Digitization Finds #07: Warren Zevon, Skalpel, and Revisiting Four Classic Albums

I saw werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
Walking through the streets of SoHo in the rain
He was looking for the place called Lee Ho Fooks
For to get a big dish of beef chow mein

Ah-hoo, werewolves of London

“Werewolves of London” was overplayed.. in the 2000s even. Classic rock radio stations, at least around here, seemed to only know this song from Zevon’s catalog. I never bothered looking into Zevon’s discography because a novelty song about werewolves with a catchy piano riff wasn’t enough to make me care, especially after hearing it dozens of times. It was my loss.

Tom Waits music video and concert YouTube comment sections, and really anywhere that engages in the discussion of Tom Waits and his music, often has other artists recommended. Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, Harry Chapin, and numerous other uniquely gifted songwriters and musicians are often recommended as being “a good alternative” if you need a change-of-pace. Warren Zevon is one songwriter mentioned frequently, so I tracked down Zevon’s discography and began listening — not even realizing he wrote “Werewolves of London”. I started with the album Excitable Boy, released in 1978.

For a forty-five year old album, it sounds remarkably new. Perhaps it’s the remastered version, but the compositions and lyrics seem less than a half-century old. The specific references in “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” haven’t aged all that poorly, either. Patricia Hearst still discusses her SLA experience, Biafra continues conflicts for independence, and I’m sure Van Owen still deserves to get what’s coming to him. The title track and “Lawyers, Guns, & Money” are other highlights of an album with few low points.

It’s unique, catchy, and somewhere between depraved and humorous with it’s lyrics. It’s definitely an album to pick up if you’re into piano-centric singer-songwriters.

Other Albums

Sunny Day Real Estate’s “How It Feels to Be Something On” is, in my opinion, the best SDRE album. Not a single bad track, the tracks flow well together, and the entire album has a coherent sound. It’s not quite grunge, not quite post-rock, not quite indie or emo — it’s a solid album with a unique sound.

MF Doom’s “MM Food” utilizes the theme of food relatively loosely to tie the entire album together, similar to “Illinois” by Sufjan Stevens except hip hop instead of indie rock. Sticking with the supervillian act, lots of extended passages are on this album to interrupt the music. The instrumental tracks are top notch, rivaling the best of Blockhead, Mixmaster Mike, DJ Shadow and other esteemed beat-makers. The lyrics have a flow-of-consciousness feel to them with guests like Count Bass D and Mr. Fantastik meshing perfectly on the album. Social commentary on other hip hop artists and how people act around rich or famous people comes through in the lyrics, including a rather pessimistic but true discussion about those people claiming friendship with you when you have money (from “Deep Fried Frenz”:

Some come in the form of co-dependence
Alotta times only end up bein co-defendants
Ten bucks say they tell for a lower sentence
And leave you up under the jail, beggin’ for a penance
It don’t make no sense, what happened to the loyalty?
Honor amongst crooks, trust amongst royalty
I’d rather go out in a blaze, than give ’em the glory
(How many of us have) a similar story
(Friends!)

Or the chrous of “Rap Snitch Knishes”:

Rap snitches, telling all their business
Sit in the court and be their own star witness
“Do you see the perpetrator?” Yeah, I’m right here
Fuck around, get the whole label sent up for years
Rap snitches, telling all their business
Sit in the court and be their own star witness
“Do you see the perpetrator?” Yeah, I’m right here
Fuck around, get the whole label sent up for years

It’s a must-own for fans of hip hop with complex instruments and intelligent lyrics.

I was mocked for listening to “buh-jork” (how other person pronounced her name) because it wasn’t late 90s/early 00s nu-metal or other related riff-raff. Luckily, a drummer / generalist musician / songwriter guy came to my defense and rightfully put this kid in his place. The following day, he talked about liking Bjork (with the proper pronunciation), but I never heard him listen to her. That’s fine — Bjork is a bit of an acquired taste.

Bjork’s vocals are definitely one-of-a-kind. Not a substantial vocal range but also not a highly restricted one either. She makes use of grunts, growls, screams, and other vocal sounds to get to notes she probably wouldn’t be able to reliably hit or possibly just to add a unique sound to a given sound. The tracks themselves aren’t quite dance music, don’t fit under alternative rock really at all, and aren’t exactly pop music either. It’s a fusion of aspects of world music, electronica, and rock & pop music.

The lyrics are quite vivid as well, with their occasional seemingly rushed or awkward delivery fits the given track. “Hyperballad” shows off Bjork’s unique songwriting style:

It’s early morning
No one is awake
I’m back at my cliff
Still throwing things off
I listen to sounds they make
On their way down
I follow with my eyes till they crash
I Imagine what my body would sound like
Slamming against those rocks

And when it lands
Will my eyes be closed or open?

I go through all this
Before you wake up
So I can feel happier
To be safe up here with you

It definitely paints a vivid picture and conveys emotions in a unique way. By being divergent from track-to-track and purposely trying to capture her chaotic state in music in the mid-90s, Bjork managed to create a coherent masterpiece. One of the best albums of the 1990s, if not all-time!

Skalpel’s 2004 self-titled fits the general jazz-influenced electronica category inhabited by Amon Tobin, Coldcut, and others, but takes that jazz-influence a bit further. Live shows with a full orchestra really bring this music to life, but on this album — it ranges from listenable but boring to really good. The mere listenable but boring passages are few, at least. It’s not a revolutionary album by any means, but it’s an extremely competent album in a niche genre.

Complexity is not necessary for an album to be top tier. The Boards of Canada duo prove that with a minimalist, ambient electronic album heavily influenced by 70s documentary and other film sounds. Every track flows into the next and none are explicitly low quality. Great as background music, great played loud at a party, and/or anywhere else. It’s a must-have for any serious music collection!

Ranking the First 20:

  1. Tori Amos — “Little Earthquakes” (1992)
  2. Tom Waits — “Real Gone”(2004)
  3. Boards of Canada — “Music Has the Right to Children” (1998)
  4. Bjork — “Post” (1995)
  5. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — “Murder Ballads” (1996)
  6. Sufjan Stevens — “Illinois” (2005)
  7. MF Doom — “MM..Food” (2004)
  8. Aesop Rock — “Labor Days” (2001)
  9. Warren Zevon-”Excitable Boy” (1978)
  10. GZA — “Liquid Swords” (1995)
  11. Leonard Cohen — “You Want it Darker” (2016)
  12. Stereolab — “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” (1996)
  13. Sunny Day Real Estate-”How It Feels to Be Something On” (1998)
  14. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — “Ghosteen” (2019)
  15. LCD Soundsystem — “Sound of Silver” (2007)
  16. Architecture in Helsinki — “Fingers Crossed” (2004)
  17. Godspeed You! Black Emperor — “G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!” (2021)
  18. Yann Tiersen — “Kerber” (2021)
  19. Skalpel — “Skalpel” (2004)
  20. Mogwai’s “As The Love Continues” (2021)

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