Frank Zappa - The Yellow Shark (1993)

Intro 1:43
Dog Breath Variations 2:07
Uncle Meat 3:24
Outrage at Valdez 3:27
Times Beach II 7:31
III Revised 1:45
The Girl in the Magnesium Dress 4:33
Be-Bop Tango 3:43
Ruth is Sleeping 5:56
None of the Above 2:17
Pentagon Afternoon 2:28
Questi Cazzi Di Piccione 3:03
Times Beach III 4:26
Food Gathering in Post-Industrial America, 1992   2:52
Welcome to the United States 6:39
Pound For a Brown 2:12
Exercise #4 1:37
Get Whitey 7:00
G-Spot Tornado 5:17
Total Time: 71 min, 51 sec

On this album, Frank finally found a group (the Ensemble Modern) that was not only capable of performing his most difficult orchestral pieces, but they were so enthusiastic about it that they even asked to perform G-Spot Tornado, one of his "humanly impossible to play" synclavier songs.

The group came from their native Germany to the US to rehearse with Frank, and then returned to Germany for a series of performances that were recorded with the absolute best equipment money could buy. The result is an incredible sounding (play it on a good stereo and turn it up loud) concert disc of many of Zappa's best rock and "serious" pieces, played by a medium sized orchestral group.

I have to admit that it's the remakes of the rock songs that I like best, along with a few of the new, orchestral pieces. A good bit of this album goes way over my head, sounding like flurries of random notes. That's not to say that I don't like those tracks - I enjoy listening to the whole disc, I just can't claim to understand about half of it.

Of the remakes, Dog Breath / Uncle Meat and Pound For a Brown are my favorites - both are fantastic and make use of the full range of sounds that the Ensemble could produce. Be-Bop Tango is OK, but for some reason it doesn't really gel for me. But then, the original version was never one of my favorite tracks either.

I also like the tracks that were previously synclavier songs. The Girl in the Magnesium Dress is one of the pieces that are "random-sounding" to me, but for some reason this one works. G-Spot Tornado is...well, I'll save that 'til the end.

I do like some of the new stuff. Outrage at Valdez is a beautiful, melancholy piece that might be my favorite song on the album. Created for a documentary video about the Exxon oil spill, this three and a half minute version is just part of a much longer piece created on the synclavier. I've heard the full version (it was posted to an MP3 newsgroup), and it was brilliant - hopefully someday the whole song will be released.

Food Gathering... and Welcome to the United States are spoken word pieces, with the Ensemble backing the words up with sounds and snippets of music. The first track ends with a strong pro-choice message that left the audience stunned for a few moments. Some fans have criticized Zappa for editing out the pause and making it seem like his message about abortion was heartily endorsed by immediate, enthusiastic applause. Welcome... is a reading of the real, actual Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver that all visitors to the US (including the Ensemble when they came to rehearse) have to fill out. The rediculousness of the questions ("Have you ever been involved in espionage or terrorist activities?") is underscored by appropriate musical passages. References to drugs get shimmering, drug-haze sounds, the part about espionage is punctuated by members of the percussion section communicating with each other via Morse code, the question about being a drug trafficer gets a big burst of Latin American music. But the best, and most inexplicable part is when the narrator yells "or terrorist activities!" and the group breaks out into a bar of Louie, Louie. The crowd gives an enthusiastic roar.

The disc ends with G-Spot Tornado, and this performance just has to be heard to be believed. If you've ever heard the synclavier version, you'd think it was impossible for humans to play it, but the Ensemble not only do it, they nail the song almost note-for-note. It's a wonderful, energetic performance, and when they hit the final gong note, the crowd bursts into applause that continues for two solid minutes (possibly even longer - the disc fades out with them still going wild).

While I can't claim to love this entire CD, there are several tracks that I wouldn't want to live without. Fans of Zappa's 20th century classical music definitely need to own this disc. And if the music itself isn't enough of a draw, the packaging is great. It includes a thick booklet with pictures of all the musicians, and of the rehearsals and performances. There are also comments on each song from both Zappa and the man who conducted many of the pieces (Frank could only conduct a few, due to his declining health). The booklet concludes with a scrapbook of hand-written messages from all the Ensemble members to Frank. The booklet and CD tray are contained in a cardboard slipcase. All in all, a very nice package (although the cardboard corners on both the outer box and the CD case quickly wear out). I must admit that the first time I saw the picture of Zappa on the cover, with his hair grayed and his features gaunt with cancer, it broke my heart.

Album Cover

Image of the Yellow Shark album cover