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


CK Retro Review: Transverse City by Warren Zevon

The idea of a concept album from Warren Zevon probably set his fans afire with anticipation when they heard about it, even more so when they realized that the guest list on the album was spectacular even by Warren’s standards. But 1989’s Transverse City turned out to be a bit of a letdown, one hamstrung by the obviousness of the concept (technology turning modern society into a wasteland before our eyes) and the bluntness of the musical approach (heavy synths and guitars with precious little melody.) Of course the lyrics are sharp and some of the more restrained numbers work well, but this is probably his least listenable album.

TWO STARS

10. “Gridlock”- It’s not that Zevon doesn’t make some salient point about the frustrations of getting around in a city where it’s always rush hour. It’s just that the music he chose to accompany those points is about as fun as a three-hour traffic delay.

9. “Transverse City”- Everything, including Zevon’s breathless visions of a futuristic society gone horribly wrong and Jerry Garcia’s wild soloing, gets a little lost in the overbearing sci-fi arrangement, maybe proving Warren’s point about too much the downside of technology all too well.

8. “Down In The Mall”- There’s a light melody in there waiting to get out, but, again, things get way too heavy musically. And the observations about the pull of materialism, while solidly made, aren’t anything new.

THREE STARS

7. “Long Arm Of The Law”- If you’re going to concoct a dystopian future that’s a metaphor for our present, you better have an overbearing police presence. If this song’s arc is predictable, it’s saved by somewhat by Zevon’s strong singing and the frenzied, dissonant piano in the instrumental break, which nicely evokes the panic of a man on the run.

6. “Run Straight Down”- Getting David Gilmour to play on this track was a coup, especially since Zevon’s downcast observations are straight out of the Roger Waters playbook; you could certainly imagine this track somewhere on Side Three of The Wall. Effecfively-rendered paranoia.

5. “They Moved The Moon”- Like an early 80’s Peter Gabriel ballad, this one moves in slow motion through interweaving synths. Meanwhile Zevon brings it back to a personal level, blaming a former lover for abandoning whim while heavenly bodies are rearranged. An interesting mood piece.

4. “Turbulence”- Zevon sounds a bit more at home in the thudding rock arrangement here than he does in some of the ray-gun settings elsewhere on the album. Even with the U.S.S.R.-Afghanistan conflict as a backdrop and lyrics sung in Russian in one part of the song, it still comes back to Warren inhabiting a world-weary, harried dude on the lam, which is a part he always played to the hilt by showing far more defiance than deference.

FOUR STARS

3. “Networking”- As with all songs written about technology circa 1989, the lyrics sound both eerily prescient and hopelessly dated. But Zevon’s one-liners also ponder the soullessness of hand-shaking and hobnobbing, one of his pet peeves which always provides fertile lyrical ground. And the music is surprisingly soulful, which will happen when you employ Benmont Tench to fill in the musical gaps with his organ.

2. “Nobody’s In Love This Year”- Mark Isham’s lovely flugelhorn that flutters about the synth-country backing is a moment of musical grace after the often-bludgeoning backdrops that can be heard all through the album. Note how Zevon uses cold, clinical terms like attrition, yield, and accrue to describe the overall dearth of genuine emotion and sentiment amidst the populace. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the song is when the narrator refuses to rail against the trend, instead choosing to join the loveless so as not to stand out.

1. “Splendid Isolation”- Zevon’s pop-culture riffing and pitch-black humor rev up this ode to solitude, as does his jaunty harmonica. The line “Goofy, take my hand” never fails to crack me up, but this one also takes a pretty dark turn at the end when the narrator’s insistence on hermit-life also renders him completely indifferent to those suffering and in need: “I don’t want to see their faces/I don’t want to hear them scream.”

