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

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Wednesday Weeper of the Week: “Here Comes The Flood” by Peter Gabriel

The artist doesn’t always know best.

That’s the conclusion I’ve reached concerning Peter Gabriel’s haunting ballad “Here Comes The Flood.” I knew the song originally from a greatest hits collection called Shaking The Tree: 16 Golden Greats. On that version, which the credits listed as having been recorded specifically for the compilation, Gabriel is accompanied only by piano and some atmospheric effects. He sounds like the survivor of apocalyptic event in this take, sadly surveying what man has wrought.

For years I listened to this version and loved it. Then last year I was watching The Americans, which is the best thing on TV by a wide margin in my humble opinion. At the end of a particularly fine episode, the actions of various characters were set to the original version of “Here Comes The Flood,” which can be found on Gabriel’s 1977 solo debut and which I had never bothered to seek out. And I was floored by its power.

Gabriel apparently thought the song was overproduced by Bob Ezrin, known for his work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall and several other rock classics. While it’s true that Ezrin has never been known for his subtlety, his work on “Here Comes The Flood” coaxes great drama out of it. The crashing guitars and Gabriel’s hollowed-out croon really up the intensity, and the imagery of the lyrics, which are half-environmental plaint and half science fiction, really pops on this take.

I’m providing links to both versions below so you can make your choice. Like I said they’re both fantastic, but I’ve come to prefer Ezrin’s bombast over Gabriel’s desolation.

(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: Lives In The Balance by Jackson Browne

In a just world, Jackson Browne’s 1986 album Lives In The Balance would have been hailed as the kind of mass-audience masterpieces that peers like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon achieved in the second half of the decade. Not everybody was ready for the unflinching truth-telling, often at the expense of America’s leaders, that defined the album. Agree or not, the message was searingly spoken against a more diverse musical backdrop than Browne had ever before attempted. And, sadly, the album sounds eerily relevant still. Here is a song-by-song review:

TWO STARS

8. “Soldier Of Plenty”- This is the one song on the album that gets a little too fussy production-wise and doesn’t do enough musically to leaven some of the bile being spewed, which makes it a bummer to endure even when the points being made are valid.

THREE STARS

7. “Candy”- Imagine a more in-depth look at the inner workings of the girl from “Somebody’s Baby” and you’ve got the gist of this moody track. It’s not as thorough as it could have been but it’s solid nonetheless.

6. “Lawless Avenues”- Browne catalogs the lives and deaths of a rough Latin neighborhood and adds in a couple anti-war shots for good measure. “Fathers and sons’ lives repeat,” he sings, suggesting the endless cycle of poverty and violent crime that hamstrings these hard-luck characters. Nice use of the Spanish vocals as well to add some authenticity to the tale.

FOUR STARS

5. “Till I Go Down”- The kicky reggae might have signalled a softening of Browne’s withering approach some other time, but not on this album. Instead it serves to soundtrack his promises of eternal vigilance as long as the atrocities he sees persist. By the time it’s over, “Till I Go Down” has turned into a rousing if unlikely anthem.

4. “For America”- With the charging guitar and the saxophone piercing the night, Browne sounds like he’s invading the territory of his buddy Bruce Springsteen with this opening salvo. The desperation in his performance sets it apart though, as does his willingness to castigate his younger self for not being more aware of the lies and governmental sleight of hand he now sees everywhere he turns.

3. “Black And White”- Browne brings it back down to a personal level on this elegant closer. He challenges the protagonist to reach back to his former self, the one ready to fight for his ideals no matter the cost, before it’s too late. The refrain of “Time running out” works on that micro level but it also serves as a larger warning that echoes the politicized rants elsewhere on the album. That Browne manages this so seamlessly without an ounce of strain is just par for the course for this gifted songwriter.

FIVE STARS

2. “Lives In The Balance”- Browne steals some of Paul Simon’s thunder by imbuing this unsparing protest song with hauntingly sad music featuring exotic Spanish folk song overtones. Not that he’s trying to sweeten the medicine: His lyrics about the questionable reasons that countries use to justify wars are as harshly eloquent as he’s ever written. If anything, the beauty of the music only intensifies the senselessness of the situation as perceived by Browne. “There are children at the cannons,” he sings, an image of madness that drives his point home with excruciating accuracy.

