CK Retro Review: My Ride’s Here by Warren Zevon

Following 2000’s reflective Life’ll Kill Ya, Warren Zevon returned to a more rocking mode with 2002’s My Ride’s Here. The former is more compelling; not that Zevon can’t rock convincingly, but the songs on the latter album, for the most part, are either too musically simplistic or too lyrically burdensome. And all of the co-writers prove that Zevon might have been better off going it alone. Still, there are three standouts here that can easily slide into any best-of mix CD of the man you might care to make. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

10. “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared”- What should have been a monumental mind meld between Zevon and Hunter S. Thompson turns out to be anticlimactic, in part because Zevon forgot to write a melody, in part because the lyrics are kind of blah for two such distinctive writers.

9. “Laissez-Moi Tranquille”- Serge Gainsbourg’s original was like a rock tango. Zevon keeps the cowbell but otherwise turns it into more of a grinder, which saps the fun out of it. Not what you expect him to cover, but when  did he ever do what was expected?

8. “MacGillycuddy’s Reeks”- Zevon always case his net far and wide outside the rock world for collaborators. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon joins him here for an energetic jig about romance, sickness, and financial concerns. It’s maybe a smidge too idiosyncratic, although the lines “I was a thorn/Still trying to find a side” are keepers.

THREE STARS

7. “I Have To Leave”- Written by a buddy of Zevon’s (Dan McFarland), this mid-tempo number isn’t a classic but it elicits one of the most animated vocals on the album, in part because it possesses more melodic range than just about anything else here.

6. “Sacrificial Lambs”- Co-writing with Larry Klein, Zevon starts the album off on a particularly caustic note, tearing off some mean guitar licks to go with his unforgiving observations on the connection between money and religion. He seems to veer off the rail as the song rolls on, name-dropping Russell Crowe and Saddam Hussein, but what the hey? It’s all in good, dirty fun.

5. “Basket Case”- Warren hooks up with the “friskiest psycho” and eventually takes her place at the funny farm. If nothing else, it’s a good excuse for some solid one-liners from Zevon and old buddy Carl Hiassen, and it crunches along pretty effectively.

4. “Lord Byron’s Luggage”- Byron doesn’t stick around past the first verse’s musings on his bathing habits, and this second Irish-tinged tune on the album turns out to be the songwriter’s confessional. A grabby, slightly melancholy chorus centers the wandering verses of this song, the only one on the album written solely by Zevon.

FOUR STARS

3. “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)”- As someone who wouldn’t watch hockey if they were playing the Stanley Cup across the street and changes the channel immediately when I see Mitch Albom’s face, I have to say that was a pleasant surprise. David Letterman’s hilarious recitation of the refrain helps to balance out the Hollywood sports movie turns of Albom’s storyline, and Letterman’s backing band does the song proud. Zevon’s just along to steer the zamboni on this winning novelty.

2. “My Ride’s Here”- Muldoon’s second contribution is a winner, delivered by Zevon with just the right mix of humor and heart. The galloping arrangement probably robs it of some of its pathos, and maybe that’s what Zevon wanted. Still, Bruce Springsteen’s slowed-down, mournful live version played in honor of Warren after his death seems definitive to me; The Boss makes even the Pinto sound elegiac somehow.

FIVE STARS

1. “Genius”- While it’s impossible to say what the division of power on this song was, it seems likely that Larry Klein handled the interestingly exotic instrumental backing and left the lyrics to Zevon. The Auto-Tune-like effect on his vocals is just right for the eloquently twisted narrative (or twistedly eloquent perhaps.) At its heart it’s a basic you-done-me-wrong song, but Zevon’s tangents are the fun part. Einstein, Mata Hari, and Charlie Sheen all make striking appearances, but none of them can draw our attention away from our narrator’s hypnotically deft wordplay. Genius, indeed.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones, comes out in November. Pre-order on the link below.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-The-Rolling-Stones/dp/1442254467


Wednesday Weeper of the Week: “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away” by Phil Collins

I’ve been working on a project about the early 80’s, an era that’s near and dear to my heart, and the research rarely turns up a killer song that feels like it went under the radar. The artists at that time were pretty good about leading with the best stuff on singles and videos, and those songs have had a long shelf life. But I hadn’t heard this Phil Collins ballad in quite a long time, and after a few notes, the fondness I had for it quickly came back to me.

