Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Frank Zappa 32: Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch

Every now and then, and usually without trying, Frank Zappa would find his way to mainstream attention—wider than the Dr. Demento radio show, anyway—with a novelty song. That would lead to a placing on the Billboard singles chart, and the hilarious scenario of Casey Kasem setting it up on American Top 40.
That’s pretty much what happened with “Valley Girl”, in which Frank’s daughter Moon could be heard chattering in the style of her teenage classmates over a punk-metal groove, hearty chorus vocals, and a truly inspired bass line occasionally belying his ongoing fascination with “My Sharona”. Already the object of a trivia question (as in “what rock star named his daughter Moon Unit?”), thus began the young lady’s career as a commentator on pop culture. (It also inspired one of the better teen-oriented movies of the era, with a solid yet Zappa-free soundtrack, the first starring role for one Nicolas Cage, and the one-day voice of Chuckie from Rugrats topless. Yet we digress.)
The unsuspecting consumers who sprung for the album rather than the single would likely find the title Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch to be only funny thing on the record outside of “Valley Girl”. Granted, “No Not Now” begins with a typical riff of the era, somewhere between the Cars and the Tubes, but continues with shrill falsetto vocals countered by Frank’s own jaded commentary and asides about Donny & Marie, a Hawaii Five-O reference, and other inside jokes. It goes right into the hit single, which itself leads to the equally catchy “I Come From Nowhere”. Original Mothers bass player Roy Estrada sings this one, in an unrecognizable voice, and it gets a lot more interesting once the backing takes over, at top speed. It fades out, lending to the assumption that there’s a longer take somewhere.
Side two is culled from various live performances, sometimes edited within a single track. “Drowning Witch” would be the title track, wherein Frank creates a back story for the cover art, then lets loose for ten minutes of “impossible guitar parts”, most likely played by Steve Vai. It’s a seamless switch to “Envelopes”, a keyboard-heavy instrumental that seems to predict some of the orchestral work about to occur, except for the canned laughter that reappears from the previous track. Just to appease those looking for comedy, “Teen-age Prostitute” provides an alternative to the Valley Girl lifestyle, sung operatically by Lisa Popeil.
Somewhere there must be a study that can tell us whether Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch actually led a newcomer to a larger appreciation of Frank Zappa. At any rate, it’s an impeccably performed album, which makes up for any shortcomings in the lyrics.

Frank Zappa Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982)—3

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