Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Man From Utopia

“Cold and digital” is a common phrase used to describe Zappa’s production during the mid-1980s. Repetitive is one that comes to mind as well. And mechanical, as it seems that Frank would develop a musical or recording technique during this time and then clone that development for unimaginative re-use.

As an example, consider “I Come From Nowhere,” which was released on “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch.” The unusual timbre that Zappa used for the vocals in this song, while odd, provided a point of interest against the incredibly strong guitar riff driving the melody. But then this same vocalization technique shows up on “The Radio is Broken,” from “The Man From Utopia.” Boring.

And yet, this very disappointing recording starts off quite strong, beguiling the listener with the first three tracks (on the CD release) that this might actually be something nearing the compositional quality of “You Are What You Is.” The letdown, however, is substantial (it occurs more quickly on the vinyl release).

Following the order from the CD release, “The Man From Utopia” opens with “Cocaine Decisions,” a simple song with a nice harmonica part by Craig “Twister” Steward that punctuates the folksy rhythm and presentation. Zappa always had time with his material to ridicule drug use and users, but with this song, he reveals his personal animus toward cocaine. He saw the ripple effects of cocaine use not only in the music industry, but everywhere, from hypocritical politicians to doctors and lawyers. The musical interlude in between the repeated bridge has some delightful keyboards, I am presuming by Tommy Mars.

Next comes “SEX,” which starts with a strong, in-your-face rhythm, coupled with a lighter bridge finished off with what the “sniffer says.” Hmmm, lot going on in this song.

Arthur “Tink” Barrow shines on the next song, the instrumental “Tink Walks Amok.” This fantastic polyrhythmic tune with multiple bass lines, all provided by Barrow, is very cool. Listening to this I’m beginning to think that this CD has got a good groove going on. But ACK! Along comes “The Radio Is Broken.” Shit.

Lyrically, Zappa is lampooning the cheesy story lines from TV science fiction programming and SciFi movies. But the sing-speak delivery is just plain annoying. About the only redeeming quality the song has are the brief interludes of spastic guitar and drums. Things improve with “We Are Not Alone.” I really like the baritone sax in this by Bobby Martin. And musically, the song is so much more interesting than the nonsense in “The Radio is Broken.”

The first time I heard “The Dangerous Kitchen” was at the live show I saw in Tucson. I liked it then, and I enjoy the song now. Having said that, it would be even more enjoyable if the sing-speak delivery technique was limited to this song, and not used so frequently with other songs. Nothing more annoying than Zappa slipping into this sing-speak during live performances of songs like “The Torture Never Stops.”

Things pick up with “The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou,” and then really get going with the reggae-style “Stick Together.” This is a very cool song, from the impeccable rhythm section to the backing vocal harmonies that bring a spiritual quality to the song.

The sing-speak delivery that I hate so much returns with “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats,” which strikes me as laziness on Zappa’s part. The story is interesting enough in its own right, so why not just tell it? Or write a real song about it?

Frank returns to his doo-wop roots with “Luigi & The Wise Guys,” an a cappella song complete with falsetto harmonizing and snapping fingers, along with completely stupid lyrics.

The CD finishes with “Moggio”, a welcome respite from some of the other items on the release that were passed off as music. It features superb vibraphone playing by Ed Mann, and concludes with Zappa’s trademarked snorks.

All in all, I find this to be a mediocre release. In fact, I’d like to see it repackaged, taking the better items on this release and putting them together with the better songs from “Sleep Dirt.” Then I think you might have something there.

I rate this three of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Released March, 1983, Barking Pumpkin Records.

Track listing

LP release:

Side One
1. Cocaine Decisions (2:56)
2. The Dangerous Kitchen (2:51)
3. Tink Walks Amok (3:40)
4. The Radio Is Broken (5:52)
5. Mõggio (3:05)

Side Two
1. The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou (Medley) (3:19)
2. Stick Together (3:50)
3. SEX (3:00)
4. The Jazz Discharge Party Hats (4:30)
5. We Are Not Alone (3:31)

CD release:

1. Cocaine Decisions (3:54)
2. SEX (3:43)
3. Tink Walks Amok (3:39)
4. The Radio Is Broken (5:51)
5. We Are Not Alone (3:18)
6. The Dangerous Kitchen (2:51)
7. The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou (Medley) (3:22)
8. Stick Together (3:14)
9. The Jazz Discharge Party Hats (4:29)
10. Luigi & The Wise Guys (3:25)
11. Moggio (2:36)


Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals, ARP 2600, Linn Drum Machine)
Steve Vai ('impossible' guitar parts on strat and acoustic)
Ray White (guitar, vocals)
Roy Estrada (pachuco falsettos etc)
Bob Harris (boy soprano)
Ike Willis (bionic baritone)
Bobby Martin (keyboards, sax, vocals)
Tommy Mars (keyboards)
Arthur Barrow (keyboards, bass, micro-bass, rhythm guitar)
Ed Mann (percussion)
Scott Thunes (bass)
Chad Wackerman (drums)
Vinnie Colaiuta (drums on "The Dangerous Kitchen")
Dick Fegy (mandolin)
Marty Krystall (sax)
Craig “Twister” Steward (harmonica)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch

When I first heard the single “Valley Girl” on the radio, I was like, this is awesome! How gnarly is that? Zappa is on the radio! But I quickly grew tired of its repeated play and the ubiquitous phrase, “Gag me with a spoon!” As a result, I didn’t take the entire album it was released on all that seriously.

