out. If you put the CD on in your car or have it on at a party (because people party to Zappa, right?), you might not even notice it.

Anyway, there's no linking concept. It's not an art project. It's just an album. Sometimes an album is just an album, and that is totally okay with me. It makes for a shorter review, requiring little in terms of back story and letting the songs just play out as their own pieces.

And with Zappa, whether you consider him a composer trapped in the rock world or a rock and roller with a knack for classical music, using the term "piece" instead of song is fittingly appropriate.

01. No Not Now [8]
02. Valley Girl [10]
03. I Come From Nowhere [10]
04. Drowning Witch [11]
05. Envelopes [7]
06. Teen-Age Prostitute [9]

My humble apologies that the album versions of tracks 4 and 5 could not be found on YouTube. After all, you should go out and buy CD's. In fact, make sure you're patronizing your local independent store and not some soulless big box chain. I owe so much of my musical development to 13th Floor Music in my hometown. The owner is a grade-A bad ass. He deserves your money. The douchebags at Best Buy, Borders, Sam Goody, fye, and other overpriced shit-palaces do not.

And fuck the iTunes store, too. Do the math and tell me that is smart shopping. Look me in the eye and tell me that is smart shopping. That's something for consumers, not listeners.

[Additionally, as I'm prepping a conference presentation on Zappa's 1984 masterpiece Thing-Fish, I promise I will do a straight-up review of the songs without veering off into the dangerous kitchen of esoteric analysis that is what Ben Watson calls Zappology. I think I scared enough of you away by taking a dump on Buddy Holly in my last review.]

01. No Not Now [8]
Lovely phase-shifter on the guitar here, and the barrage of falsetto vocalists are actually a welcome sound...normally, they annoy the shit out of me. I'm reminded of Tommy Mars' falsetto scat solo in the film Baby Snakes and how much I wanted to reach through the television and tell him to shut up and stick to playing. Anyway, it plods along with a surprisingly accessible melody and (even more surprisingly) danceable beat. No bizarre time shifts, no breaks while Art Barrow shows off his chops in a bad-ass bass's actually pretty normal by Zappa's standards.

That said, there's plenty to hear with headphones, including Art Barrow's wonderful bass line, a percussion chart from Ed Mann that (unlike a lot of other parts FZ wrote for tuned percussion) doesn't sound like cartoon music and instead adds a perfect counter-melody, and the tag-team vocals consisting of Bobby Martin, Tommy Mars, and Roy Estrada doing falsetto, Ike Willis' distinct and slightly gravelly voice and Ray White's soulful vocals that somehow make "String beans to Utah!" and "But I've had her sister" (respectively) sound like the coolest lines ever song, plus Frank's occasional interjections - "Shut up! You need a vacation, boy!" - making him, as usual the master of ceremonies.

Lyrically, the song is about a woman refusing to, um..."give it up" for a guy, hence the title, and the follow-up comment "...maybe later!" There's later references to the song's protagonist making a truck delivery of string beans to Utah, a not-so-subtle poke in the eye of Utah residents (and Mormons) Donny and Marie Osmond, and the woman from earlier opting instead to ride a mechanical bull instead of her trucker boyfriend's wiener. It's a love Zappa described as a country/western song on PCP.

When the song mentions her riding the mechanical bull, former Mother Roy Estrada's falsetto laughter, trills, and disturbingly pleasured vocalizations crack me up. I wonder if this song is at all related to his later number, "Truck Driver Divorce." Maybe even "Baby, Take Your Teeth Out?"

The only drawback with this song is a lot gets lost unless you're listening closely. Something like "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" demands your attention because it grabs you. "No Not Now" works on a subtle level, with so much going on you could invariably thing it's a funky danceable number with some (seemingly) repetitive tags sung by The Bee Gees.

02. Valley Girl [10]
Boy howdy, when Frank wants everyone to hear his message, he can be as unsubtle as Johnny Rotten declaring himself to be the Antichrist. The song was a joint effort between Frank and his 15-year-old daughter Moon Unit. The story goes that Frank was so busy working in his basement studio that Moon slipped a note under his door saying she wanted to bond with him. Her constant imitations of her less intelligent classmates served as the inspiration for her contribution, while the music Frank creates shows that, if he really wanted to, he could have written songs that appealed to the masses. He just didn't want to.

