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)

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