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

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