The song was a hit - it became sort of a meme in its time. Inevitably, it spiraled into something ridiculous, with the Valley Girl coloring book and even a movie (that no one named Zappa had anything to do with, although it did star Elizabeth Daily, who I know best as Dottie from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure). Some Zappa fans - the very topic of Zappa fans is worthy of an anthropological dissertation - seem to disown anything the man did that people outside of the standard FZ niche of freaks and geeks enjoyed.

Whatever, let them be killjoys in their own little worlds. This only goes to enhance my argument that you should listen to whatever you want. If you found out your archenemy listened to the same music as you, does that mean you should stop listening to that music? I sure hope not. That's just stupid.

I think "Valley Girl" is still funny, even when separated from my two-month whirlwind romance with an over-privileged chick from the region in question. She didn't sound like Moon in the song, but she would occasionally bring up some bizarre subjects in a casual manner, as if it was normal that her college-aged male friend had to have a glass of warm milk before bed every single night or he couldn't sleep, stories about finding her dad's weed...lots of fun stuff that would have been a gas to explain to our kids about why Granddad smells like Venice Beach.

I digress. The song is hilarious, even on repeated listening, I happen to really enjoy the music - I know FZ was doing a send-up of New Wave music, which he wasn't nuts about, but whatever, I consider his opinions post-1980 to be misinformed and arrogant - and while the dialects might be different today, we can think of the obnoxious sorority chick on the bus telling her mom to shut the fuck up over the phone, those rotten little brats on Jersey Shore, even little charmers like Paris Hilton and hum to ourselves, "Valley Girl, she's a Valley Girl..."

They don't even need to be from the Valley.

03. I Come From Nowhere [10]
Closing out Side A is a considerably less normal piece, featuring Estrada again on lead vocals (given his appearances on this album and Jimmy Carl Black coming back for some material on You Are What You Is, one has to wonder how the Hell Frank was able to make that happen). Plenty of complex little runs in the intro, but when that riff/groove comes in at 0:18, I want to get up and dance.

Then Roy starts singing...I can almost picture this being music performed by a pop singer from another planet. Anyway, it's a delightfully bizarre delivery. The lyrics are about "Nowhere" being a land of people who mindlessly smile...perhaps a commentary on there being a pill for everything?

Where a traditional song would end, in this example, this is where Steve Vai takes over, wasting no time in showing why he is credited with "Impossible Guitar Parts" in the sleeve. Great solo...and one Hell of a song.

Later projects to come out of the UMRK would sound cold and sterile, but on these studio numbers only the drums have the punchiness that could only be achieved in a digital studio from the 1980's. At least it wasn't that God-awful gated drum sound that made the 80's a bad time to be a drummer.

04. Drowning Witch [11]
This song is a massively insane construction, and a testament not only to Frank's skills as a composer - for me, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites are all you need to convert nonbelievers - but to how incredibly tight his bands could play. Much of this song plays out like a composition, although the brief lyrics about how even witches deserve a better place to die than "America's spew-infested waterways" showed that Zappa cared about the environment.

Ecology-rock, now that would be an interesting genre.

As a twelve-minute long piece, this song is in constant flux, while all carrying an aural tone that is incredibly suggestive of being underwater. Next time I'm in my bathysphere I'll have to remember to listen to this album on my iPod. The whole band stars throughout, as Frank and Steve Vai turn in some gorgeous guitar solos (I'm not much of a guitarist to be able to tell you which solo belongs to which player, all I know is they sound great), Scott Thunes adding some great pulse on bass, especially from 2:10 to the 3:15 mark, the synths of Tommy Mars and Bobby Martin add ambiance - don't miss that SICK arpeggiated run they do right before the song's end at 11:40, and the percussion section of Ed Mann (who I contend steals the show) on tuned percussion and Chad Wackerman on drums, playing better than he ever would on later FZ releases - in my opinion. Then again, he was filling some mighty shoes, and as one of my Zappa buddies pointed out, who knows what sort of feel FZ asked Chad to play? Maybe he wanted him to keep it relatively simple.

Ed Mann gets the MVP award. Either he is part octopus or just one incredibly talented musician. Since we are living in the real world and not a comic book, I'll assume it's the latter.

Zappa, with his typical affection for his band, was quick to point out how many splices he had to make, as in his opinion the band "never got it right" in real time, so he'd piece together different performances of the same song from different nights on the road to make a definitive version.

This one clinches the 11, and not just for the magnitude of its construction or the performances. That helps, sure, but it's the end result that matters. It is a lot more than a band flexing their muscles for the audience - it sounds great.

