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

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