CD Review of Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon

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Excitable Boy
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Released: 1978
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As far as a lot of people were (and still are) concerned, Excitable Boy was Warren Zevon's debut record; though he'd already released a pair of solo albums (the most recent, 1976's Warren Zevon, was thrice tapped for covers by Linda Ronstadt), it was only here that he broke through to FM radio and (brief) superstardom, chiefly through the Top 40 showing of “Werewolves of London.”

Given that Zevon was never able (or willing) to duplicate this album's commercial success, a lot of attention has been paid to all the ways Warren Zevon was hopelessly out of step with pop trends, but listening to Excitable Boy, it's hard to imagine a more prototypical slice of late '70s L.A. rock; you've got Jackson Browne behind the boards, Ronstadt and Jennifer Warnes doing background vocals, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie making a cameo appearance, and a long list of storied session players – including Waddy Wachtel, Russ Kunkel, Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar, and Rick Marotta – filling in the gaps. From a pure production standpoint, there might not be an album that sounds more like Laurel Canyon during the waning months of the '70s. This isn't necessarily a good thing.

Hiring Browne to produce this album, and its predecessor, made perfect sense at the time: Aside from being one of Zevon's earliest and most effective boosters, he was also one of the biggest stars on the planet, and had been around long enough to develop very definite ideas about how an album should sound. What this means, ultimately, is that Excitable Boy sounds a lot like a Jackson Browne record – which was a pretty good ticket to radio playlists at the time, and has certainly worked for Browne himself over the years, but it doesn't always do the best job of reflecting Zevon's songwriting identity.

Make no mistake, Zevon shared singer/songwriter roots with Browne and many of his peers, but his music – especially early on – had a dark urgency all its own, and this album's sunny California gloss often obscures that. At times, it works; on the title track and “Werewolves of London,” in particular, the production provides an essential ironic distance. But just as often, it misfires – the airless drums on “Veracruz,” for instance, distract from the fragile beauty of the song's narrative, and “Tenderness on the Block,” a heartbreaking father's lament, comes across rather fecklessly here.

Still, the song's the thing, Zevon always had plenty of good ones at his disposal, and there's no shortage here. Probably the worst thing about this reissue is that it took Zevon's untimely death to make it happen. Of particular interest for the faithful are the bonus cuts – an alternate, tougher version of “Werewolves of London,” the a cappella outtake “I Need a Truck,” and a pair of re-recordings of older songs (“Tule's Blues” and “Frozen Notes”).

~Jeff Giles