Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Excitable Boy - Warren Zevon
I went to a Dawes show last year. I'm not a big fan of the band (although I like them for the most part), I really went because I was curious about what makes them tick. I find it hard to believe that a group would listen to Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills and Nash and decide to make music inspired by them. That seems weird even for a bunch of kids from Malibu. I was unfortunate enough to have grown up during both the singer/songwriter heyday and the Los Angeles/Laurel Canyon 1970s rock scene when people actually thought that J. D. Souther and the Eagles were not only talented but cool as well. The only thing that music ever inspired in me was a desire to go back to the 1960s. I did enjoy Dawes' set though. At one point they brought out their hero, Jackson Browne, and I grimaced expecting them to lay into "The Pretender" or something of that ilk, but to Browne's credit he did a Warren Zevon cover instead. When he came back out for the encore he did another Zevon song as well! Kudos to Browne for being humble and for paying tribute to one of the few worthwhile artists to emerge from that scene. That show got me to pull out my Zevon albums and start playing them again. This one is my favorite, a true masterpiece. If you look at the credits on this album, you'd think you were looking at a Linda Ronstadt album or something. It is produced by Browne and Waddy Wachtel backed up by a bunch of Los Angeles sessionmen like Wachtel, Danny Kortchmar and Russell Kunkel as well as ex-Stone Poney, Kenny Edwards. Ronstadt herself even sings back-up on the title tune and Browne and J. D. Souther sing on several cuts as well. The musical sound of the album is mellow and smooth for the most part, like the trademark L. A. sound of that era which does undercut the force of the songs. Zevon comes up with memorable riffs on songs like "Johnny Strikes Up The Band," "Werewolves Of London," and "Lawyers, Guns and Money." If he was backed up by an actual rock band instead of these jaded studio pros, the songs would probably have a lot more bite. "Werewolves of London" is a bit of an exception. It is boistered by Zevon's rollicking piano playing and the Fleetwood Mac rhythm section, guys who know how to rock out from their days working for Peter Green. All the song really needs to put it over the top is some heavy crunchy guitar, but that is hardly Wachtel's forte, although he briefly gives it a try. Despite the slick studio sound, no one is going to mistake this for a Jackson Browne album. Zevon sings with a rough gravelly voice that gives the songs an edge and then there is his lyrical vision, which rivals Richard Thompson in its darkness, originality and toughness. There is really no song from that era remotely like "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner." It is weird but not gratuitously weird like Frank Zappa or Alice Cooper, it is straight forward and realistic, at least as realistic as a song can be that is about a Norwegian mercenary in Africa who gets decapitated by a comrade at the behest of the C.I.A. and whose headless body goes on a vengeful killing spree around the world. There is also "Werewolves of London" which is probably Zevon's most famous song. It could have been a novelty song with its humor and lupine howling, but the intelligence and viciousness in the lyrics lift it to another level. "Excitable Boy" is a sarcastic song about a young psychopath. "Veracruz" is a serious song about the 1914 American occupation of that Mexican city written from the point of view of one of the defenders. "Lawyers, Guns and Money" is about a rich kid who gets into trouble with a Russian spy in Cuba and asks his father to bail him out. Of course not every song on here is so exotic and esoteric. "Accidentally Like A Martyr" is a poetic song about heartbreak and "Tenderness On the Block" depicts a young woman coming of age and discovering love. I don't really get "Nighttime In the Switching Yard" which is a funky song that borders on disco. It is the closest thing to a throwaway filler type song on the album although it does have a good beat and you can dance to it which is more than you can say for any James Taylor record. As much as I hated the era that this album came out of, I have to admit that if it was able to develop and nurture an artist of Zevon's stature it couldn't have been all bad. Recommended for Jackson Browne fans who wish he had a sense of humor.