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Warren Zevon
Asylum 7E-1060
Released: August 1976
Chart Peak: #189
Weeks Charted: 2

Warren ZevonWarren Zevon's first Asylum album is a contemporary comedy-western about Los Angeles. In images that are often mordantly funny and detailed right down to specific place names, Zevon compiles a surrealistic vision of Hollywood that is one part Howard Hawks to three parts Nathaniel West. Albums with a Hollywood-western theme aren't new. But all the others have been made by die-hard romantics -- the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell. In refreshing contrast, Zevon works almost exclusively with irony and satire. The appearance of an L.A. singer/songwriter who dares to puncture the seriousness of the romantics but who is also musically sophisticated enough to work in their idiom is long overdue. A competent pianist and guitarist and a fine composer, Zevon's songs run the gamut from acoustic folk to hard rock. His best tunes even manage to use the romantic harmonies of Browne's and the Eagles' ballads to evoke pathos and humor simultaneously.

The album's first song, "Frank and Jesse James," portrays those outlaws as alienated political exiles who fought on the wrong side in the Civil War and were forever "misunderstood." In "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded," a young man tells the story of his mother, who defied her own good sense, as well asher parents' wishes, to marry a compulsive gambler. Zevon views these reckless characters as ancestral archetypes for the self-destructive, self-deluded fantasists and vagrants who determine the ethos of modern L.A. Appropriately, both songs are quasi-traditional folk ballads, unlike anything else on the album.

Zevon's imitation American is provocative and well made and his contemporary social probes combine Shampoo's knowing hipness with an aesthetic view of the grotesque that's closer to Fellini than Warren Beatty. A rocker called "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," while humorously spoofing suicidal despair, likens sex-for-sport to brutal fights for survival ("She really worked me over good/She was just like Jesse James"). At the end, it introduces sadomasochism in a gleefully casual manner. In contrast, "The French Inhaler" is less ironic. The story of the sexual exploitation of a dumb starlet, the song ends with a jab at Norman Mailer for his literary exploitation of Marilyn Monroe.

"Mohammed's Radio," which sounds a lot like Jackson Browne's "The Late Show," has magnificent lyrics reminiscent of middle-period Dylan. Here, the image of "Mohammed's Radio" is an apt and ultimately mysterious metaphor for spiritual release in a city where "everybody's restless and they've got no place to go."

"Carmelita," the album's cosmic gem, tells of two losers ("the county won't give me no more methadone/And they cut off your welfare check") strung out on L.A.'s fringes. With its tacky semiflamenco guitar and sweet-sad hoot copped from Commander Cody's "Seeds and Stems (Again)," the song makes tragedy from farce and vice versa.

"Join Me in L.A.," a sleazy rock dirge, and "Desperados under the Eaves," deal ironically with L.A.'s apocalyptic self-image. The music of "Desperados" is so elegantly cinematic that at first it sounds like a totally serious end-of-the-world song. At least, that is, until the second verse when Zevon observes:

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing
Until I pay my bill

Later, when Zevon cuts short the last verse with "I was listening to the air conditioner hum...," a chorus enters imitating air conditioning, a refrain that becomes quite similar to "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." The chorus, arranged by the Beach Boys' Carl Wilson to sound like an elegy for Western civilization emanating from an air conditioner, is the last and grandest surrealistic joke of the album.

The album has some minor problems. Jackson Browne's elaborate, star-studded production is conceptually right for Zevon, but the overall sound has the same somewhat flat, dull finish that is the chief flaw of Browne's own solo albums. More seriously, Zevon is a barely competent singer with an old cowpokey voice, like Browne with laryngitis. Zevon's style, however, is distinct. He delivers his material with just the right amount of yarn spinner's tongue-in-cheek.

Despite its imperfections, Warren Zevon is a very auspicious accomplishment. If it does not have the obvious commercial appeal of an Eagles album, on its own artistic terms it is almost a complete success. Who could have imagined a concept album about Los Angeles that is funny, enlightening, musical, at moments terrifying and above all funny?

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 7/15/76

Bonus Reviews!

