CK Retro Review: The Wind by Warren Zevon

The sentimental among us likely couldn’t find it in ourselves to give The Wind a bad review even if it consisted of  ear-damaging shrieks committed to tape for an hour, such were the circumstances surrounding its release. But I’m here to say that, even separated from the context of its creation, this album stands tall among Warren Zevon’s imposing back catalog, and it’s a fair argument to say that it might have been his best after the one-two punch of Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy a quarter-century earlier. The guest stars all give their all, but, regardless of the shadow hanging over them cast by his illness and subsequent death, Zevon’s songs, and his searingly honest performances of those songs, carry the day, just as it had always been with this artist. (And, since we’re at the end of this series, I want to take the opportunity to wonder why Warren isn’t in the Rock Hall of Fame, for sanity’s sake?) Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

11. “The Rest Of The Night”- The one B-sideish throwaway here, it wastes some stinging guitar from Mike Campbell. (Campbell’s bandleader Tom Petty pitches in harmony vocals, which are not his strong suit.)

10. “Rub Me Raw”- Some of the lyrics seem to reference the reaction to his illness and Zevon’s distaste for some of it, but it’s a bit too vague where a direct broadside might have worked better. Plus his raised-eyebrow approach to the blues undercuts the song’s potential power.

THREE STARS

9. “Numb As A Statue”- Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the Jackson Browne catalog should be able to recognize David Lindley’s distinctive slide guitar here. It gives this otherwise routine mid-tempo workout some pepper. The chorus is solid even though the verses meander.

8. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”- First of all, it might be the most overrated song in the Dylan catalog. Plus, it’s almost too on-point considering Zevon’s situation at the time. Still, when Warren beckons the doors to “Open up, open up” in the fadeout, damn if it doesn’t overcome all that.

7. “Prison Grove”- Backed by an all-star cast of vocalists playing the chain gang, including Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Bob Thornton (naturally), Zevon depicts in poetic terms a frightful,\ figurative prison. He asks for deliverance not just for himself but for his fellow inmates: “Shine on all these broken lives.”

6. “El Amor De Mi Vida”- The Latin lilt and Spanish lyrics differentiate what otherwise is a pretty straightforward piano lament. More than anything though, Zevon’s wrecked vocal makes the most impact here.

FOUR STARS

5. “Disorder The House”- Bruce donated a good one to Warren in the early days with “Jeannie Needs A Shooter.” Here Zevon returns the favor by having The Boss essentially duet on this rollicking, unkempt, hilarious commentary on the state of the depressing world, written with Jorge Calderon. Springsteen wails on guitar, can barely keep a straight face when the Lhasa Apso makes an appearance, and joins Warren in stomping all over the “davenport of despair.” Anyone thinking that The Wind is a downbeat affair should know better after hearing this one.

4. “Dirty Life And Times”- Ry Cooder’s guitar provides the essential spark while Dwight Yoakam joins Thornton for some high lonesome on backing vocals. But this is Zevon’s show, starting the song (and album) off with the unforgettable line: “Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me.” He intimates that maybe his lowly state is some cosmic comeuppance for his wanton ways in the past, and yet he still shrugs off a reticent paramour by going after her sister. Unapologetic and candid, it’s the perfect tone-setter for the deep emotional stuff to come.

FIVE STARS

3. “She’s Too Good For Me”- Here Zevon enlists Don Henley and Timothy Schmitt to add bittersweet, beautiful backing to prop up his wounded lead. It’s an irresistible combination, perfect gilding for the loveliest melody on the album. When he told that girl to hasten down the wind way back when, you got the feeling it was because he knew he couldn’t hold on to her anyway. But here it appears that his own folly drives her away, which somehow makes it even more forlorn.

2. “Please Stay”- This is the one that really gets me. The vulnerability is almost overwhelming, as is the beauty, upped by Warren’s perfect choice to have Emmylou Harris contribute the harmony vocals. What must it be like to stare down death, not knowing if “the other side of goodbye” even exists? Hearing his guy who’d never capitulated to anything in his songwriting subtly admitting to his fear is staggering. And then Gil Bernal’s sad, out-of-left-field saxophone part cinches the deal. The fact that so many colleagues and friends rallied to help him out on this album leads me to believe that Zevon was far from alone at the end, unless we all are, in which case this song hurts even more.

1.”Keep Me In Your Heart”- All the guest stars back off for the closer, leaving drummer Jim Keltner, Jorge Calderon, Zevon’s longest-running, most consistent collaborator who co-wrote and played all other instruments on the track, and Warren himself for his farewell. This is the optimistic flip side to “Please Stay,” Zevon assuring us that he’ll always be around even as he’s headed to Pleasant Stream. And this dude of so many witty, wise, wicked, wonderful words leaves us with a simple “Sha-la-la” refrain, sounding absolutely at peace. And we said, “So long, Warren.”

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in November. Pre-order with the link below.)

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

 

 


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


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


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


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


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