James Madison University Breeze, April 25, 1980

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Costello, Zevon emerge with new LPs

Mark Sutton

Say what you may about Linda Ronstadt, she certainly can pick a good songwriter Recently,she has made extensive use of Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello. Both of these men have new LPs on the market, which reflect their own unique personalities. Costello's Get Happy and Zevon's Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School are both burning up the charts. Herewith, a review of both.

Warren Zevon is not one for turning out albums at breakneck pace. In fact, this is only his second release since 1976's "Warren Zevon." He has, however, maintained a consistent quality on those albums. There have been several changes in the man's life recently (divorce from his wife, and alcohol), and this album reflects them. While other critics have called this Zevon's most personal LP, it is perhaps his most inconsistent.

Never on a Warren Zevon album have there been so many songs that are bona fide dogs. In fact, three of the LP's cuts can be safely called worthless "Wild Age," "Gorilla. You're a Desperado," and "A Certain Girl" are the three weakest cuts which Zevon has committed to vinyl.

Zevon does, however, rise to standard form on several of the LP's songs He has in eluded small segments of the symphony that he is writing on this album. On "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School," "Jeannie Needs a Shooter," and Interludes one and two, Zevon plays a variety of classical stringed instruments.

The effect, however poorly these interludes are integrated into the rest of the LP (and at times they are very poorly integrated), is interesting. What Zevon can do with the symphonic ideas, either on a rock and roll LP or on the actual symphony itself, remains to be seen.

Throughout the rest of the LP Zevon relies on the electric guitar to a greater extent than ever. Utilizing large amounts of fuzztone on the instrument, while still keeping to the LA country rock feel of the first LP, Zevon creates a sound that is uniquely his own, and at the same time distinctly familiar.

Zevon trundles out the usual all-star cast of sessionmen and guest artists which have been featured on all his LPs. About half of the Eagles are kicking around at various places on this album, along with Zevon's usual crew of friends and sessionmen: Leland Sklar on bass, Waddy Watchel on guitars and Rick Maralotta on drums. Also in the studio for the sessions were Jackson Browne and, you guessed it. Linda Ronstadt herself.

Standout cuts on the album, while fewer in number than on previous LPs, are no less excellent. Of particular note are "Bill Lee," "Jungle Work," "Play It All Night Long," and the title cut.

"Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School," features a string interlude, which gives way to distorted electric guitars and Zevon's vocals. "Swear to God I'll change," Zevon sings. And change he obviously has. Zevon has never before used this much guitar work to power a cut along. Previously he had relied on a combination of guitars and keyboards.

"Jungle Work" continues the use of military metaphor that has been displayed on all of Zevon's previous work. The lyrics, as usual for the man, make light of what is obviously a precarious situation:

Lear Jet SWAT team
On a midnight run
With an 37I6
And the Ingram gun

"Bill Lee." a song which continues in this light-hearted vein, is ostensibly about the celebrated Montreal Expos pitcher, but in realty could be written for just about any body:

You're supposed to sit on your ass and nod at stupid things
Man, that's hard to do
And if you don't they'll screw you
And if you do they'll screw you too

While it may or may not be relevant to Lee's situation, (who, by the way, is a rabid Zevon fan), it is certainly relevant to the lives of the rest of us. It is probably the funniest song on the LP.

On "Empty Handed Heart," Zevon is at his most touching. Here he sings plaintively about losing his wife, and the new love he has found.

I've met someone I care for
I know she cares for me
Will I fall in love again?
It's a possibility
Girl, we had some good times
That time cannot undo
No one will ever take the place of you

It is a powerful, effective song. But the album's high point comes on the end of side one, with "Play It All Night Long," wherein Zevon depicts the life of a rural family:

Daddy's doing sister Sally
Grandma's dying of cancer now
The cattle all have brucelosis
We'll get by somehow

Zevon captures, and yet at the same time makes light of, the plight of this rural family He takes the listener right down to the depths with him as he sings:

"Sweet home Alabama"
Play that dead hand's song
Turn the speakers up full blast
Play it all night long

It may be the perfect way to sum up a less than perfect LP Zevon has missed more than he has hit here, and that's too bad.