(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: Sentimental Hygiene by Warren Zevon

If you thought he was going to be mellow after five years away, you were sadly mistaken. And if it was a comeback, it was only from the hiatus, since the quality of the previous two albums were still pretty high. Nonetheless, 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene was a kind of muted triumph for Warren Zevon. It didn’t tip the applause meter very high in terms of gaining wide acceptance, but to those who had followed him from the start, it was a reaffirmation of his strengths, from his ballsy social commentary to his out-of-left-field tenderness to the undeniable charm of his ne-er-do-well persona. Here is a song-by-song review:

ONE STAR

10. “Leave My Monkey Alone”- In the “It seemed like a good idea at the time” department, how about a dance song about colonization of Africa? Other than a so-cringingly-bad-it’s-good video featuring Zevon doing choreography with George Clinton and the fact that you can tell people that Warren once collaborated with Flea, this one is best left for the curiosity pile.

THREE STARS

9. “Bad Karma”- A little sitar spices up this heartland rocker about a damaged soul wondering where everything went awry. Concise and solid if not overly memorable, this one shows off Zevon’s Rolodex, as Michael Stipe and Heartbreaker Stan Lynch sing backing vocals.

8. “Sentimental Hygiene”- Zevon knows he’s got a catchy title phrase, so he wisely builds the song around it and keeps the fanciness to a minimum. What remains is a driving, moody rocker that sets a solid tone and gets its job done, with a big assist to Neil Young’s wall-scraping guitar solo.

7. “Reconsider Me”- Of course, the subtext of the title is that Zevon was asking the same of the listening public after his five-year absence. More than that, this is a great example of how he could tinker with his vocals and empty out all the bad-ass attitude when needed; his vulnerability on the mike is the most memorable thing about this straightforward love song.

FOUR STARS

6. “Even A Dog Shake Hands”- OK, so maybe Hollywood hangers-on were an easy target, but Warren hits the bulls-eye so clean and hard that he not only splits the target but he also fells the tree holding it. I don’t know if he came up with the title phrase, but it’s so on-point it’s scary. And “All the worms and the gnomes are having lunch at Le Dome”: it don’t get much better than that. Kudos as well for three-fourths of REM for helping out on a song that sounds like they crammed on Bobby Fuller Four singles before recording it.

5. “The Factory”- It may be Bob Dylan on harmonica, but this ode to the working man is far more Springsteenian in nature. The tone is Zevon’s though: Where Bruce took a somber tone on his own “Factory,” Warren blows through this one with sardonic humor and a zest that you wouldn’t expect considering he’s inhabiting a guy knee-deep in asbestos and contemplating offing his wife. The refrain of “Yes, sir, no sir” is a brilliant touch.

4. “Boom Boom Mancini”- We live in an era where boxing earns a few select champions billions where most of the rest toil in anonymity among the wider public. Ah, but the 80’s were a great era for puglisitic cult heroes like the title character, who represented the kind of underdog spirit from which countless movies have been made. Zevon takes a gritty approach to his tribute, with attacking guitars and bludgeoning drums, while using typically no-BS tactics in the lyrics. In this way, he underscores the brutality of the sport while still capturing Mancini’s allure.

3. “Detox Mansion”- Again, here is Zevon zigging where most would zag. Instead of singing about his addiction in hushed tones filled with mea culpas, he conjures a sarcasm-heavy track about the celebrity recovery lifestyle, name-dropping and suggesting that he’s going to get a great song out of the deal. It’s a wry commentary on how the famous have the opportunity to expunge their demons in luxury, as compared to the normal person who just has to do the work without any creature comforts to soften the blow.

2. “The Heartache”- Damn it, Warren, you’ve got me laughing all disc long, and, then, on the penultimate song, you go and get me misty. Combine a gorgeous country-tinged melody and Zevon’s predictably trenchant musings on the one that got away, and you’ll start to wonder if the guy who first said it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all had any credibility whatsoever.

1. “Trouble Waiting To Happen”- Guest stars add serious zest to this good-natured rambler about bad times: J.D. Souther adds some country sensibilities as co-writer, Brian Setzer lends a little rockabilly on lead guitar, and Don Henley punches out some sweet harmonies. But what makes the song such a winner is Zevon playing off his public persona so cleverly, to the point where you can’t be sure how far his tongue is tucked in his cheek as he sings about the various calamities on his docket.