05. Envelopes [7]
Side B all segues into one another. This song is one Frank would do again, but with an orchestra. It's fun comparing the two, but it sounds so much cooler with the band. It's another example of Zappa the composer at his best: a beautiful melody that even non-musicians can enjoy amidst a "statistically dense" backdrop.

I'm deducting some points because of several factors. To start, I don't think the song is balanced all that well. The bass is almost completely absent, and the synthesizers sound like they are sitting in your ear canal as they play while the rest of the band is up on stage. Additionally, while I like hearing someone's synth emulating a harpsichord, I don't really dig hearing (what I'm guessing is) Tommy Mars' synthesizers attempting to duplicate the sounds of brass instruments. It just sounds shitty. I don't even think modern synthesizers are capable of doing it with all the inflection and intonation a real player could bring to the table.

This almost seems like a deviation, a pause from the two songs that sandwich it. I still like it, but I don't see it making its way onto a mix CD anytime soon.

06. Teen-Age Prostitute [9]
Then there's this manic ditty, flying by like scenery on the Interstate. It's chaotic, yet finely structured, with a memorable soprano vocal appearance by Lisa Popeil.

This song was the b-side of the "Valley Girl" single. First of all, imagine all the kids who bought the 45 and, just out of curiosity, gave this one a spin. Second, it's a fitting flip-side, representing a girl on the opposite end of the economic spectrum as the Valley Girl. While the airhead from Encino is a homophobic, shallow little wench, the portrait of the Teen-Age Prostitute is a sad one: a girl who ran away from an apathetic father to help her penniless mother, now living with an abusive pimp who keeps her loaded on drugs as she walks the streets at night. It isn't a fun read.

The soprano vocals make the song comical, taking the edge off the lyrics, and the musical interludes are deftly executed. One flaw comes with this humorous presentation: we have to wonder how the composer feels about the song's subject? Is he sympathetic towards her, or is she an object of ridicule, responsible for her own circumstances? It's unclear...and given that his oldest daughter was two years younger than this song's titular figure, that doesn't sit well with me.

Still, what a way to end an album.

Subtotal: 90.0% A-

Replayability Factor: 2
There's too much going on for you to just have this one on as background music, especially with "No Not Now" and "Drowning Witch." Excellent driving music, though, just keep the A/C on low and your windows rolled up.

Consistency Factor: 1
The studio side seems to pick up where You Are What You Is left off, although "I Come From Nowhere" is a warped little delight masquerading as a pop song. Similarly, the live material carries on what Uncle Frankie started with songs like "The Black Page" on Zappa In New York, songs that are chock full of passages that I'm sure look downright terrifying on sheet music but are pleasing to the ear. In short, this one just falls short of being part of the core Zappa releases.

It's worth picking up...eventually.

External Factors: -1
This is rough. It's too short, a paltry 34 minutes in length, right after a stream of albums from 1978 to 1981 that was tightly packed: the double album Zappa In New York in March 1978, Studio Tan in September, Sleep Dirt in January 1979, the double album Sheik Yerbouti in March, Orchestral Favorites in May, Joe's Garage Act I in September, the double album Joe's Garage Acts II & III in November, the double album Tinsel Town Rebellion in May 1981, a triple-LP mail order set called Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, and the double album You Are What You Is in September.

Mind you, all of this stuff came out while Zappa was battling Warner Brothers in court, shooting and editing his concert film Baby Snakes, recording, and touring. He was a busy man...I can't help but imagine this album seeming so inconsequential, only six songs (sure, they're mostly long, but still).

While Zappa's seamless editing on "Drowning Witch" is a feat, his own growing frustrations with his band - and shortly after this album, the London Symphony Orchestra - would prompt him to cut out the human element altogether and realize his compositions on the Synclavier. I don't hate his Synclavier albums, though some FZ fans swear at them and others swear by them, but his proclamation that if he had a Synclavier in the 1960's he never would have had a band is a pretty heavy insult to his own former bandmates and to musicians everywhere. It also showed Zappa as a callous asshole who didn't seem to play well with others, eager on being his own boss to a career-altering fault.

Total: 92.0% A-

I will admit, this sounds like an appropriate score for Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch.

My rating system actually works...or at the very least, I want it to work so I make it work. Whatever. I'm glad I did this just to make sure. Next time I might just have to test out a double album, see how that pans out.

Any suggestions?

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