Collins gets an unfairly bad rap, if only because of just how ubiquitous he was in that decade, either releasing solo albums or Genesis albums, producing hit songs by the likes of Frida and Howard Jones, guest-starring on Miami Vice, putting out soundtrack songs, and on and on. The guy had a serious work ethic, and eventually he became a bit overexposed (“Sussudio”, which still sends me into spastic shivers when I hear those grating horns, was probably the tipping point for me), but his work from 1980-84 is consistently fine, as the guy, with and without Genesis, shifted seamlessly from arena rock to R&B to balladry with nary an ounce of strain.

This song was a bit of an underdog, considering it came on an album, 1982’s Hello, I Must Be Going, which produced the hit cover “You Can’t Hurry Love” and the intense “In The Air Tonight” redux “I Don’t Care Anymore.” By the time they got around to releasing this one, Collins was back with Genesis preparing their next LP.

Like a lot of his early solo work, “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away” deals with the wounds of lost love. Unlike the simmering anger that surfaced on songs like “In The Air Tonight,” this one is more graceful and tender, a loving plea from a regretful guy who still thinks he’s the one for the girl he’d addressing, even as a new man moves in. With an understated string section and sensitive piano work underpinning, the pretty wistfulness of the melody shines through. Meanwhile Collins does his vocal thing where he starts off all dejected and then explodes with passion. Check it out and you’ll realize that “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away” is that rare beast: an underexposed Phil Collins song from the 80’s, and an exceedingly worthy one at that.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238


CK Retro Review: Life’ll Kill Ya by Warren Zevon

The wry, knowing smile Warren Zevon displays on the cover of his 2000 album Life’ll Kill Ya is a good indication of what’s to come. Zevon writes and performs on the album like a guy with nothing left to prove, simply making the music that comes naturally to him. That’s not to say that his inherent prickliness abandoned him; the album title should let on that isn’t the case. But the album begins the unofficial trilogy that closed out his life and  found him at ease with his legacy, reflective, spouting practical wisdom, and winning us over all over again. Here is a song-by-song review:

THREE STARS

12. “Hostage-O”- Zevon borrows more than a bit from “Tracks Of My Tears” in the acoustic guitar riff that drives this odd combination of benign melody and harsh imagery. The narrator’s point, that he’ll take abuse over loneliness, is a bit unwieldy for the musical setting, but it’s an interesting attempt.

11. “Dirty Little Religion”- Zevon drains all the Hallmark out of his pitch to a would-be lover, coming on like a modern-day Elmer Gantry. The sentiment may be sour, but I like how it’s matched up with a Johnny Cash-style rumbling rhythm.

10. “Life’ll Kill Ya”- After he tugs at your heartstrings with one of those Zevonian quasi-classical opens, he goes on, with something approaching glee, to tell us that those strings will be clipped in due time. If you can accept death’s inevitability, there’s a kind of liberating effect that the song has, especially with that underlying piano keeping the melody afloat.

9. “Porcelain Monkey”- Leave it to Zevon (and co-writer Jorge Calderon) to look back at Elvis through the lens of his sad decline rather than focusing on the good stuff. The silliness of the title trinket suggests just how wasteful Zevon felt The King’s final years were.

8. “My Shit’s Fucked Up”- It’s not an easy listen, nor is it Zevon’s most eloquent display of lyrics, although it shouldn’t be considering the effect he desires. This is one of those songs that is almost too intense, considering what would eventually befall Zevon, to bear, but the stark honesty of his performance demands your attention.

7. “Ourselves To Know”- Sounds a little like something off John Wesley Harding, with its antiquated setting, religious overtones, and quizzical message. It’s lovely in an understated way, with some nice interplay between Zevon’s harmonica and Jim Ryan’s mandolin.

6. “Back In The High Life”- Zevon gets a chance to show off his interpretive skills here. In Steve Winwood’s original, his elastic voice created a joyous effect. When Warren sings it, he sounds so ravaged and defeated that the redemptive promise of the refrain seems like nothing but a pipe dream, lending the song an air of sadness that it doesn’t have on the page.