(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: The Envoy by Warren Zevon

Many singer-songwriters found themselves floundering amidst the sizzle and flash of the early 80’s, but the era was particularly harsh on Warren Zevon. His 1982 album The Envoy took such a commercial nosedive that he lost his recording contract in the process. The album doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be from song to song, seesawing haphazardly from the personal to the political, while reliance on synthesizers puts Zevon in a somewhat odd setting. And yet the sweetness and optimism of some of the numbers really shines. Somehow this album sounds dated and underrated all at once. Here is a song-by-song review:

TWO STARS

9. “The Overdraft”- Author Thomas McGuane helps out with the not-bad lyrics and Lindsey Buckingham contributes cackling backing vocals. But the whole thing is a little hectic.

THREE STARS

8. “The Hula Hula Boys”- A somewhat amusing tale of being cuckolded in picturesque scenery, this one shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Just enjoy it for the island lilt and move on.

7. “Ain’t That Pretty At All”- Some of the old snarl returns at long last for this one, which, truth be told, is a bit one-note. Still, it’s an entertaining note, and the idea of Zevon crashing about the Louvre is fun to contemplate. Plus his buddy Don Henley must have been listening closely, because he copped the synth-funk vibe from this one, tightened and cleaned it up, and came out with a hit called “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” just a couple years down the road.

6. “Charlie’s Medicine”- Maybe this one tries a bit too hard to be epic; it might have worked better as a quiet cautionary tale. Waddy Wachtel’s wah-wah freakout is a thrilling ride though, and the coldness of Zevon’s narrator, who goes about finishing his score even with the death of his friend still lingering in the air, demonstrates well the nastiness of the drug scene.

5. “Jesus Mentioned”- Tender acoustic guitar from Wachtel and Zevon’s voice at his most fragile and affecting carry it a long way. I’m not sure what parallels Warren seems to be drawing between the Lord and the King, but who really cares when it all sounds so delicate and pretty.

THREE STARS

4. “The Envoy”- This is one time on the record where the synths work in a grittier setting, as the insinuating music sounds like the theme to some cool cult TV show. And wouldn’t you watch such a show, as the titular character weaves his way between all of the world’s hot spots solving problems that lumbering government bodies can’t even approach? Another in Zevon’s rogues gallery of unlikely tribute subjects.

3. “Let Nothing Come Between Us”- Doesn’t this feel like it should have been a hit? It was the video age, understood, but this sweet Beach Boys-ish swayer about the need for solidity and constancy in a relationship features Zevon at his most unguarded and charming, taking advice from Mama and walking down the aisle without looking over his shoulder.

2. “Looking For The Next Best Thing”- This is the sound of settling, as Death Cab For Cutie once sang. You can say it about this song, Zevon trading in his somber piano for the warm yet cold whine of the synthesizers. And you can sort of say it about the whole album, which feels at times like Zevon wearily capitulating to commercial demands instead of traveling the “road to perfection.” So the next best thing ends up being four-star songs like these instead of uncompromising five-stars like “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” or Desperadoes Under The Eaves.” What are you gonna do?

1. “Never Too Late For Love”- And just when you think he has given up the fight, he surprises us with a hopeful closer. Hopeful but clear-eyed, I should say. After all, the narrator’s companion is beset by all sorts of troubles. Yet Zevon encourages and props her up instead of diving down in the gutter with her and popping open a cold one. Maybe the guitars get a little too power ballad-y at the end, but the emotional pull of Zevon’s vocals is strong with this one. A counterintuitively heartfelt way to send this elusive album out.

(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: Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School by Warren Zevon

It didn’t have the hits of Excitable Boy and it lacked the grandeur of his self-titled album. But Warren Zevon’s 1980 album Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, perhaps more than any of his albums, really grows on the listener and reveals its many wonderful characteristics over time. The attitude is prickly throughout and there aren’t really any attention-grabbing single-type songs on there, and yet Zevon’s puncturing songwriting, musical adventurousness, and willingness to bear the harshest parts of his soul make this an album without a real weakness. Here is a song-by-song review.

