Learning to Flinch (Giant)
Warren Zevon

By Bob Bahr

Warren Zevon is a snot, a sarcastic smart-aleck with a predisposition for devastating satire. That's what we love about him. On Learning to Flinch, we get some of that charming snideness, plus a few unsolicited additions.

The album, a compilation of live takes from Zevon's solo tour last year, plays like a greatest hits collection. The biggies are here: "Werewolves of London," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," "Excitable Boy," "Lawyers, Guns and Money," etc. There are a few surprising omissions ("Mohammed's Radio,""The Envoy").

In their place are: three new songs, his latest semi-hit (the beautifully aching "Searching for a Heart" from 1991) and possibly his masterpiece, 1973's "The French Inhaler." At this point, Zevon fans reading this are licking their chops.

Well, dig in. The 17 songs collected here are gems all and Zevon also gets to show off his estimable ability on piano and 12-string guitar. The blazing slide work on his new, wry blues "Worrier King" dazzles in particular. "Excitable Boy" has an amusing roadhouse piano outro and his playing on the new "Piano Fighter" is truly impressive. Lyrically, "The Indifference of Heaven" finds Zevon siding with the losers again, throwing barbs at the happy, pampered rock elite ("Billy and Christie don't —/Bruce and Patti don't —/They don't live around here"). When everything settles down, Learning to flinch comes up with a positive balance on the spreadsheet.

But it's only right to cast as critical an eye at Zevon 's record as he casts upon us and the world. If you're a tenth as cynical as Zevon, then prepare for some palpitations caused by this record. In several spots on Learning to Flinch, Zevon seems to become what he has parodied and poked for all these years.

Witness the smarmy schmaltz of "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," with it's masturbatory extended intro, which is given its own name — "Roland Chorale." Zevon even bridges the two cuts with an absurdly melodramatic sentence: "I sing of arms and the man." What has happened to this once surreal ditty with slight political undertones? Who has lost his head here, Warren? "Werewolves of London," which the man MUST hate after 18 years of people requesting it, gets an almost intoxicated reading. Zevon leads the crowd through this one as if the audience were at a private party at his house, one where he was feeling drunk and sentimental.

Zevon at one time would have awakened the next morning after such a nightmare, hazily remembered what he had done and sworn off drinking (or perhaps socializing) forever. The current Zevon, who we witnessed first hand when this tour passed through Louisville last summer, seems trained in the art of Vegas entertaining. That is, if Vegas entertainers normally ignore the paying customers in order to lay down the cleanest, best possible tracks for recording purposes.

The album comes off better than the concert itself, although his uninspired take on "Lawyers, Guns and Money" hints at the dreariness of the actual shows.

Zevon's addition of Celtic flavoring to "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" shows an adventurousness that is largely absent. He also delivers the words of that song in a mocking, countryish voice that works, but erodes the impact of the lyrics. Is this nitpicking? Certainly.

Perhaps the main question is whether Learning to Flinch is better than his studio collection of hits, A Quiet Normal Life. The songwriting alone makes both records worthwhile. With Learning to Flinch, the listener gets black and white studies of the full-color song versions found on albums. In some cases ("The French Inhaler," "Boom Boom Mancini," "Play It All Night Long") these stripped-down models are just as precious. The questionable baggage hanging on others complicates the matter. Purchase with care.