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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Vinyl Cave: Wanted Dead or Alive by [Warren] Zevon

Combining strange and sardonic humor, tender yet mordant balladry, a historical/literary bent with a fondness for outlaws and a predilection to rocking hard, Warren Zevon was a one of a kind songwriter's songwriter. Such seemingly disparate directional pulls occasionally left his albums sounding somewhat scattershot, but even on his most messy discs, there are always moments of clear observation that couldn't come from anybody else.

For lack of a better term, Zevon also had several sort of mini-eras during his recording career. His initial mainstream success came in the '70s, championed by Jackson Browne and many covers by Linda Ronstadt. There was the brief left-field '80s pop success fronting most of R.E.M. as Hindu Love Gods, and the artistic and commercial success of his final three albums in the 2000s. There's also an earlier, lesser-known era in Zevon's discography dating back to the 1960s: A couple singles as a duo with Violet Santangelo (as lyme and cybelle) and even an entire album, credited to simply Zevon, titled Wanted Dead or Alive.

The few references to his first LP that I've seen over the years range from dismissive to downright derogatory, even from Zevon himself. At the time of its release (in late 1969 or early 1970), it was mostly ignored critically and commercially, sinking quickly; a budget line reissue on Pickwick during the later '70s was the only time the album was again available until the CD era. After stumbling on it in the stacks last weekend, I decided to give it a fresh listen in context, by tracking backwards through his first four LPs and the early singles to see if the often orphaned Wanted Dead or Alive makes sense in Zevon's chronology.

Zevon fans will certainly recognize that title as one which would fit comfortably with his later work, and the song itself doesn't disappoint in leading off the album. (Whether it was really intended as the title is up for debate, as the labels simply call the album Zevon.) Really, despite its poor reputation, Wanted is of a piece with his later work, albeit recast in a 1960s setting. You've got your outlaw songs (the title track, "A Bullet for Ramona"), your romantic laments ("She Quit Me," "Tule's Blues") or boasts ("Hitchhikin' Woman," "Calcutta"), and your random weirdness ("Gorilla," a cover of "Iko-Iko").

The songwriting is often not as lyrically sharp as later efforts -- but, c'mon, this was his debut album. Rather than a side track or dead end in his discography, Wanted Dead of Alive today sounds more like Zevon's vision of how to put together an album emerging a bit ahead of its time.

Also worth checking out -- and a bit easier to find, since it hit the Billboard Top 100 -- is Zevon's debut release as part of lyme and cybelle. "Follow Me" is an indelible slice of folk-rock-psych pop, backed with Zevon and Santangelo's own take on a ballad also recorded by the Turtles, "Like the Seasons." The duo's second single, a brassy pop take on Dylan's "If You Gotta Go, Go Now," is ... well, weird. Now, this 45 sounds nothing like Zevon, though the flip side is much better. (Imperial, 1969/1970?)

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