5. “Fistful Of Rain”- There’s a macabre joke at the heart of the refrain here, because what do you really end up when you “Grab a hold of that fistful of rain?” The pennywhistle and call-and-response backing vocals give this one a little musical ambition that makes it stand out a bit, while Zevon’s message that we should embrace the futility of life is ironically inspirational.

FOUR STARS

4. “For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer”- Displaying the solidity of Zevon’s songwriting chops, this one delivers a hooky melody and the ability to milk a metaphor for all its worth that could hang with the best of Motown or Nashville. Nothing too fancy, and yet it cuts pretty deep thanks to the hurt inside false bravado of the vocal.

3. “I’ll Slow You Down”- There’s a little “It Ain’t Me, Babe” in this melodic charmer, as Zevon frames the song on the surface as a narrator’s admission of his unworthiness while making veiled criticisms of the priorities of the girl whom he’s cutting free. The British Invasion slope of the tune taxes Warren’s vocals, but the strain he shows only proves his point somehow that he’s better off staying behind.

2. “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down”- This energetic album-opener proves that you don’t need to plug in to rock out; just an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and some peppery drums get the job done quite well here. It also helps to have Zevon unapologetically and metaphorically commenting on the eventful life he’s spent being in the right place at the wrong time with intentions that probably fall somewhere between the two extremes. His survival instincts win the day.

FIVE STARS

1. “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”- Forget for a moment the heartbreaking irony contained within the song as it pertains to Zevon’s eventual fate. Concentrate instead on the melody, one of Zevon’s most enduring, which is really saying something. And concentrate on the benevolence and warmth of the message, which should fill the hardest heart and moisten the most jaded eyes. Sing it as a lullaby or chant it as a prayer; either way, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” holds powers and charms far beyond the seeming simplicity of the notes played and sung by its one-0f-a-kind creator.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238


CK Retro Review: Mutineer by Warren Zevon

1995’s Mutineer is a fascinating entry in the Warren Zevon catalog. It’s a series of mostly slower, often contemplative songs. Zevon dials back the wisecracking (for the most part) and gets to the heart of the matter, emphasis on heart. He also takes some interesting musical risks, and though they don’t all pay off, the ones that do are revelatory. Some pedestrian rockers that are haphazardly thrown in really only break the spell; this one is at its best when it’s at its dreamiest. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

10. “Rottweiler Blues”- The author Carl Hiassen helps out with the lyrics here about a particularly ferocious guard dog and his ornery owner. Too bad nobody bothered to do much with the squawking rock arrangement.

9. “Seminole Bingo”- The other song co-written with Hiassen takes place in the author’s Florida haunts, depicting a scam artist on the run from the SEC. The story never really ignites, although Zevon gets in some ferocious guitar licks toward the end.

THREE STARS

8. “Piano Fighter”- In typically idiosyncratic Zevonian fashion, this tale of a have-piano, will-travel outlaw features very little ivory-tickling. In fact, the production gets a bit too wild for its own good. But I do love the idea of Zevon as a musical gunfighter.

7. “Something Bad Happened To A Clown”- Zevon once sang of a “running-down calliope”, which is a good approximation of the sound of this oddity. Bruce Hornsby chips in with an evocative accordion part. Zevon’s lyrics don’t really go much further than the old tears-of-a-clown cliche, but the off-kilter mood is sustained quite well.

6. “Poisonous Lookalike”- A rather rancorous dressing down of a deceptive lover, this one possesses enough minor-key potency to get by all right. In a similar vein as Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise” but with a bit more bile.

5. “Similar To Rain”- Zevon cops a Brian Wilson Smile vibe here, with dissonant sounds fluttering at the edges of an ethereal musical landscape. The lyrics are a bit of an afterthought; just drift along with the strangely stirring music and you’ll do fine.

4. “Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse”- This one has the same stately, medieval feel as “The Indifference Of Heaven.” Zevon seems to be targeting the kind of lifeless gatherings of the affluent that he’s nailed before. This one is best enjoyed for its sprightly melody and the fun refrain.

FOUR STARS

3. “Jesus Was A Crossmaker”- Judee Sill, like Zevon, came from the Laurel Canyon scene in the late 60’s and the early 70’s and was one of David Geffen’s first discoveries. Unfortunately, her career sputtered and she died at age 35 in 1979. Zevon does her wonderful tribute with this elegiac version of her first single. Hornsby’s accordion bed breaks all falls, and Warren does the sweet but sad melody tender justice.