THREE STARS

11. “Interlude No.1/Interlude No.2”- Little classical pieces connecting rock songs on albums were common at the time; Zevon’s buddies in the Eagles used them often. Zevon, always a classical buff, utilizes them well here.

10. “A Certain Girl”- Reviving this R&B hit as the album’s first single was a typically off-kilter move, although it blunted some of the commercial momentum that the previous album had built up. And the public wasn’t entirely wrong: Although Zevon sells it with wild aplomb, it isn’t as rhythmically sure-footed as it probably needs to be.

9. “Jungle Work”- A dirty guitar riff, tribal beat, and Zevon’s return to the world of mercenaries is pretty much what you’re getting here. The synths offset the brutal attack of the main section nicely. Unkempt and all the better for it.

8. “Empty-Handed Heart”- This was the era when the power ballad first started coming into vogue, so the overblown nature of this one is somewhat understandable. Nor is it Zevon’s most memorable melody, and the lyrics are a bit mushy for the man. Yet, when Linda Ronstadt comes in to play the other side of this sad romantic story, damn it if the thing doesn’t come to life and pull you along in its sway.

7. “Bed Of Coals”- The country lilt to this one, embellished by David Lindley’s steel, is well-executed, even if the pace lumbers a bit for a five-minute song, keeping it in the solid-but-unspectacular range. If this album is Zevon’s regurgitation in song of his personal problems (but, then again, couldn’t you say that about all of his albums?), here is the grand statement. Co-written with T Bone Burnett; man, that guy has been everywhere.

FOUR STARS

6. “Wild Age”- It acts as a kind of apologia for self-destructive types without completely excusing them for the part they play in causing their own problems. In that way, Zevon both identifies with and castigates folks like these, and certainly he was among their number. Beach Boy-ish harmonies make for a sweet sing-along moment at album’s end, an invitation for all the iconoclasts out there to join the chorus.

5. “Bill Lee”- Like one of the titular lefty’s sweeping curve balls, this one comes out of nowhere and mesmerizes. So what if it’s under two minutes; it’s still one of the few songs in rock about baseball that doesn’t sound like a novelty. And it’s a lot more fun than Dylan’s “Catfish.”

4. “Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School”- The crunching guitars following up the sweet violin opening immediately lets you know that Zevon is going to be mixing in the tough with the tender maybe more randomly and haphazardly than ever before. And the relentless raucousness of the music suggests that the protagonist’s promises to change might be broken before the song even ends. This one might get overlooked because the lyrics are simple and to the point, but it works really well in a blunt-force kind of  a way.

3. “Gorilla, You’re A Desperado”- Zevon proves his ability to do Randy Newman-style satire with a hilarious and on-point tale of a simian who makes the mistake of thinking that the grass is greener on the other side of the bars. Instead, he ends up saddled with very LA problems like divorce and depression, finally becoming a different kind of prisoner, “shackled to a platinum chain.” The synth-island vibe and the one-liners make this the perfect change of pace from the heavier stuff all around it, even as it stays in keeping with the album’s downbeat tone.

2. “Jeannie Needs A Shooter”- Well, having a girl’s name in the title should be the first clue that The Boss was involved here. Bruce Springsteen was fiddling around with versions of this song since before his first record was released. Zevon pretty much took the music and the chorus and filled in the rest, turning it into a classic story of two lovers separated by an angry father. Befitting Zevon’s sardonic sensibilities, the father wins, leaving our hero bleeding out in the dust while his intended rides away. A fun story song in a gleaming package.

