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:
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books based on material which originated on this site, check out the links below.)