Friday, December 22, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1085: Warren Zevon

I’m officially on holidays! It has been a busy year and it feels good to have a chance to recharge the batteries.

Today I slept in, finished my Christmas shopping and then my cat and I enjoyed a can of tuna for lunch (he got a taste, I got the rest). Now it’s time for a blog entry, coffee with a friend and then dinner with some other friends.

I’m not fully relaxed yet, but with a schedule like this it shouldn’t be long.

Disc 1085 is…Sentimental Hygiene
Artist: Warren Zevon

Year of Release: 1987

What’s up with the Cover? It’s a Giant Head cover with what I think passes for ‘artistic’ lighting. Also, there is some weird portion of another photo down the left hand side that makes the whole thing reminiscent of an old cathode ray TV where the horizontal balance is on the fritz.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me digging through Warren Zevon’s collection, buying every album I liked with the zeal of the newly converted.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 10 Warren Zevon albums, which isn’t all of them but is all of them that I want. Of those, “Sentimental Hygiene” is solid, but competition in the land of Warren Zevon is fierce. I comes in 6th.

Ratings: 4 stars

Rock musicians often suffer for their art, and if they’re lucky enough to live through it they feed the results of that struggle into yet more art. It is a vicious cycle for them but for listeners it is an opportunity to live vicariously through their personal demons like art vampires. Warren Zevon died far too young, but the art vampire in me is glad the demons he explores on “Sentimental Hygiene” never killed him, but only rejuvenated his work.

Fresh out of struggles with drug and alcohol addition, “Sentimental Hygiene” was Zevon’s first album in five years. His gift for songwriting survived that regenerative process, and if anything made this collection of songs more personal than ever.

I recently watched a Carrie Fisher spoken word show where Fisher (no stranger to tragedy herself) reminds her audience that any experience is easier to survive if you can see the humour in it after the fact. Zevon has this skill and it comes across in his music. Not all of these songs are funny – how could they be? – but Zevon has always been naturally witty and “Sentimental Hygiene” is no exception.

On “Trouble Waiting to Happen” Zevon sings about what it is like to be a celebrity with issues, reading about your personal life in Rolling Stone:

“I read things I didn’t know I’d done
It sounded like a lot fun
I guess I’ve been bad or something
Trouble waiting to happen.”

On “Bad Karma” he says he “took a wrong turn on the astral plane” and on “Detox Mansion” he characterizes a stint in rehab as “raking leaves with Liza/me and Liz clean up the yard”.

When he does get dark, it manifests as a deep sadness for his past actions. On “Reconsider Me” the “re-” stands out starkly, reminding us that Zevon knows if you just consider all he’s done, he might come out poorly, but he’s clean now and he’s asking for re-consideration, a fresh start. On “Every Dog Can Shake Hands” he notes how the music industry can be rough, managing to do it in a way that doesn’t make you feel like he’s just another millionaire with a pill problem. He just seems like an ordinary guy who got in over his head.

Of course, Zevon is no ordinary guy. He is an exceptional musical talent and these songs are just as clever musically as they are lyrically. Rock music can often feel stitched together in a haphazard fashion, There’s an A section, a B section and a chorus, a repeat, a bridge and a fade out.

On “Sentimental Hygiene” Zevon’s chorus is often just a clever refrain, stitching every section together equally, and the bridge is so naturally complimentary to the rest of the melody that it takes multiple listens to realize where one ends and the other begins. When he employs a more standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus approach it is similarly seamless, naturally flowing from one section to the other as one cohesive melodic narrative.

The arrangements are also solid. “Bad Karma” cleverly slips in a bit of sitar for south Asian flavour, but not so much as to be self-indulgent. Throughout the album the guitar and piano are both front and centre but never competing with one another.

The production suffers a bit from the late eighties’ love of artificial sounds, but Zevon has a new wave edge to him that makes it less offensive than on straight rockers like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen who tried the same effects with less success.

Zevon is loved by his peers and his albums are often a who’s who of musical talent in the background. “Sentimental Hygiene” is no exception with guest spots from Neil Young, Brian Setzer, Flea, Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Jennifer Warnes, Mike Campbell and most of REM.

Mike Campbell’s rich guitar sound is particularly welcome on “Reconsider Me” which gives the tune a majestic lighter-waving Tom Petty anthem feel.

The last song on the album is the worst. Zevon goes all in on “Leave My Monkey Alone” with the late eighties sound, and the resulting booms, thumps and pointless synth flourishes take a meandering mess and highlight the worst parts of it. My CD is a 2003 remaster that compounds the problem by including a second version of this song half sung in Spanish. The other bonus track, “Nocturne” is equally awful, featuring a bunch of weird circus sounds that go nowhere but are mercifully over in less than two minutes.

With those two extra songs wrecking the end of the album this could drop to a 3 star album, but I liked everything before it well enough that I’ll stick with 4 and pretend that never happened.

Best tracks: Boom Boom Mancini, The Factory, Trouble Waiting to Happen, Reconsider Me, Bad Karma

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