FIVE STARS

1. “Play It All Night Long”- It’s hard to say why Zevon felt he needed to answer “Sweet Home Alabama” (which was an answer song in the first place), but we can be grateful he did. The music is searing, Zevon’s calliope-like keyboards swirling around the thunderous rhythm. Since he’d already maligned the lifestyle of his home base on the West Coast on his first album, I guess it was time to take down the American South. Any romantic notions Skynryd might have had are set aflame in an inferno of illness, incest, cattle disease, and, unforgettably, “sweat, piss, jizz and blood.” And yet, somehow, there’s a sense of Southern pride in there too, in the way Zevon owns it all unapologetically. Plus, you couldn’t imagine the career of the Drive By Truckers, who would eventually cover it, without this song as a template.

(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: “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge

Today’s Weeper honors Percy Sledge, who passed away yesterday at the age of 74. The timing seemed right, obviously, to talk about “When A Man Loves A Woman”, but I would have gotten around to it eventually, I’m sure. You’d be hard-pressed to find a vocal that exhibits more of that elusive quality we call “soul” than what Sledge delivers on this #1 hit from 1966.

As is too often the case with songs from this era, there is dispute about the songwriting credits. The listed writers are Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, members of an Alabama band that was fronted by Sledge. Sledge himself later claimed that he improvised many of the lyrics over the music from a previously-written song. In any case, the songwriting isn’t what makes the song. It’s the magic of the recording, from the inevitably falling bass line, to the cooing organ, to that horn bleat that busts on the scene in the final moments of the song and approximates Sledge’s own towering notes.

“When A Man Loves A Woman” was well before my time, so I was only vaguely aware of it from oldies channels’ spins until I heard it on the debut episode of The Wonder Years. There were a lot of reasons that I loved that show, but one of the most prominent was how it utilized music. I thought, once Miami Vice burst onto the scene and demonstrated just how potent pop and rock music could be on television, that other shows would follow suit and ape its success in that department. The Wonder Years finally got it right four years later, using well-chosen 60’s evergreens to echo the bittersweet sentiments of the suburbs as well as Miami Vice used moody 80’s tunes to evoke the conflicted emotions of undercover cops.

In the closing moments of that debut episode, Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper share their first kiss in a tree on the same night when she learns that her brother died in Vietnam. Right as he puts his coat around her arms to warm her up, the opening strains of “When A Man Loves A Woman” can be heard. As he kisses her, narrator Daniel Stern muses about the “pain and struggle of love.” And Percy Sledge’s voice is in the background, belting it out, his knees buckling so he can more efficiently empty out the contents of his heart. We’re going to miss this all-time great, but it’s comforting to know that his greatest song will enjoy immortality as long as there are music fans around who know that pain and struggle all too well.

(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: Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon

Against all odds, Warren Zevon found himself high on the pop charts in 1978 with his album Excitable Boy. Propelled by his biggest hit, the quasi-novelty single “Werewolves Of London”, Zevon cracked the Top 10 albums chart, rarefied air he would never again reach in his career. Those radio listeners who bought the disc were confronted with a typically bizarre cast of characters sketched out by Zevon, including murderers, mercenaries, and trust-fund troublemakers. It’s not as thematically unified as its self-titled predecessor, but there is a lot to love here.

ONE STAR

9. “Nighttime In The Switching Yard”- Some rock bands like The Stones and The Kinks were able to impose their identities on the disco form and come up with great singles. Zevon, not so much.

THREE STARS

8. “Veracruz”- Zevon and co-writer Jorge Calderon picked a relatively obscure, testy moment in the history of American-Mexican relations to remember, one which resulted in a battle and U.S. occupation back in 1914. Using exotic instrumental touches was a good idea, although the song as a whole is more well-intentioned than affecting.

7. “Johnny Strikes Up The Band”- A good-natured opening track about a charismatic bandleader and his effect on all those who enter his orbit, the song is given a typically crisp rendering from the top-notch session men who rolled with Zevon. The quiet bridge is a nice touch as well, expertly setting up the crunching return to the main groove.

6. “Accidentally Like A Martyr”- A Bob Dylan favorite, as evidenced by his decision to cover the song around the time of Zevon’s illness and his use of the phrase “time out of mind” as an album title. Elegantly sad, it doesn’t cover a lot of new ground, but the regret is palpable and Zevon plays and sings with great feeling.

