Editor's Note: For the last nine years, Splendid's reviews have been edited pretty aggressively -- for grammar, punctuation, spelling, usage, accuracy, coherence and thoroughness of argument, and even adherence to "house" style. There are two reasons for this. First of all, I've always believed that for online magazines to succeed, they must offer the highest quality content possible. Second, how can you trust a publication to recommend music if its writers can't tell the difference between there, their and they're? That said, editing is extremely time consuming, and on many occasions over the last nine years, I've wondered what would happen if I took a week off and let the reviews go through completely untouched. Long story short: this week, from December 5th through December 10th, is that week, and the review you're about to read is untouched by editorial hands. Will this new (and very temporary) hands-off policy make a difference? Will you even notice? We'll see...
From the outset, it's hard not to listen to this disc with a heavy heart. When Warren Zevon died from lung cancer in 2003, it came as a surprisingly crushing blow to me and his many fans. While we all knew that we would miss is sharp wit and stinging songwriting, what we hadn't expected was to see the grace with which Zevon accepted his fate, a grace which was captured on his final album The Wind. As a result, this second posthumous tribute in two years feels a bit like robbing the grave. To make matters worse, the opening track, a tepid reading of "Splendid Isolation" by Phil Cody does little to ease these concerns. Cody's nasal vocal line and the overbearing organ work destroy the hermetic majesty of Zevon's definitive version on Learning to Flinch. Thankfully, this is by far the worst song on a collection that hits a surprising number of high points.
The remaining covers take their originals, distill them to their essence, and then rebuild them in ways that both retain the original's intent and infuse them with new life. Last Train Home takes "Desperados Under the Eaves" and slows its already heart-breaking opening to a funeral pace, a move that adds to the gut-wrenching crescendo that forms the track's core. Furthermore, their addition of horns gives the song an almost New Orleans sense of funeral triumph. As a result, you're left with a sense of hope that contrasts with the original's majestic dejection. Brook Pridemore's "Life'll Kill Ya" goes the other direction and turns the originally stoic tune into a toe-tapping barn-stormer. Another upbeat entry is Robbie Rist's "Mr. Bad Example" which gives this ode to naughtiness a pop-punk, acoustic twist that adds a brilliant dose of sneer to the hilarious lyrics.
Most of these reinterpretations mine the folk soul at the heart of Zevon's urbane presentation. In the hands of The Matthew Show, "Mohammed's Radio" becomes a campfire sing-a-long. Even Rachel Stamp, who contribute a south of the Rio Grande version of "Carmelita", reign in their cock-rock in favor of a subtly sexy acoustic approach. A straightforward folk approach is also employed by Tom Flannery, whose bone-chilling version of "Boom Boom Mancini" marks the disc's pinnacle. Whereas Zevon's versions paint Mancini as a modern-day folk hero, Flannery's haunting vocal delivery gives the boxer's story a terrifying, stone-cold killer interpretation.
By the disc's end, you're left with two overwhelming sensations. First, there is a sense of awe at how good a songwriter Zevon was. The songs are so good, it's hard to screw them up, despite Phil Cody's efforts. Furthermore, the songs are so rich that these reinterpretations add to the original versions, marking them as timeless standards that deserve to be explored by a variety of artists from a myriad of styles. Second, there is the lingering, painful recognition that Zevon is gone. With his passing, the music world lost one of its sharpest, best songwriters even if most of the world only knows him as the guy who wrote "Werewolves of London". The inclusion of "Warm Rain", a previously unheard song performed by Simone Stevens and Zevon's son Jordan Zevon, only makes this loss more poignant because it clearly demonstrates how many great songs we'll never get to hear.
As a result, despite any initial misgivings, this collection deserves space in the collection of any Zevon fan. Furthermore, because these tributes demonstrate the lasting depth of Zevon's songwriting, it deserves a listen by anyone who favors mature, meaningful music.