CK Retro Review: Warren Zevon by Warren ZevonPosted: April 9, 2015
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
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)