FOUR STARS

5. “Tenderness On The Block”- Jackson Browne, who once again produced the album (along with Waddy Wachtel), co-writes here, and you get the feeling that he probably did the bulk of the work. The finesse and precision, in terms of the meter and rhyme scheme, is very characteristic of Browne’s work; you could easily imagine the song on Hold Out. In any case, it exquisitely captures a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in all her promise and poetry.

4. “Werewolves Of London”- You don’t get to choose your signature song, and I’m not sure if Zevon would have chosen this, as lucrative as it may have been for him (and, thanks to Kid Rock, his heirs.) Those who only know him from this get a glimpse of the humor, even if its cartoony here, but they miss out on the darker places that humor could reach as well as the delicacy of feeling he could deliver almost better than anybody. But it’s still always a fun listen, thanks to that chugging piano riff, the winding guitar licks of Wachtel (who co-wrote with Zevon and his frequent collaborator Leroy Marinell), and a lycanthropic tour of London that includes the Queen and Chinese food.

FIVE STARS

3. “Excitable Boy”- I suppose you could find some social commentary in here if you dig deep enough, but I feel like it’s just Zevon getting his jollies juxtaposing a wicked piano groove and bubble gum-flavored backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt and Jennifer Warnes with a story about one of the most sinister protagonists in rock history, one whose reign of terror takes place under the watch of rationalizing adults. For my money it’s even a surer pop shot than “Werewolves Of London,” and it’s maybe a truer representation of the Zevon ethos as well.

2. “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner”- Zevon befriended a former mercenary named David Lindell and wrote this tale of violence and vengeance with a supernatural twist with him, thus beginning a tradition of his choosing offbeat songwriting collaborators. Roland’s indestructibility seems to be Zevon’s subtle way of commenting on the way clandestine wars sanctioned by back-room dealings will persist, a point made more explicit by the laundry list of hot-button locations in the final verse. You don’t have to get into this on a political level at all to enjoy Zevon’s tale though, a scorching screenplay in song.

1. “Lawyers, Guns, And Money”- Great songwriters, like Dylan with “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and Cohen with “Everybody Knows”, can cut through the BS and tell you how the world really works in all its depravity and phoniness. Zevon does it here and yet, by getting inside the muck and the mire with a ne’er-do-well character, provides a cathartic blast that somehow makes it all bearable. Since most of us are on the wrong side of the titular trio most of the time, it’s fun to live vicariously through this punk for a few minutes, especially with some of the fiercest backing music in Zevon’s career serving as the soundtrack.

(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: Warren Zevon by Warren Zevon

Who was this guy? Certainly not the same one who wailed his way through the foggy psychedelic mess of 1969’s Wanted Dead Or Alive. But then he couldn’t be a debut artist, because who comes out of the gate so assured, so eloquent, and so distinctive? Warren Zevon’s self-titled 1976 album was, by every possible measure, a revelation. Give some credit to Jackson Browne, who, as producer, cleared out the debris so that Zevon’s words and melodies could make full impact. Give some credit to one of the fullest lineups of guest stars you will ever see; if you even grazed the chart in the 60’s or 70’s and had felt the Santa Ana winds on your face at one point in your life, you were on this album. But really it was all Zevon, his talent rising to the top and leaving one of the most indelible musical statements of the decade

TWO STARS

11. “Join Me In L.A.”- Even with the Murderer’s Row backing vocals of Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, and Rosemary Butler helping out, this one lumbers. Blame the music, which gets lost somewhere between film noir and disco.

THREE STARS

10. “Backs Turned Looking Down The Path”- This is benign almost to a fault, as Zevon has a hard time selling the sanguine stuff like he can the sardonic. Not bad as a change of pace though, and some good harmonies from Browne help sell it.

9. “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”- You can trace the origins of the self-destructive Zevon, at least in song anyway, to this ripper. A little one-note perhaps, but catchy catharsis nonetheless.