Costello, on the other hand, is a considerably more difficult nut to crack. Coming off of his worst album ever, the man has rebounded to produce a work that comes close to equaling 1978's This Year's Model.

Contrary to the LP's title, however, there is nothing to be found within about getting happy. The order of songs (there are an incredible 20 here), is reversed on the sleeve and label. Many people out there are going to be playing this album in reverse order.

Which may make sense, since side two is the stronger on this set. It opens with Banks and James' "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," an up tempo song which is the only non-original on this disc. Before the listener has time to catch a breath, "Black and White World" comes hurtling out of the speakers. Another up tempo tune, it is powered along by Steve Naive's keyboard work, which has been the most important musical element on Costello's LP's since the Attractions signed on with him after the first album.

This may perhaps be the most important thing about Elvis Costello and the Attractions. They are a band with nothing to prove, and they know it. They said all they needed to say on This Years Model, and despite that, they have continued to produce music. Many people would have been content to hang it up after an album like that, but for Elvis and the Attractions, it was only just the beginning.

They would parade together through the heavily politicized Armed Forces, which received very mixed reviews (the working title was "Emotional Fascism," ), and finally emerge here, on the other side, making what critics have described as Costello's most accessible, and yet most detached LP.

Like most of Costello's work, it is a dodge. One sometimes gets the feeling that, despite the desperateness with which the man supposedly craves stardom, he really detests it all and wishes he could go home.

"5ive Gears in Reverse" follows the second cut, and again, it doesn't let the listener get away. The cut, like most of the rest of the LP, doesn't gab one by the shirt collar like Springsteen's last album did, it just kind of sneaks up on you and punches you in the gut.

Rather than going on in further descriptions of all the cuts on this LP, let it be said that there is agrand total of one bad song here. That is "Opportunity," the second song on the labels side one. It is simply too light and airy. and just doesn't go anywhere.

Get Happy is about obsession. Costello seems obsessed with a woman or women, and will apparently go to any length to get her into his clutches. This is Love with a capital L, as they said in Rolling Stone, and it has no connection with the political rage of Armed Forces.

But then again, it is entirely connected to that LP by the tie that in this case binds, the Attractions. They are one of the best bands in the world, and they are again proving it. This is not the pure adrenaline rush of This Years Model, but it is something just as good.

Perhaps the strangest thing going on here is that for the first time, what Costello is singing is not as important as how he is singing it. And for this outing the man's voice is in fine form, perhaps the strongest it has ever been. He exercises an incredible control over his vocal chords, something many die hard fans didn't think he was capable of.

It is very hard to pick out the best cuts on this LP, perhaps because listing 19 out of 20 songs is a little ridiculous. Suffice it to say that one critic stated that there are more potential hit singles here than there were on Saturday Night Fever.

Thus far, 1980 has been a very interesting year for the music industry. Chuck Berry pronounced the death of disco at Studio 54, the Clash have a hit album, New Wave music is rising to new heights of respectability, and most of the old New York Dolls have recorded solo LPs.

What will lie ahead in the summer moths one cannot say. We do know, however that the audio industry has some things in store for us, that, barring depression or other national disaster, will bring us to the point where one won't be reading mere record reviews, but rather video-audio reviews.

The future of the industry lies in technology like the laser audio systems, the video cassette and disc, and stereo television

The future of the entertainment end of the industry lies in people like Elvis Costello, who can innovate within the framework of rock and roll, and create new and different musical forms.

People said that the Attractions were foolish to base their sound around Steve Naive's keyboards, but they have proved their detractors wrong.

They and others have created a new rock and roll.

Now it's time for all of us to sit back and enjoy.


The Breeze, April 25, 1980

Mark Sutton reviews Get Happy!! and Warren Zevon's Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.


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Photo by Keith Morris.
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Page scan and clipping.


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