Boy, was that a mistake. Because I really like “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch.” The album followed “You Are What You Is,” which admittedly was a tough act to follow. Couple that with the commercialism of “Valley Girl,” and you might understand how at first I didn’t think much of this album. Thankfully, time heals all wounds, as they say.

Case in point is the first track, “No, Not Now.” Initially I was put off by the shrill vocals, but the hammering drums and bass line wouldn’t let me ignore the song entirely. Former Mothers of Invention member Roy Estrada is among those shrieking in the song. But repeated plays have led this number to grow on me; I have even been known to let my head to bob up and down while listening to it. Rhythmically, this is a very straight-forward composition for Zappa: steady time signature with a repetitive rhythm line that kinda gets ya to wanna dance.

The famous – or infamous – “Valley Girl” comes next. This song, despite its attempt to be a satire of “valley speak,” became both an anthem for and against what became, and remains, an ubiquitous style of speech among sorority girls. The song reached 32 in the Billboard Hot 100, making it Zappa’s only top 40 single in the U.S. What is truly amazing is that today, I still hear college co-eds speaking with the same tonal quality and cadence as Moon Unit did when she provided the speaking parts to the song. Some of the phrases may have changed, but the other qualities of “valley speak” remain and continue to flourish. It makes me wonder if these young women today speak like that intentionally, or it’s just something they pick up through the associations they create with other pseudo-valley girls. As Moon Unit chimes, “It’s like/I do not talk funny!”

Musically, the song retains a similar simplicity heard in “No Not Now,” but with a theme that mocks the hair band sound developing at the time. Chad Wackerman provides excellent hammering on the drums, as well as outstanding use of his cymbals. “It’s like tubular.”

With “I Come from Nowhere,” Zappa delivers a song that has an incredibly strong guitar riff coupled with a powerful, simplistic rhythm line; but juxtaposed against this musical background are the lyrics, sung in a very odd, somewhat distorted timbre. It’s a similar vocalization technique that he reused on “The Man from Utopia,” particularly in the song, “The Radio is Broken.” The people from nowhere appear to be drug users, a topic Zappa had in part touched in past work, but upon which, during the 1980s, his material became much more focused. While Zappa had always been negative on drug use, he really had a dislike for cocaine users, people who variously were either tangential targets of his critique – such as in the song “Tinseltown Rebellion” – or who were directly mocked, as in “Cocaine Decisions.”

Following the vocal part of “I Come from Nowhere” is some amazing guitar work by Patrick O’Hearn.

It has been widely reported that what was Side 1 of the original LP release was never performed live. Side 2, however, is composed entirely of live tracks. It’s sort of ironic, because as I explained, the songs on Side 1 are mostly straightforward rock pieces that lack any overt complexity. In contrast, the songs on Side 2 present some of Zappa’s most complex musical work for a rock band.

“Drowning Witch” starts off simple enough, but even the brief into shows some rhythmic variation. Then comes the sing-song presentation Zappa used in other works (such as “The Dangerous Kitchen”), but this style isn’t as annoying to me as when he used it as a transition in other songs. Following this is some really interesting percussive and keyboard material that leads into one of Frank’s most bizarre guitar solos that I’ve heard. It’s good stuff.

After that cosmic guitar solo, “Drowning Witch” switches with a brief segue into some more percussive material before transitioning back to his guitar. Chad Wackerman smoothly beats his way through the time changes and with brilliant musical alacrity, his steady drumming keeps up with, or leads (depending how think about it), Zappa’s guitar.

The last two songs, “Envelopes” and “Teen-age Prostitute,” may be short – both less than three minutes – but musically represent some of Frank’s most interesting and challenging compositions, from both a performing and listening perspective. And with the latter, we have Lisa Popeil providing an operatic quality. Really fascinating stuff.

I rate this four of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Released May 3, 1982, Barking Pumpkin Records

Track listing:

Album release:

Side One
1. No Not Now (5:50)
2. Valley Girl (4:59)
3. I Come From Nowhere (6:20)

Side Two
1. Drowning Witch (12:01)
2. Envelopes (2:44)
3. Teen-age Prostitute (2:40)

CD release:

1. No Not Now (5:51)
2. Valley Girl (4:50)
3. I Come From Nowhere (6:09)
4. Drowning Witch (12:03)
5. Envelopes (2:45)
6. Teen-age Prostitute (2:42)


Frank Zappa (lead guitar, vocals)
Steve Vai (guitar)
Ray White (rhythm guitar, vocals)
Tommy Mars (keyboards)
Bobby Martin (keyboards, sax, vocals)
Ed Mann (percussion)
Scott Thunes (bass)
Arthur Barrow (bass)
Patrick O'Hearn (bass)
Chad Wackerman (drums)
Roy Estrada (vocals)
Ike Willis (vocals)
Bob Harris (vocals)
Lisa Popeil (vocals)
Moon Zappa (vocal on Valley Girl)