Many consider 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene to be Warren Zevon’s best album since Excitable Boy from 1978, but that does the release a disservice. Sentimental Hygiene is Warren Zevon’s best album, period. Of course, Excitable Boy and 1989’s Transverse City were great albums. But Sentimental Hygiene combined the Southern California rock esthetic with a touch of indie panache.
Warren Zevon, who would have been 70 today (January 24, 2017), was among the best of his California singer-songwriter class. Sentimental Hygiene adds a production edge supplied by Zevon’s manager/producer Andrew Slater and Neil Young producer/engineer Niko Bolas.
The album kicks things off with the title track, featuring a laid back, slightly behind-the-beat feel provided by R.E.M.’s Bill Berry on drums, Mike Mills on bass and Peter Buck on electric and Waddy Wachtel on acoustic. Bolas’ boss Neil Young provides a screaming lead guitar with his black Les Paul while Zevon sings about – well, I not sure what the song is about but it works as an opener. By contrast, “Boom Boom Mancini” is a direct punch to the gut. Here, the R.E.M. boys have never sounded so vital, holding the song together as Warren Zevon himself provided the stinging leads and solos. The story is direct, compact and vivid – and Zevon ends it all with a rousing piano solo.
“The Factory,” which features Bob Dylan on harmonica, is Zevon doing Bruce Springsteen as Springsteen does a poor Dylan imitation. Except for Dylan’s rousing solos, the song is easily forgotten. “Trouble Waiting To Happen,” written with songwriting legend J.D. Souther, stands with Warren Zevon’s best. Tongue firmly placed in cheek, rousing, and with a hint of sadness, the song moves along with a steady gallop. Brian Setzer adds an unassuming lead guitar, while Don Henley provides his golden throat to the harmonies. Fans of Zevon’s piano playing also get a special treat here.
The third of six singles from Sentimental Hygiene, “Reconsider Me” was the most popular one and it’s another gem. The song, covered by Stevie Nicks and the Pretenders alike, is pleading, tortured and unsettling. All signs of a Warren Zevon classic. Here, the band is shaken up with Tony Levin on fretless bass, Craig Krampf on drums, Jai Winging on keyboards and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers on guitar. A great “cryin’ in your beer” song.
“Detox Mansion” features the R.E.M. guys again, but brings in a ringer with David Lindley adding blazing lap steel passages that ring with angst as Zevon shouts “It’s tough to be somebody. It’s hard to keep from falling apart. Here on rehab mountain, we learn these things by heart.” “Bad Karma” features R.E.M. leader Mike Stipe on harmony vocals in a ever-funny tale of losers and despots. “Even a Dog Can Shake Hands,” written by Zevon and R.E.M. sans Stipe, growls with fury and swagger. The song was a fitting theme song to the short-lived TV show, Action.
Zevon closes with “Leave My Monkey Alone,” a song that seems like almost an afterthought. It’s artificial, programmed background feels almost out of place on Sentimental Hygiene. But working with the Atomic Dog himself, George Clinton, as an arranger gives the song a weird bite – and, in the end, it proves once again that Warren Zevon plays by his own rules.
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