FIVE STARS

2. “Mutineer”- Zevon performed this in unforgettable fashion in his last appearance on David Letterman before his death, and anyone who saw that could tell that this was a personal song for him. The hazy synths conjure a nautical feel, albeit with a touch of melancholy. His wistful lyrics admit to his rebellious tendencies but also project heaping helpings of vulnerability. Bring your hankie.

1. “The Indifference Of Heaven”- It’s all well and good to look at the bright side, but sometimes a dose of dour reality is necessary. The narrator, a down on his luck yet poetic convenience store worker, takes umbrage here with both God and the Boss, an empty horizon yawning in front of him. And yet a kind of grace is bestowed upon him by the acoustic sheen of the music and Peter Asher’s benevolent harmonies. What a wonderful juxtaposition of lyrical theme and musical tone.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238


Wednesday Weeper of the Week: “Don’t Answer Me” by The Alan Parsons Project

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer is telling the kids about various rock and roll bands from his younger days. When he gets to The Alan Parsons Project, he confuses the band for a hovercraft. It’s typically clever Simpsons banter, but the line also wasn’t entirely inaccurate. Started by Parsons, famed for his production and engineering work with The Beatles and Pink Floyd, and composer Eric Woolfson, the APP often seemed to be hovering above the rock scene, delivering synthesizer-fueled missives about robots and Edgar Allan Poe.

Yet every once in a while they would alight and deliver tuneful, catchy, and poignant singles apart from the song suites and studio wizardry. “Eye In The Sky” was the biggest of those. “Time”, which could certainly be a future Weeper candidate, was a beauty. I think my personal favorite though is “Don’t Answer Me”, which rolled into the Top 20 in the ultra-competitive pop landscape of 1984.

Like a lot of people, I feel in love with the video, a kind of comic-book noir that was groundbreaking then and still looks wonderful today. The video actually lends the song a happy ending, something that doesn’t quite come across without the visual. The retro clip does nicely dovetail with the sound of the record though, as Parsons copped a vintage Phil Spector vibe right down to the castanets.

Meanwhile Woolfson sings to a girl who’s pulling away from the world, living in dreams and magic instead of facing the reality of the situation or her true feelings. He gives up in the chorus, daring her to isolate herself at the expense of everything they had built. Nick and Sugar may drive off underneath a benevolent moon in the video, but the hero and heroine don’t complete the fairytale in the song because “clouds got in the way.” Damn clouds.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

 


CK Retro Review: Mr. Bad Example by Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon kicked off the 90’s in fierce, funny fashion with 1991’s Mr. Bad Example. The harder rockers on the album detail a litany of evils, related by characters who don’t show an ounce of remorse. It would all be overbearing were it not for Zevon’s inimitable talent for molding this dark stuff for public consumption. And he balances it out very well with occasional glimpses of the softer side, making this a fine return to form after the ambitious but awry Transverse City.

TWO STARS

10. “Angel Dressed In Black”- This one is maybe a little too twisted for even Zevon to pull off. The drug-addled narrator waits at home for the title character’s return, and you just know that her return won’t end well. Coming right after “Model Citizen”, it might make you beg for mercy. Still, I can’t help but laugh to consider that the final verse’s opening couplet consists solely of the words “Sofa” and “Crack.”

THREE STARS

9. “Quite Ugly Morning”- It’s an interesting grinder, even if it lacks some of the details that characterize Zevon’s best work. I do like his description of the sky as “kinda chewed-on like.”

8. “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead”- I vaguely recall watching the movie on VHS when it came out, because I simply had to watch anything with Christopher Walken in it back then. The song is a fun lark, hooky with chirpy organ and a good groove, name-dropping a couple of Zevon’s musical buddies LeRoy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel along the way.

7. “Searching For A Heart”- The closer suffers a little bit from production fussiness, but it gets by ultimately on Zevon’s emotional performance. The “heart” for which he seeks doesn’t seem to be one that he’s already met, rather an ideal that gets farther away with each weary mile he travels.