1. “Shape Of A Heart”- On this album full of topical material, Browne realizes that the topic of tortured romance is always a hot-button issue. This poignant, warts-and-all reflection on a past relationship allows him to theorize that the flowery stuff of love songs and the ugliness of real life are usually at opposite poles, and never the twain shall meet. “People speak of love don’t know what they’re thinking of,” Browne sings, and you get the sense he’s including his past songwriting self as one of those “people.” The moment when he drops his former flame’s old ruby into the hole in the wall from one of their former fights, a symbolic act of letting go, gets me every time.

(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: Jericho by The Band

Following the departure of chief songwriter Robbie Robertson and death of Richard Manuel, new product from The Band seemed like a pipe dream. Yet in 1993, the three remaining original members teamed up with some of the musicians who had been touring with them and released Jericho, a fine collection of thoughtful song interpretations and spirited performances. Even though the second half drags, the best stuff here is worthy of their towering legacy. Here is a song-by-song review.

ONE STAR

12. “Move To Japan”- Lyrically, it’s lost somewhere between social commentary and satire. As music, it’s boilerplate boogie topped with thuddingly obvious Oriental touches. So begins the lackluster second half of Jericho.

TWO STARS

11. “Shine A Light”- The Band’s best gospel music sounds like it was recorded under some revival tent. This one sounds like it was recorded in a studio in the early 90’s.

10. “River Of Dreams”- It has a nice enough melody, and Rick Danko sings it with tenderness. But the arrangement, sounding more like the tasteful exotica in which Steve Winwood or Peter Gabriel traded, robs The Band of their personality.

9. “Blues Stay Away From Me”- The closing track is the kind of sleepy blues that you can hear at the end of the night in bars everywhere.

THREE STARS

8. “Same Thing”- The arrangement is maybe a bit too busy for this moody Willie Dixon blues classic. Levon Helm salvages things though with a typically gritty vocal and one of his trademark off-kilter rhythms.

7. “Stuff You Gotta Watch”- The instrumentalists sink their collective teeth into this jump blues, and Levon could sing this stuff in his sleep. Well-done, if not exactly revelatory.

6. “Remedy”- The Muscle Shoals-style horns give this energetic opening track soul to spare. The heart comes from Helm’s lead vocal, who for the umpteenth time plays the role of a harried rambler who finds both aggravation and salvation in the arms of a woman.

FOUR STARS

5. “The Caves Of Jericho”- While this may have been an obvious attempt to recapture the historical glories of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” right down to the somber piano chords, it’s a strikingly successful one. While the lyrics (written by Helm, John Simon, and Richard Bell) may overplay the sorrow at times and lack the deft hand that Robbie Robertson possessed with similar material, having Levon on lead bringing authenticity and passion to the tale of a mine cave-in helps to atone for any weaknesses. And the instrumental mix, fiddles and horns and Garth Hudson’s keyboard apparitions, is undeniably stirring.

4. “Country Boy”- Recorded not too long before his death in 1986, “Country Boy” gave us all one more chance to hear Richard Manuel take a seemingly simple song and wring from it unfathomable levels of emotion. Even at his huskiest, his voice still creaked and faltered in all the right places. When you used the word “soulful” to describe Manuel’s singing, it wasn’t a nod to some genre of music but rather an acknowledgement that he laid his soul bare for the world to hear with every note he sang. One can only hope that soul now rests in the peace it struggled to find down here with the rest of us.

FIVE STARS

3. “Too Soon Gone”- Jules Shear’s song is a beauty, a meditation on loss that takes poetic turns yet never gets so fussy that the hurt isn’t front and center. Danko, undoubtedly drawing on the memories of his old buddy Manuel, gives an achingly pretty performance in tribute, while Hudson roams the edges with impactful saxophone fills. Lumps in your throat the whole way on this one.

2. “Atlantic City”- If Jericho did nothing else, it reminded everyone of what an authoritative and charismatic performer Helm always was. After setting the tone with some evocative mandolin, he takes Bruce Springsteen’s tale of big dreams and hard luck in the gambling mecca, rendered by the Boss in such iconic fashion on Nebraska, and somehow makes us hear it anew. Hudson helps of course, his accordion taking us on a stroll from the boardwalk to the back alleys and back again.

1. “Blind Willie McTell”- First of all, the song itself is among Dylan’s most haunting, expanding Robbie Robertson’s own examinations of the American South into dark corners and tortured pasts. The Band chose a bluegrass route for their take, albeit one goosed by a herky-jerky rhythm, and then let Danko and Helm work their magic, raising the intensity verse by verse until they harmonize in the refrains, summoning all the ghosts to the fore in the process. Chilling and thrilling all at once.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material which originated on this site, check out the links below.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657