I've got something to get off my chest. As much as I respect and admire professional oddballs like Randy Newman and Loudon Wainwright, I've never been able to get much pleasure out of listening to them, probably because of their attitudes toward music. Both seem to view it as a basically functional message carrier: Loudon, the old folkie, has never progressed beyond a kind of talking-blues primitivism, while Randy, as splendidly crafted as his stuff is, is just cerebral enough to be fatally cold. Since as writers they're primarily in it for the big (verbal) yocks, neither sees his music, be it kindergarten-simple or conservatory-complex, as having to do much beyond keeping out of the way. Which is fine for their purposes, I suppose, but it doesn't do much to advance the art of songwriting.

So now we have the debut of an L.A. weirdo named Warren Zevon, a similarly cracked sensibility who has surrounded himself with a slew of Famous Names I have been on record for some time as not caring for -- and I have to confess I am totally bonkers about it. Why? Because despite his style (deadpan humor) and his subject matter (pithy dissections of the seamy underbelly of California-America), he has made a rock-and-roll album that is as musically rich as anything I've heard in geological epochs. What does he sound like? Oh, nothing special -- just a grittier Jackson Browne (Jackson produced, by the way), the Eagles without the cloying sentimentality, English art-rockers of the Eno school without the avant-garde pretensions, Newman if he had been weaned on the Beatles rather than Hollywood film music, and Wainwright if he had been born into the lower middle class, just to scratch the surface. The sheer song-to-song variety of style and substance Zevon presents is amazing enough, but he also manages somehow to give it all a believable cohesiveness.

This album has gotten me so excited that I'm tempted to go out on a limb here and announce that Zevon is the most interesting artist to come out of pop music since Bruce Springsteen, or something equally hyperbolic. But I'm going to restrain myself, if only because I'm not sure that L.A. lowlife is the kind of subject matter that can sustain him (to say nothing of Dory Previn) for more than and album or two. Still, some of the best tracks, "Frank and Jesse James" or "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded," treat situations more abstract and fictional than his Hollywood songs (my favorite: "Desperados Under the Eaves," a wryly pessimistic number with a wonderful Dvořákian string arrangement), and they suggest an enormous and still untapped potential. So I'm simply going to say that this is a great, great record, lyrically brilliant and funny, at times breathtakingly sung and performed, that manages to rock almost nonstop. I've asked you to do this before, but you really should trust me on this one.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 8/76.

Interesting blend of styles includes a little bit of Jackson Browne (who produced the package), a touch of country rock, bits of Southern rock, some Spanish guitar and some pretty ballads. Zevon, a veteran of the record business who has not previously recorded himself, merges styles as well as anyone else and still manages to keep some degree of originality. Songs, dealing from Western topics to love songs, are excellent. LP also benefits from guests like Phil Everly, John David Souther, Browne, Lindsey Buckingham, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Carl Wilson, Bobby Keyes and Fritz Richmond. Laid back enough to fit into today's popular format, but singer has a powerful enough voice and the production is good enough to add some guts to the set. Best cuts: "Frank And Jesse James," "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded," "The French Inhaler," "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," "Join Me In L.A.," "Desperados Under The Eaves."

- Billboard, 1976.

I am suspicious of singer-songwriters who draw attention to phrases like "hasten down the wind," and I would suggest a moratorium on songs about the James Brothers that don't also rhyme "pollution" and "solution." But I like the way Zevon resists pigeonholes like "country-rock" while avoiding both the banal and the mystagogical, and I like quatrains like "And if California slides into the ocean/Like the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standing/Until I pay my bill." B+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

A beautiful and ambitious debut, it paints a gloomy and cryptic portrait of Hollywood's casualties through gripping songs like "Carmelita," "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," and "Mohammed's Radio." * * * *

- John Floyd, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Warren Zevon is one of the great albums of the '70s, a virtual concept album about a culture, and its individual inhabitants, spinning out of control. Some of the songs were first popularized by Linda Ronstadt ("Hasten Down the Wind," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and "Mohammed's Radio"), but Zevon's versions are grittier and more desperate. * * * * *

- Daniel Durchholz, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

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