8. “Frank And Jesse James”- Zevon’s nimble piano work, which echoes themes he would explore later on the album and Dixie-style melodies appropriate to the subject matter, is the highlight here. The glorification of the two legendary outlaws recalls the cliched rocker-as-outlaw stance a bit too much for this to be transformative.

7. “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded”- It’s maybe a more mundane slice of life that we would come to expect from Zevon, but it has some nice grace notes, including David Lindley’s fiddle and the bounciness of the chorus.

FOUR STARS

6. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”- Zevon’s wicked sense of humor is on full display as he takes the piss out of those who would complain about their myriad romantic entanglements. Browne’s ears must have been burning in the producer’s chair, but he was a good sport about it and got maximum raucousness out of the track.

5. “Mohammed’s Radio”- Another song just jam-packed with incredible guest stars. Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham contribute backing vocals, while legendary Stones sideman Bobby Keys undergirds the arrangement with soulful saxophone bleats. Indeed, if this is the kind of stuff the song’s mystical DJ plays, you can understand how it would alleviate everything from bad advice to inflation.

4. “Carmelita”- Here is Zevon setting us up for one thing with the music and then pulling out the chair with the lyrics. The Latin lilt, romantically conjured by Lindley’s picking on acoustic, is the setting for a heroin addict’s lament. Details come fast and furious, from the brand of the narrator’s hawked typewriter to the chicken joint his connection haunts. And Carmelita is ever off in the distance, the one spark of emotion in his benumbed heart. Funny, sweet, and sad all at once without breaking a sweat.

FIVE STARS

3. “Hasten Down The Wind”- Browne’s production and Zevon’s arrangement team up to make the music quite irresistible in its languorous heartbreak, with Lindley’s slide as indispensable here as it was for so many Browne tracks. Putting the song in the third person somehow makes it sound even more autobiographical, while the formality of the title phrase seems like the false bravery of someone hurting something awful. This is the side of Zevon that always got overshadowed somewhat by the hellraising, but true believers know that he could even match his buddy Browne in the tenderness department when he put his heart to it.

2. “Desperados Under The Eaves”- So you want to come out to California, kid? That gorgeous coda is the aural equivalent of Laurel Canyon scenery, the siren luring you out there. But it only arrives after Zevon, like a public service announcement, presents a guy drinking himself into a stupor while imagining majestic melodies emanating from air conditioners. And the damn state can’t implode fast enough to get him out of his debt. The perfect song, in terms of thematic relevance and stirring power, to close out the album. P.S. Bringing in Beach Boy Carl Wilson to help out on backing vocals? That’s not even fair.

1. “The French Inhaler”- That classical opening isn’t what you’d expect for the kind of tawdry scene depicted here, but it’s the contradictions that make the song so brilliant. Those soaring, Eagles-assisted harmonies take on a different tone when gilding the narrator’s condescending advice. And the triumph of the music flies directly in the face of the outcome the two main characters suffer: She packed away in Death’s suitcase, he living out a measly existence in Hollywood’s seediest bar with the rest of the pretenders. “The French Inhaler”, beautifully and chillingly, depicts that figurative 2 AM moment when the lights come on, eradicate all our self-deceptions, and leave us mercilessly alone in their cold glow. And all you can really say at that point is “So long, Norman.”

(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: “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” by Colin Hay

The 2004 movie Garden State featuring Zach Braff might be remembered now more for its soundtrack than for anything that appeared on screen. Braff used the movie to spotlight indie music that he loved like The Shins and Iron & Wine, and the resulting soundtrack album indeed felt like a lovingly-curated mix tape.

The most unlikely inclusion on the album was probably a solo song by Colin Hay, the frontman of early-80’s Australian hitmakers Men At Work. Their first two singles, “Who Can It Be Now” and “Down Under”, featuring Hay’s wild-eyed singing and Greg Ham’s distinctive brass and woodwind touches, were huge hits but pigeonholed them as lightweight. Too bad, because their second album, Cargo, was really good stuff, especially “Overkill”, one of the finest singles of the decade, and the cleverly paranoid “It’s A Mistake.”

