It wasn’t a concept album, although it just as well could’ve been. 11 songs about the dark, seedy underbelly of Los Angeles and its inhabitants make up this eponymous album by Warren Zevon, his first release for a major label (although he released his first album, 1969’s Wanted Dead Or Alive prior to this). Not only does the album recall California lyrically, but the sidemen and guest vocalists read like a who’s who of the music scene in that area: Jackson Browne, Lindsey Buckingham, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, Bonnie Raitt and Carl Wilson just to name a few.
The album starts off with “Frank And Jesse James”, a song about the various exploits the two brothers ran into and setting up the scene for the rest of the album. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” notes on Zevon’s wild lifestyle with a keen sense of irony. “The French Inhaler” tells the tale of a woman down on her luck while waiting for that one big break in Hollywood. “Mohammed’s Radio” talks about the impact music can have when there’s nothing else to turn to, with lyrics that eerily hit home even today (“You work all day/you still can’t pay/the price of gasoline and meat/alas, their lives are incomplete”).
The album closes with “Desperados Under The Eaves”, a stark look at the hopelessness that pervaded throughout the rest of the album. Here, Zevon delivers his immortal refrain: “And if California slides into the ocean/like the mystics and statistics say it will/then I predict this motel will be standing/until I pay my bill”. But while multiple harmonies sing “Look away down Gower Avenue…”, one feels that there may be a glimmer of hope, no matter how small, still left to discover in this forlorn urban landscape.
Although not well received upon release (it barely scratched the Top 200), Warren Zevon has since become known as one of Zevon’s finest outings as a songwriter. All the songs here are tightly written with nary a clunker or throwaway, containing copious amounts of Zevon’s trademark wit and humor. It remains catchy without being “radio-friendly”, and set the stage for his career as one of the best songwriters of his day. This album should not be missed.
- Frank And Jesse James (4:33)
- Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded (2:53)
- Backs Turned Looking Down The Path (2:27)
- Hasten Down The Wind (2:58)
- Poor Poor Pitiful Me (3:04)
- The French Inhaler (3:44)
- Mohammed’s Radio (3:40)
- I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2:56)
- Carmelita (3:32)
- Join Me In L.A. (3:13)
- Desperados Under The Eaves (4:45)
Released by: Asylum
Release date: 1976
Total running time: 37:45
Inspiration is a tricky thing. It can show up in all possible ways and when you very least expect it. Jeff Mangum, the lead singer of Neutral Milk Hotel, wrote and composed most of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea after being inspired by reading The Diary Of Anne Frank, coupled with dreams he had about the girl and a Jewish family. Although the album isn’t explicitly about Frank, her presence lingers, either through the lyrics (“Anna’s ghost all around/hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me”) or song titles (“Holland, 1945”). Like his inspiration, Mangum’s musical world is dreamlike, but also by turns jarring, soft, boisterous and confusing.
The album starts off with the song “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. One”, in which the narrator describes having an intimate relationship with an unnamed person (“The King Of Carrot Flowers” (?) ) while living under a dysfunctional family (“And your mom would drink until she was no longer speaking/and dad would dream of all the different ways to die/each one a little more than he could dare to try”). By contrast, the next track, “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. Two” has Jeff Mangum yelling loudly, “Jesus Christ, I love you!” If you were looking for any clear interpretations, you won’t find them in this album.
In the title track, acoustic guitars are backed by horns and a musical saw, giving it that “barely waking” feel. “Holland, 1945”, arguably the album’s catchiest track and also the album’s “single” (if you can call it that), starts with Mangum counting in the song before fuzzed out guitars explode with a driving drum beat while Mangum’s obscure lyricism continues: “The only girl I’ve ever loved/was born with roses in her eyes…Now she’s a little boy in Spain/playing pianos filled with flames”. “Untitled” has been described by some as “psychedelic bagpipes” and that’s not too far off from the truth.
I’ve heard reports that upon first listening to this album, some people have broken down and cried. Although I cannot admit to such happenings, it doesn’t surprise me at all. I have never more raw emotion packed into a single album before In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and I’ll doubt if I’ll hear it again. After the release of In The Aeroplane… Mangum broke up Neutral Milk Hotel and disappeared from the public eye. Released ten years ago, it still sounds as fresh and bold as the day it was written. This album will stay with you.
- The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. One (2:00)
- The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three (3:06)
- In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (3:22)
- Two-Headed Boy (4:26)
- The Fool (1:53)
- Holland, 1945 (3:12)
- Communist Daughter (1:57)
- Oh Comely (8:18)
- Ghost (4:08)
- Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two (5:13)
Released by: Merge
Release date: 1998
Total running time: 39:51
There are three different types of people who will listen to this album. The first person will plug their ears after 10 seconds and turn it off. The second person will continue listening, not out of the respect to the music, but out of morbid curiosity: “Is this a joke? When does the music start?” The third person will listen to the album, listen to it again, and keep on listening. Digging deeper with every nuance of BrÃ¶tzmann’s music, the listener will find himself faced with the unknown derived from familiarity. It is harsh, brutal and unforgiving — but also captivating and mesmerizing.
As the story goes, three things in particular make this album unique. First, BrÃ¶tzmann employs an octet for the recording of this album. While octets in jazz are not new, they are uncommon (7 years later, Ornette Coleman used an octet for the recording of his album Free Jazz, but he split it up into two quartets who played simultaneously rather than eight musicians playing all at once). The second thing is that they recorded the album not in a studio but rather at a nightclub in Germany, which provided poor acoustics. This worked in BrÃ¶tzmann’s favor, however, as it added to the “dense”-ness of the album. The third thing that is unique about the record is the music itself.
Yes, it is chaoctic. BrÃ¶tzmann and Co. play their instruments to the breaking point, with blasts of drums piercing the wails of saxophones and basses. Yes, it is dissonant. There seems to be no trace of melody. In fact, the only time a semblance of song structure creeps in is about 15 minutes into the title track, but the walls of noise soon overtake it. Nevertheless, this is not music that is made simply to be listened to a couple times. It’s something to reflect; examine. It is music that has to be felt.
This new 2007 remaster by Atavistic includes the original LP, and adds two more alternate takes from the same session. There is also a live version of the title track performed two months prior to the studio sessions at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival in 1968. The original LP tracks are great by themselves, but the added material really adds more to the album. The live version in particular is sensational.
Overall, it is a simply astounding piece of work, and one that has few peers in the music archives.
- Machine Gun (17:19)
- Responsible/For Jan Van De Ven (8:20)
- Music for Han Bennink (11:29)
- Machine Gun (Second Take) (15:01)
- Responsible/For Jan Van De Ven (First Take) (10:08)
- Machine Gun (Live) (17:40)
Released by: Atavistic
Release date: 1968 (re-released 2007)
Total running time: 79:53