Jordan Zevon: Insides Out

[15 April 2008]

By Charles A. Hohman

Better Outsides Than In

Pity rock star children. Sure, they may be foisted into wealth and privilege, but come time to chase their own musical career, their identity is inextricably linked to their parents. From Julian Lennon to Jakob Dylan to Ben Taylor, these kids cannot escape their pedigree, whatever their own musical merits. Even Rufus Wainwright, whose operatic overtures couldn’t be more different from his parents’ (Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle) folk-pop, is still dogged by these parallels. As if collectively saying “uncle”, a number of offspring, primarily from rock and roll also-rans (Eddie Money, Dee Snider, Kenny Loggins) have paraded their voices and personalities onto MTV’s Rock the Cradle, a reality-show singing-competition for birthright rockers that milks their heritage for all its worth.

This problem is especially glaring in the case of Jordan Zevon. After all, his first recording was a cover of “Studebaker”, a song his dad, Warren Zevon, penned shortly before his 2003 death from lung cancer. The song appeared on the 2004 tribute album to his late father, Enjoy Every Sandwich. In his heartfelt delivery, the younger Zevon held his own against rock heavyweights like Jackson Browne, the Pixies and Bruce Springsteen.

On his path to musical stardom, Zevon has not exactly shied away from his father. Warren Zevon’s name is all over Jordan’s press materials (ditto his mother, who died six months after Warren). “Studebaker” is featured on Insides Out, Jordan’s full-length debut. And in its grace, elegance and simplicity, it conspicuously stands out from the songs Jordan and his buddies penned and performed. The desire to pay homage is understandable, but it can be counterproductive to establishing his own musical identity.

Though his songs would never fit on Excitable Boy or Sentimental Hygiene, Jordan Zevon’s music has an impish charm all its own. He favors bubbly pop full of engrossing hooks, winsome harmonies and snazzy melodic tricks. “This Girl” is a breezy number reminiscent of early ‘90s Marshall Crenshaw. Other tracks recall Fountains of Wayne, albeit more the somewhat self-parodic Traffic and Weather-era Fountains than the Utopia Parkway salad days. At times, Jordan Zevon can be a bit mundane, his voice indistinct, but his songs are never anything less than catchy.

However, Zevon stumbles when he veers too close to his father’s territory. The odd thing is, were he not Warren’s spawn, he’d simply be a clumsy social commentator, and not a failed Warren Zevon. Still, the indictment of privileged college kids on “American Standard” is as strained and obvious as the titular toilet pun. And despite its gleeful chorus straight out of Josie and the Pussycats, “Camila Rhodes” has an uncomfortably bitter aftertaste, full of in-jokes that the performers find amusing but the listeners find puzzling. Zevon is as yet incapable of empathizing with his characters while simultaneously criticizing them, a balance his dad achieved masterfully.

One character with whom Jordan Zevon can identify is Jordan Zevon. Hence, the first-person narratives are invariably stronger than the instances where Zevon branches outside himself. “The Joke’s on Me” is a self-effacing romp with an arresting falsetto chorus. Despite its pointed masturbation reference, this portrait of the artist as a wage-slaving loser deservedly won the 2006 USA Songwriting Competition. Album closer “Too Late to Be Saved” is a genuinely moving battle between ambivalence, agnosticism and the thirst for redemption. Jordan Zevon splits writing duties with cronies Marty Coyle and Jordan Summers, of the similarly inclined band All Day Sucker. So unlike most singer-songwriter albums, this is a collaborative effort, which may strengthen its accessibility, but only further muddles Zevon’s personality.

Still, even at their most shallow and tossed-off, these guys know songcraft. And only disillusioned, above-it-all grumps could resist humming these nuggets. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s certainly entertaining. But it’s also tough not to wish, only partially because of his DNA, Jordan Zevon could write more substantive lyrics for his remarkable tunes.

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