[20 October 2005]
After Warren Zevon’s untimely death, Artemis Records released Enjoy Every Sandwich, where big names such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Pixies, and, er, Adam Sandler ran through his classic, caustic songbook. Now, a year later, the indie label Wampus has produced a second tribute album to the great singer-songwriter, Hurry Home Early: The Songs of Warren Zevon, assembling such big names as Roughly Enforcing Nostalgia, Alpha Cat, and Brook Pridemore. Okay, okay. I’m going to admit I haven’t heard of most of the acts on this album, but this turns out to help the album, as the lack of notable performers places the emphasis where it should be: the songs.
Warren Zevon was one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the last 40 years. He represented the dark underbelly of the ‘70s soft rock scene, writing twisted songs of death, sexual deviance, drug abuse, immoral behavior, depression, and sorrow while his counterparts like Jackson Browne and James Taylor were making the big bucks playing the “sensitive male” card. Zevon combined a sense of mordant humor with his impeccable way of turning the perfect phrase, which did not help his chart success but has made his songs more durable. Take “Mohammad’s Radio”, performed a little too reverently by the Matthew Show, which sounds as vital today as it did during the ‘70s with such lines as “You work all day / You still can’t pay / The price of gasoline” and the quotable pearl of wisdom, “The sheriff’s got his problems too / And he will surely, surely take them out on you”. This is the man, when all is said and done, who wrote “Carmelita”, which can lay claim to being the only song that was effectively covered by both Linda Ronstadt and G.G. Allin.
Rachel Stamp gives a great performance of “Carmelita”, wisely stripping the song down to its bare essentials. Of course, a performer would have to really work hard to screw up the longing desperation of “Carmelita”. That’s sort of the strength of Hurry Home Early: The Songs of Warren Zevon: There isn’t really a weak track on the album because the songs are just that good. It’s also one of the weaknesses of the album; some of the artists fail to raise the level of their performances to the level of the songs. The relative anonymity of the performers is reflected in the faceless nature of some of these recordings. The songs are so dynamic that it seems a shame that some of these artists basically sleepwalk through them. Last Train Home’s performance of “Desperados Under the Eaves” attempts to echo the exhaustion at the heart of the song, but it ends up just being dull. Similarly, Roughly Enforcing Nostalgia and Robb Johnson add nothing to their renditions of “Run Straight Down” and “Suzie Lightning”, respectively.
The artists who strip the songs down to basics are the ones whose performances linger longest. Tvfordogs’s Neil Luckett gives an emotional take on “Mutineer” (one of Zevon’s most underrated love songs), while, on the other end of the emotional spectrum, Brook Pridemore gives a manic take on the beyond sardonic “Life’ll Kill Ya”. In what might be the collection’s biggest selling point, Jordan Zevon has rescued his father’s unreleased “Warm Rain” and given it to Simone Stevens to sing. The result is a sad but beautiful track that casts some of Warren Zevon’s most romantic lyrics into a haunting, country-ish light.
Although most of the album’s highlights are the stripped down affairs, a few acts take some risks and show how malleable Zevon’s songs are. The Simple Things transform “I’ll Slow You Down” into a delightful jangle pop rumble, one that provides a welcome contrast to some of the more down-tempo numbers that populate Hurry Home Early: The Songs of Warren Zevon. Maybe even better is Robert Rist’s brutal take on “Mr. Bad Example”, where he backs up the rants of Zevon’s larger-than-life anti-hero with a brash punk rock sound that is as nasty as the song’s narrator. Zevon, I’m sure, would approve.
This album is best suited for a Warren Zevon fanatic, as opposed to many albums that attempt to turn people into fans with the siren call of their favorite musical acts. Beyond the appearance of “Warm Rain”, a Zevon fan will find that there are enough interesting reinterpretations here to warrant a purchase. It’s not a necessary album, very few tribute albums are, but ultimately Hurry Home Early: The Songs of Warren Zevon does justice to its honoree, which is enough for me to respect its existence.