Tuesday, 16 February 2016

"Original Album Series" by WARREN ZEVON (2010 Asylum/Rhino 5CD Mini Box Set) - A Review by Mark Barry...




"...Excitable Boy..."

Like Randy Newman it's a testament to Warren Zevon's extraordinarily witty and sharp songs that so many quality artists have covered him - Linda Ronstadt, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Buffett, Jackson Browne, Counting Crows and even Ireland's Freddie White to name but a few. And while his "Excitable Boy" set from 1978 will probably be the most familiar album to people on here – the stunning kick-ass live LP "Stand In The Fire" (recorded across five nights at The Roxy with a super tight band) is just one of the gems to discover in this cheap-as-a-politician’s-castle-moat-repair-bill 5CD mini box set. Time to rip your lungs out Jim for the original Werewolf Of London...

UK released March 2010 (reissued September 2012) – "Original Album Series" by WARREN ZEVON on Asylum/Rhino 8122 79837 1 (Barcode 081227983710) is a 5CD Mini Box Set with 5" card repro sleeves and plays out as follows:

Disc 1 – "Warren Zevon" (38:28 minutes):
1. Frankie And Jessie James
2. Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded
3. Backs Turned Looking Down The Path
4. Hasten Down The Wind
5. Poor Poor Pitiful Me
6. The French Inhaler
7. Mohammed's Radio [Side 2]
8. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
9. Carmelita
10. Join Me In L.A.
11. Desperados Under The Eaves
Tracks 1 to 11 are the debut album "Warren Zevon" – released June 1976 in the USA on Asylum 7E-1060 and in the UK on Asylum K 53039

Disc 2 – "Excitable Boy" (31:49 minutes):
1. Johnny Strikes up The Band
2. Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner
3. Excitable Boy
4. Werewolves Of London
5. Accidentally Like A Martyr
6. Nightime In The Switching Yard [Side 2]
7. Veracruz
8. Tenderness On The Block
9. Lawyers, Guns And Money
Tracks 1 to 9 are his 2nd album "Excitable Boy" – released January 1978 in the USA on Asylum 6E 118 and March 1978 in the UK on Asylum K 53073

Disc 3 – "Bad Luck Steak In Dancing School" (35:35 minutes):
1. Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School
2. A Certain Girl
3. Jungle Work
4. Empty-Handed Heart
5. Interlude No. 1
6. Play It All Night Long
7. Jeannie Needs A Shooter [Side 2]
8. Interlude No. 2
9. Bill Lee
10. Gorilla, You're A Desperado
11. Bed Of Coals
12. Wild Age
Tracks 1 to 12 are his 3rd album "Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School" – released March 1980 in the USA on Asylum 5E 509 and in the UK on Asylum K 52191

Disc 3 – "Stand In The Fire – Recorded Live At The Roxy" (42:35 minutes):
1. Stand In The Fire
2. Jeannie Needs A Shooter
3. Excitable Boy
4. Mohammed's Radio
5. Werewolves Of London
6. Lawyers, Guns And Money [Side 2]
7. The Sin
8. Poor Poor Pitiful Me
9. I’ll Sleep When I'm Dead
10. Bo Diddley's A Gunslinger/Bo Diddley
Tracks 1 to 10 are the album "Stand In The Fire – Recorded Live At The Roxy" – released January 1981 in the USA on Asylum 5E-519 and in the UK on Asylum K 52265

Disc 5 - "The Envoy" (32:16 minutes):
1. The Envoy
2. The Overdraft
3. The Hula Hula Boys
4. Jesus Mentioned
5. Let Nothing Come Between You
6. Ain't That Pretty At All [Side 2]
7. Charlie’s Medicine
8. Looking For The Next Best Thing
9. Never Too Late For Love
Tracks 1 to 9 are his 5th album "The Envoy" – released August 1982 in the USA on Asylum 9 60159 1 and in the UK on Asylum AS K 52365

All of these "Original Album Series" sets are visually the same - a flimsy outer card slipcase houses 5 x 5" single card repro sleeves each aping the front and rear artwork of the original vinyl LPs. Each disc has generic Rhino colouring, song credits (including writers) and some basic recording info on the label – but that's it (no booklet). They look great it has to be said and are space saving for sure...

