|Dance Me This||2:01|
|Wolf Harbor II||6:53|
|Wolf Harbor III||6:09|
|Wolf Harbor IV||3:38|
|Wolf Harbor V||3:09|
|Total Time: 48 minutes, 20 seconds|
This album was a hole in my Zappa collection for a couple years. I didn't buy it when it initially came out, and then when I did one of my periodic binges on new FZ releases, it was already out of print. Or at least I couldn't find a copy anywhere, not even on the Barfko Swill site.
Then in April of 2017 I visited the Record Connection store in Ephrata, PA and was relieved to find that the store still existed (I hadn't been there in a year or two, and we all know how brick and mortar music stores have been doing lately). I scrounged through their progressive rock CD section and picked out a couple oldies, then spent some time looking over their massive used vinyl collection, and finally went to the counter and got out the credit card. When all was said and done I picked up my purchases and looked straight down through the glass countertop where they had been sitting and low and behold - there sat a pile of recent Zappa releases with Dance Me This front and center. Very reasonably priced too - only $11.99. So as the clerk was turning away, I said "Um, I know I just checked out, but could you grab me that Zappa disc in the display counter..." I thought I'd scored a rare out-of-print album...until I got home and found that Amazon has it back in stock and priced a few bucks cheaper than what I paid. Oh well.
This album was the last project that Frank completed before his untimely death in 1993. While Civilization Phase III was the last new, non-archival album to be released while Zappa was still alive, this one was apparently completed shortly thereafter. And the two albums have a lot of similarities - Dance Me This is also a mostly-Synclavier album, but instead of hippies in pianos rambling about pigs and ponies, this time we get Tuvan throat singers adding otherworldly buzzes and vocalizations to the music.
The packaging, as with many posthumous Zappa releases, is fairly nice. The cardboard case folds out with the back half holding the CD in a paper slip case and the front half holding a ten page booklet of liner notes, artwork and photos. The notes include a lengthy essay from Zappa's Synclavier technician Todd Yvega, Ralph Leighton's story of how Frank met the Tuvan singers and one of the last blurbs written by Gail Zappa, this time a fairly lucid story about the artist who created the cover artwork. What the notes don't explain is why it took 22 years for this album to finally be released. I remember seeing it on a short list of posthumous releases that would be coming out soon back in the mid-90s. My only guess is that they were holding on to this one to make it official release #100 (using the Zappa Family Trust's numbering system). So does this mean we might soon see Frank's tribute to Edgar Varese that he recorded with the Ensemble Modern, The Rage and the Fury? I'm not holding my breath.
Anyway, on to the actual musical content. The disc opens with the title track which sounds almost like a catchy little pop ditty that might have seen radio play in the 70s...until the Tuvan singers come in and make it sound like the recording session was overwhelmed by croaking space frogs (and I mean that in the best possible way). There's a brief bit of guitar (too brief to really even call it a solo) that Yvega speculates in the liner notes may be the last recorded guitar work that Frank ever did. Apparently Dweezil had left his guitar rig set up in the studio and Frank spontaneously picked it up and played a bit. That opening track is followed by Pachuco Gavotte, a short, bouncy little number punctuated by various percussion bangs and crashes. All of the tracks on the album segue into each other, which makes it difficult to tell where one piece ends and the next begins.
The bulk of the album is taken up by the five part Wolf Harbor suite. The piece was supposedly inspired by pollution in the Wolf River in Tennessee, but doing some web searching didn't turn up much information about it. At any rate, the music certainly fits that theme, with gurgling water sounds (possibly a flushing toilet) accenting sparse, dark and murky sounding music that is mostly percussion-driven. My first listen to this album was in my car with my daughter who has been in her school's music program (band, orchestra and musicals) from middle school all the way through high school. Her reaction was "please turn this off, it sounds like someone got into the percussion pit and just started randomly banging on things". I think I appreciate and enjoy it a little more than she did, but I can't say her analysis was too far off the truth.
The album is rounded out by four shorter pieces, the longest of which is Piano. As the title implies, that track mostly uses the Synclavier's piano samples, and to me sounds like a flashy piece you might hear a skilled classical pianist play. I'm certainly no expert on classical music, but it reminded me a bit of the Chopin disc I own.
The disc concludes with a piece called Calculus. In his notes, Yvega reveals the source of that title. The track began life as a solo vocal recording by one of the Tuvan singers. Frank wanted to add backing music to it, but the style of singing didn't suit a steady tempo, as the singer would often speed up or slow down or just stop suddenly. So Zappa asked Yvega to plot a curve of the track's tempo so the Synclavier could match music to it. Plotting that curve involved a lot of calculus. Once he had it figured out, Yvega put in a "temp track" of bass and drums (which he calls the "foom-fop" track) to show Frank how the results would sound. When he came back the next day, he found Zappa playing the piece for Ruth Underwood, and they both liked the "foom-fop" track so much that it remained in the final track. And so, while the liner notes credit all composition to FZ, Todd Yvega can lay claim to having co-composed Frank Zappa's final piece of music. A rare honor.