Men At Work released only three albums before breaking up, so Hay was somewhat of a forgotten man when he showed up on the Garden State soundtrack. Yet the beautiful acoustic number he provided reminded anyone who heard it about the talent as a singer and songwriter this guy always possessed. Over droning acoustic guitar, he muses about the impossibility of truly obliterating a former lover from his mind and heart.

“I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” wins points because of its honesty. The narrator relates that he’s not particularly sad and that it isn’t out of the question that he might fall of love again. But he keeps coming back to that refrain, which he knows will hold true no matter what his future holds or how long that future might be.

When I heard this song, I had hoped that a full-out Hay renaissance was on its way, but although he has released albums with regularity since the demise of his former band, that really didn’t materialize in a major way. Nonetheless, the depth of feeling and nuance on display here will really disarm anyone who only knows him singing about Vegemite and home intruders. Kudos to Braff for his good taste, and well-done by Hay for delivering a wistfully wonderful track.

(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: Wanted Dead Or Alive by Warren Zevon

It would get much, much better. Warren Zevon’s 1969 debut album Wanted Dead Or Alive is largely forgotten within his catalog. Casual fans assume his career began with his mid to late 70’s heyday, mainly because nothing on his disc has ever received any kind of airplay or notoriety. Sadly, that’s mostly understandable, because Zevon sabotaged even the best songwriting here with overbearing arrangements and claustrophobic production. A few glimmers of hope aside, you can understand why even the artist himself criticized this one. Here is a song-by-song review:

ONE STAR

10. “Gorilla”- A nearly unlistenable blues noise workout.

TWO STARS

9. “Fiery Emblems”- It’s funny to think of Zevon as anything other than a pianist, but on this first album, he was also giving guitar gunslinging a try. This instrumental is played OK but lacks inspiration.

8. “Traveling In The Lightning”- Some of Zevon’s trademark storytelling details are in there, not that you can hear them amidst the cacophonous mix. Proof that Zevon’s attempts to become a kind of one-man Jimi Hendrix Experience were misguided.

7. “Calcutta”- Maybe the biggest problem with the album is that Zevon wasn’t quite sure of what kind of artist he wanted to be. In the era of psychedelic blues, songs like this were a dime a dozen. And the performer’s unique identity only briefly surfaces in the left-field piano solos.

6. “Hitchhikin’ Woman”- It might as well be an instrumental, because it’s mixed in such a way that Zevon’s vocals are unintelligible. Too bad, because it works up a decent ruckus.

5. “She Quit Me”- Zevon’s vocal here is way overwrought, the vibrato and emoting laid on so thick that it almost seems like a parody of something. It made it onto the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, and the harmonica work ain’t bad, so it has that going for it.

THREE STARS

4. “Wanted Dead Or Alive”- Upon hearing this title, you half-expect one of Zevon’s wistful piano ballads, but instead you get a kind of driving, insistent, acoustic-guitar-flavored rocker. Written by Kim Fowley, with whom Zevon clashed about the album’s production, and Martin Cerf, there’s not much to the song, but it’s not bad as a mood-setter.

3. “Iko Iko”- The classic N’awlins pop smash gets an energetic workout for Zevon, aided by some playful backing vocals. Again, the production gets away from him a bit and turns it into a bleary mess in the instrumental section, but the fun vibes push it along.

FOUR STARS

2. “Tule’s Blues”- You can hear a solo piano version of this song about the same woman who would later inspire “The French Inhaler” on the Preludes release, and it’s a stunner. This countrified arrangement doesn’t quite do the song justice, but the sentiments, partly tart, partly tender, are classic Zevon, an early indication of his songwriting genius even on this misfire of an album.

1. “A Bullet For Ramona”- Zevon still didn’t quite forge his own identity on this song, approximating drunken Basement Tapes balladry. But at least on this one he comes close enough to the material he’s honoring to earn major points, mainly because he’s one of the few who can pull off a Dylanesque combination of romantic and acerbic.

(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