Audio-wise there's good news and bad news. In 2007 - Asylum/Rhino reissued "Excitable Boy" (1978), "Stand In The Fire" (1980) and "The Envoy" (1982) as first time CD Remasters with bonus tracks on each – but they have 'not' been used here (I own them and can immediately hear the difference). Having said that - the good news is that for the brilliantly recorded "Stand In The Fire" and "The Envoy" albums both of the non-remastered CDs don't represent such a dramatic dip in Audio quality (they sound pretty good and are more than acceptable). But "Excitable Boy" couldn't be more different. Like "Warren Zevon" and "Bad Lad Streak In Dancing School" - older non-remastered standard versions have been used in this box and subsequently the drop in Audio quality is very marked. When you hear the fantastic Dan Hersch and Bill Inglot 2007 Remaster of "Excitable Boy" (Asylum/Rhino 8122-79997-7 - Barcode 081227999773) – the Audio is awesome – all the power and muscle and clarity you would want from what is probably his best album. But what you get here is a weedy audio effort and unfortunately "Warren Zevon" and "Bad Luck..." are the same. Don't get me wrong – they're acceptable - and at roughly two quid per CD – bloody good value for money. But if Rhino had only used the three Remasters they already have and done two new ones for "Warren Zevon" and "Bad Luck..." – what an "Original Album Series" addition this would have been. It's a point worth pointing out. Now let's get to the other good news – the musical quality of what's actually on offer...

The debut album features an astonishing list of guest musicians. Check out the backing vocalists alone - Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers on "Frank And Jessie James" and "Hasten Down The Wind", Jackson Browne on "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded" and "Desperados Under The Eaves" (also plays piano "Join Me In L.A."), Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac on "Mohammed's Radio" (Lindsey also sings on "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and plays Guitar on "Backs Turned Looking Down The Path"), Bonnie Raitt and Rosemary Butler sing on "Join Me In L.A." while Glenn Frey and Don Henley of The Eagles sing on "The French Inhaler" (Frey also plays guitar on "Carmelita") and Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys is just one of the voices behind "Desperados Under The Eaves". Ace horn player Bobby Keys of Rolling Stones fame provides Saxophone on "Mohammed's Radio" and "Join Me In L.A." - while stalwarts of his band Waddy Watchel and David Lindley plays guitars and fiddle.

The "Excitable Boy" album is a sensation really. All that potential on "Warren Zevon" came screaming to fruition on a record where there isn't a bad track (many would become synonymous with him). The bloodthirsty and kooky "Werewolves Of London" features Mick Fleetwood and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac on Drums and Bass while Linda Ronstadt and Jennifer Warnes lend backing vocals to the giddily macabre "Excitable Boy" with Waddy Watchel chopping that axe and sessionman Jim Horn blowing a mean Saxophone. Karla Bonoff does lovely Harmony Vocals on "Accidentally Like A Martyr" while his long-time musical cohort Jorge Calderon plays Spanish Guitar on the hurting "Veracruz". Waddy Watchel's guitar work makes the gorgeous "Tenderness On The Block" - a song that always makes me think of my growing kids (who aren't kids anymore). And who doesn't laugh at the touch-and-go 'gambling in Havana' wit of "Lawyers, Guns And Money" where the you-know-what has unceremoniously hit the fan...(send help Daddy please). 

"Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School" continues themes of nutjobs, society outcasts and his own personal and physical demons (drink and women). But while the mournful ballad "Empty-Handed Heart" with wonderful counter harmony vocals from Linda Ronstadt and the punk-cocky "Jeannie Needs A Shooter" (co-written with Bruce Springsteen and featuring Joe Walsh on Guitar) both sound like the two light and dark facets of Warren Zevon's music that fans love – the awkward Ernie K-Doe cover of "A Certain Girl" (written by Allen Toussaint) seems like its reaching - almost foolish (Jackson Browne on Backing Vocals with Don Felder of The Eagles on Guitar). "Jungle Rock" once again features Joe Walsh on Guitar (Solo) but the weedy CD lacks the musical punch this rather good little New Wave tune deserves. I've always liked the short but sweet 'string' interludes (even if they're sad and weirdly placed). But then you get the utterly brilliant and savage "Play It All Night Long" where he jabs at Lynyrd Skynyrd's big "Sweet Home Alabama" hit and farming life in general - giving us harsh lyrics like "...grandpa pissed his pants again...he don't give a damn...brother Billy has both guns drawn...he ain't been right since Vietnam..." The recently passed Glenn Frey of The Eagles adds his vocals to the piano hurt of "Bill Lee" - but Side 2 is let down by the cod reggae vibe of "Gorilla, You're A Desperado" where not even Jackson Browne on Guitars/Vocals with Don Henley on Backing Vocals can save it. The sleeping on a "Bed Of Coals" is good but also a tad maudlin for him (nice vocals though from Linda Ronstadt and J.D. Souther). The difficult third album is that – difficult - but still with its nuggets in-between the emotional nails...

