Monday, July 02, 2007

CD REVIEW: Warren Zevon's "Preludes"

Label: New West Records
First of all, if any of you haven’t yet experienced the genius that was Warren Zevon, quit reading this review. For heaven’s sake, go to your local record store immediately and purchase the Genius greatest hits package. Go ahead. Don’t even think about it. You won’t be sorry.

However, for those of you who know Warren Zevon through his incredible music, read on. Recently, with the help of Warren’s son Jordan, New West Records has delivered Preludes to the world. As the title suggests, it is a compilation of previously unheard Zevon demos, discovered after his death, from his early years. Therefore, listeners shouldn’t expect to hear the almost-famous Excitable Boy Warren Zevon or the wise, old, dark sage of his later albums. Here, we get the young singer/songwriter, struggling to find his way in the music business… and in the world. A world complete with poverty, alcohol, drugs, shady characters, prostitution… truly the dark side of Southern California. It’s appropriate that the album ends with a demo of the Zevon masterpiece “Desperados Under the Eaves” because Preludes could be the soundtrack of the days he spent stranded in that Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel. Stark and sparse, often either solo-guitar or solo-piano, this is not music that’ll get you dancing. What it will do is send your mind on journey… one that is often both very lonely and uncomfortable.

Preludes features great demo versions of classic Warren Zevon songs. Some of them, in fact, are even better than their studio album counterparts. The versions of the letting-go lament “Hasten Down the Wind” and the red-light number “The French Inhaler” are the best this reviewer has ever heard. Ditto for “Carmelita,” a dark tale of life in the drug trade. Zevon’s voice bleeds emotion as he sings these songs, and the lack of the extra instrumentation creates an even more appropriate mood than the studio takes. The solo-guitar demo of “Join Me in LA” and heartbreaking tale of hopeless love “Tule’s Blues” continue to build this miserable world. We also get a much more complete look at the story of the “Accidentally Like a Martyr” lovers. With extra lyrics and a different sound, the demo fills in all of the depressing details. Things do actually get a little lighter with a funkier “Werewolves in London,” a garage-rock flavored “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” and an Eagles-esque “I Used to Ride So High.” While these demos are still more sparse and darker than the studio versions, their upbeat nature give listeners a break from the doom and gloom, albeit a short one.

Of course, diehard fans will be happy to know that Preludes also includes six demos of songs that were never released on any Warren Zevon album. They’ll be happier to know that any of these songs could have easily appeared on his early albums. The opening piano track, “Empty Hearted Town,” is loaded with outstanding imagery and description, and it sets up listeners perfectly for the Preludes experience. “Steady Rain” follows, and it’s a great rainy day song for a rainy day album. Zevon compares the rain with teardrops, and states that both fall night and day. Towards the middle of the album, we find him hoping for a better day in “Going All the Day.” Yet, there’s something about Zevon’s voice and the jazzy musical arrangement that tells listeners that he is a little unconvinced about his chances. Then, we get an unfinished demo of “Studebaker.” Previously, the song could only be found on the Enjoy Every Sandwich tribute, and was performed by son Jordan. The Zevons’ deliveries of this song are so similar, it’s eerie. Close to the end of the album, we get “Stop Rainin Lord” and “The Rosarita Beach Café.” The former is a drifter’s recollection of a chance meeting with a hobo that is in the vein of Bruce Springsteen. The latter is, basically, a companion piece to “Desperados Under the Eaves.” If the inescapable café wasn’t in a border town, you could picture right next to the Hollywood Hawaiian. While the similarities to “Desperados” are probably why it never made an album, it is still a beautiful song, and a highlight of the album.

The second disc of Preludes presents an interview with Warren Zevon from 2000, around the time his album Life’ll Kill Ya was released. Here, we see another side of Zevon, as he discusses his new album, and more interestingly, his life in music. His classic dark sense of humor shines, and he comes across as a very thoughtful, reflective, and intelligent man. Highlights include his thoughts on songwriting, his story about meeting Billy Joel, his discussion of his piano and guitar background, and his opinions on spirituality.

Last year when John Carter Cash released a two-disc set of Johnny Cash demos called Personal File, several music fans rejoiced. Fans of Cash were able to hear him sing songs he loved as a child, as well as demos of several originals and covers that were found after his death. Now, we have a Personal File on Warren Zevon. Only, this collection is more powerful and captivating. It is often said that singer/songwriters share themselves in their work, and there is no doubt this is the case with Preludes. In these demos, Zevon shares the truth… the cold, lonely, hopeless truth… of his younger days with the world. You can’t help but be moved by the honesty, the pain, and the lyrical brilliance… nor can you hope but help that Jordan Zevon just may have enough demos for a Preludes 2!

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