6. “Finishing Touches”- Nothing fancy here, just Zevon’s bile directed intensely at a former lover. Then again, very few are better at directing bile, and the music is tough if not inventive. It’s not for the meek of heart and it’s a rather harsh way to start an album, but it’s well done nonetheless.

FOUR STARS

5. “Renegade”- When Tom Petty wrote “Southern Accents”, he did so from the point of view of an actual Southerner. Zevon attempts something similar, and you’d never know that he was actually a West Coaster by the seething contempt and wounded pride he conjures. “Next time I’d rather break than bend,” he snarls toward the end over the stately drums, the perfect words to sum up this guy’s head-space.

4. “Model Citizen”- This one sneaks up on you, a seemingly straightforward rocker about conformity that gets blacker as you go. If the weirdo from “Excitable Boy” had repressed his sinister urges and become a family man, you’d get this guy. Cuckolded by his wife and neutered by his place in society, he acts out by stalking supermarkets, threatening his kids with a lathe, and, finally, driving his motor home into a lake. Funny and scary all at once.

3. “Heartache Spoken Here”- Zevon glides easily into this C&W setting, with the help of Dwight Yoakam’s aching harmonies. It’s a fine example of his dexterity as a songwriter, showing the Nashville boys how it’s done with effortlessness and grace. Makes you wish he had the time to do a country album in his lifetime, but there’s a lot of things we missed out on due to his untimely passing.

2. “Mr. Bad Example”- Part of me wants to say that Zevon veered perilously close to caricature on this album, with this track being Exhibit A. And yet it’s hard to resist the articulate anarchy of this deranged polka, co-written with old buddy Jorge Calderon. Plus it’s easy to write a sad song, but very few artists could do out-and-out funny like Warren, which he does here by rhyming “Spokane” and “divan”, subtly implying that the only possible outcome for this inveterate do-badder was law school, and imagining novel methods of larceny, from hair transplants to wig-stealing. And it takes us around the world too.

FIVE STARS

1. “Susie Lightning”- First of all, the psychedelic, weightless tone of the music is lovely, with Zevon taking the edge out of voice to fit the setting perfectly, singing that melody with wonder and sadness intermingled. It begins as a character sketch of an elusive, globetrotting actress, but it slowly reveals almost as much about the narrator as the title character, his struggles to go on without her, his slow but steady implosion. It’s a kind of out-of-nowhere track that stands apart from much of Zevon’s work and especially from the rest of the album, but, man, is it a beauty.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238


Wednesday Weeper of the Week: “Love Is The End” by Keane

I’m a big fan of what I like to call running-in-the-rain songs. They’re the kinds of songs that have a desperately romantic theme and that build from quiet beginnings to massive crescendos, which make them perfect for movie scenes where the hero or heroine has to chug through a rainstorm to get to their significant other before it’s too late. Granted, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where this actually happened, but my mind’s eye forms this image when I hear certain songs, something about the urgency of the feeling on display.

“If You Leave” by OMD is a great running-in-the-rain track; I think Andrew McCarthy may have run in Pretty In Pink after Molly Ringwald, although it may have been more of a saunter, and I don’t think there was rain involved, but still, the song was wet-sprinting perfection. Bob Dylan’s “Is Your Love In Vain” is a sneaky running-in-the-rain song. For the whippersnappers, “Amnesia” by Five Seconds Of Summer fits this category well.

Now consider one of my pet peeves: It drives me nuts when a buzz band keeps doing good work after their initial flush of success and yet their bandwagon seems to empty if for no other reason than they’re not new anymore. Case in point: Keane, who broke onto the scene in 2004 with the sleeper hit “Somewhere Only We Know” and was heavily hyped coming out of Great Britain. By the time their 2008 album Perfect Symmetry came around, at least in America, it seemed like nobody cared, even though the band was doing the same kinds of good things that garnered them the attention in the first place.

But I was still on board and still enjoying Keane’s unabashed romanticism, rich melodic sense, and sense of high drama. And so these two phenomena, the running-in-the-rain song and the once-hyped band now an afterthought, collide on “Love Is The End”, the closing song on Perfect Symmetry. Get your galoshes out, folks, because once the staccato piano chords signal singer Tom Chaplin to kick into his swoony big finish, you’ll be looking for the nearest downpour so you can race to the one you love.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238


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