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Frank Zappa - Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



3.60 | 307 ratings

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5 stars One of the most intriguing things about Frank Zappa was the unpredictable ways he would take his music. It always seemed he found a certain sound or style and then he would take that style and work it until he bled it dry of any possibilities. During the early 80s, while all the 70s bands were adjusting their sound to try to fit in with the new sound, Zappa was pushing that sound to the extreme limit and then throwing it into a blender and making it sound like something completely different by mixing it with other forms and styles. His 1982 'studio' album 'Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch' is a perfect example of taking a style and stretching it to its boundaries so it comes out as something completely different when its done. It ended up being one of the most unpredictable albums he did.

The interesting thing about the entire album is, he knew it was going to be a single album, and he also knew what material was going to be on one half of it. It ended up being side two of the album with 'Drowning Witch', 'Envelopes' and 'Teenage Prostitute'. The other three songs got worked out later, but made up side one. I imagine that the first two 'pop' songs were chosen to start off the record in order to help boost sales and also to get the younger crowd interested so that they would listen to the rest of the record which had Frank's more complex compositions on it. Frank used humor and pop music to lure people into listening to his 'serious' music.

Starting with what was inspired by an actual Mongolian song, 'No Not Now' is the first of the pop songs. Roy Estrada does the vocals on it, and Zappa layered Estrada's vocals to sound like he's singing with a goofy male choir with harmonies and all. The song ends up feeling rather thick with the layered vocals, but it has a really nice, catchy bass line. Arthur Barrow plays the bass, and learned the bass line 8 measures at a time. Zappa would hum it to him and he would play it, and they would record it as they went. The problem I have with some of Zappa's songs from this period is that the lyrics can be overly repetitive, especially at the close of the track, and they seem to go on to infinity with that obnoxious falsetto and melody. There is a good element of humor in there though, especially poking fun at Donnie and Marie Osmond, their Hawiian Punch commercials and Utahan's love for string beans. (Fun fact #1: Utah consumes more string beans per capita than any other state.) 'Valley Girl' is Zappa's biggest hit single of course, with his daughter Moon Unit Zappa singing lead vocals. Yep, it's hilarious and in '82, the radio stations played endlessly, so it did tend to get annoying. The end of this track also utilizes over- repetition at the end, but Moon's characterization is spot on. Both songs could have been shortened down a minute though to cut out the repetition. But why would I question Zappa? Moon's monologue makes the track though, and also gave Frank a huge hit. (Fun fact #2: 5 different monologues were recorded and Frank took out the best parts of each and melded them together for the final product.)

'I Come From Nowhere', according to Frank, is about people who smile too much. Roy Estrada is singing the vocals with the odd lounge-jazz style that totally contrasts the heavy rock sound of the track. Of course, the vocals are in a different meter than the rest of the instruments, that's what give it the strange sound. This is definitely a world of difference between the pop songs and the rest of the album. The track was created mostly one track at a time, starting with a drum track, and everything else added on top of it all. Same this with the wild guitar solo. (Fun fact #3: Frank hardly ever likes to put studio guitar solos on his albums, and usually uses solos from live concerts when he adds a solo on his studio songs. However, this solo was recorded in studio.) Frank took two hours of soloing material that was done in-studio before he finally got a sound he liked. The track eventually fades out on the solo.

'Drowning Witch' and the rest of the album is taken from several live performances all added together. The track starts with a standard sounding chorus, but soon Frank slips into a improvised sounding sing-song, narration style, again almost with a lounge-jazz style during the singing, with several meters and varying tempos working against each other. After a jazzy interlude with the band, Frank slips into a long guitar solo. (Fun fact #4: Frank claims that this track comes from fifteen different live shows.) The crazy thing with this one is, that it goes totally against the usual formula for improvised solos, even for Frank, in that the foundation that supports the solo is almost as complex as the solo. The several edits factor in key and modal changes. It's no wonder that Frank says this song is difficult to play correctly on stage. About halfway through, there is another instrumental interlude that bridges the track to a second guitar solo, with a completely different feel, but also very complex.

The preceeding track goes right into the next track 'Envelopes', a two minute atonal instrumental that was originally intended to be played by two amplified keyboards with rhythm section accompaniment, but as with most of Zappa's music, it was too difficult to play, and the original version was never released. (Fan fact #?: The original recording was done with Mark and Howard, [the Flo and Eddie team from the Mothers of Invention in the late 60s] along with George Duke, but they couldn't get it right according to Frank, so it was never released.) The album has the rock band version of this complex composition. The original also had lyrics, but this version doesn't. It is being played live here and is not edited or cut, so what you are hearing is the unbelievable performance of this difficult track. The album ends with 'Teen-age Prostitute' performed at Santan Monica Civic Auditorium in Dec of 1981. It features a rare performance where Lisa Popeil sings the operatic lead vocals. Again, this is a complex track sounding like a wild opera about the title character, with a James Bond style instrumental interlude. Expect the crazy Zappa hyjinx.

Many people didn't know what to make of this album when it came out. Remember, many of the purchasers of the album were probably expecting more songs like 'Valley Girl', and ended up getting this very avant-garde album instead. That must have been some surprise to a lot of virgin ears at the time. Anyway, annoying repetition aside, if you pay attention to 98% of the album, you have a real complex recording here that really showcases Frank's talent, not just as a guitar player, but more as a composer. This music may sound quite alien to most people, but you are hearing Zappa at his inventive best. The 2nd half of the album seems to go by in a chaotic whirlwind, and you definitely won't catch much of the genius behind it all until you listen to it several times and seek to understand what an amazing musician Frank Zappa was. Once you understand what goes into Frank's music, and the amazing talent of his band, you can't help but give this 5 stars, even with the annoying repetition at the end of the first 2 tracks.

TCat | 5/5 |


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