No such problem with the barnstorming live set "Stand In The Fire..." This sucker rocks and has a HUGE audio presence that makes you wish you were there. There are two new songs in amongst the "Mohammed's Radio" perennials and the Bo Diddley Medley that ends the album – the wicked opener "Stand In The Fire” and "The Sin" on Side 2. The band too is 'so tight' – like they've rehearsed these things to within an inch of their lives. It feels contemporary too – like Graham Parker and The Rumour on fire. Special mention has to go to the blistering band that barely puts a foot wrong – David Landau and Zeke Zirngiebel on Guitars, Bob Harris on Keyboards, Robert Pinon on Bass and Vocals and Marty Stinger on Drums. Warren plays 12-String Guitar, Piano and of course sings all Lead Spots. Suddenly songs like "Jeannie Needs A Shooter" explode into riffage life – but its when we get to "Werewolves Of London" followed on Side 2 by "Lawyers, Guns And Money" that the gig really erupts – the excitement in the whooping audience is literally palatable. Thankfully the expertly produced original audio (Zevon and Greg Ladanyl did the honours) on this disc is far better than "Bad Luck..." - but my 2007 Remaster is fantastic and contains four bonuses from the gig that are absolutely having too.

On a more down-note. I once saw Zevon live in Dublin at the Dublin Stadium in the early 80ts (it was after the release of "Stand In The Fire"). But it was easily one of the worst concerts I've ever seen. The Promoter used the "Stand In The Fire" album in radio adverts (with that band and that huge sound). But when the packed stadium lights went down – Zevon came out on his own without a band to do an acoustic gig and just couldn't cut it. Worse - he was clearly not aware it hadn't been promoted as a solo gig - so after a couple of songs the dissatisfied audience grew ever more restless and started to heckle his every move. Every song needed the muscle of a group. But when he then did the folk ditty "Cum By A" (the Boy Scouts song) – the audience had had enough and started booing big time. He did one forced encore where he poured Bourbon over his harmonica in rage – but by then people where out trying to get their money back from a terrified promoter. It was awful. I'd rather remember Warren Zevon like this – standing in the fire - kicking and vital – genuinely exciting – one of my songwriting heroes...

I loved and hated "The Envoy" on its release in 1982. The contrasts between the gorgeous love songs like "Let Nothing Come Between You" and "Never Too Late For Love" and the political jabbing of "The Envoy” (wrestling guns in Damascus), the hatred of Drugs, Junkie Life and all its lies in "Ain't That Pretty At All" beside the stark and tender beauty of "Jesus Mentioned" made the whole album one big contrast of styles. But that's its strength. You think something like "The Hula Hula Boys" is a flippant indigenous folky lightweight - but its way deeper than that. Same applies to the menacing "Charlie's Medicine" where someone's pill hook-up has been shot in Beverley Hills by a crazed Doctor. Zevon sings of Charlie and his pharmaceutical supplies with self-loathing also - "...I gave him all my money...what the hell was I thinking of..." We get a crazed but thoroughly effective backing vocal from Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac on the topical "The Overdraft" – the banks screwing the little guy. And his visit to Elvis' home in "Jesus Mentioned" predates Paul Simon's "Graceland" by three or four years...

You could argue that it's better to buy the 2007 Asylum/Rhino versions of "Excitable Boy", "Stand In The Fire" and "The Envoy" for the vastly improved audio and excellent bonus tracks (they're easily available and reasonably priced too) – but "Warren Zevon" and "Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School" are must-owns in their own patchy ways.

"...All alone on the road to perfection...at the inspection booth they tried to discourage me..." - Warren Zevon sang on the uplifting "Looking For The Next Best Thing". Despite its audio niggles – I'd say look no further and dig in...

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