WARREN ZEVON Stand In The Fire (Asylum/Rhino)

Arguably pitched towards the more visceral end of the 1970s American singer-songwriter continuum – it’s hard to imagine the songbooks of Jackson Browne, James Taylor or even Bruce Springsteen racking up a comparable body count – this long unavailable live album documents a series of raucous, howling shows at The Roxy in Los Angeles, its front cover photo framing some appropriately blurred musicians under blood red and fire orange lighting.

Maybe I have no sense of humour, but I find the way “Excitable Boy” seems to trivialise its subject matter (mental illness, rape and murder) a little offputting. Then again, perhaps Zevon was commenting on the media’s trivialisation of such topics, in which case it suddenly becomes entirely acceptable. He certainly doesn’t shy away from refashioning his songs on the hoof: “Mohammed’s Radio” references then-president Jimmy Carter, and a demonic, slavering rendition of “Werewolves Of London” namedrops Brian De Palma, Jackson Browne and James Taylor in some kinda celebrity slashathon. The audience aren’t far behind the performers in terms of sweat-soaked participation, as the yell of “Zeeeeevon” that precedes “Lawyers, Guns And Money” like shrapnel raining down on the stage demonstrates. He spits out “The Sin” with a punk’s sulphurous disgust, carves his own epitaph on “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and turns in a pulverising Bo Diddley medley, all tribal beats and inviolate self-belief.

This modern days CD reissue arrives with the expected extra tracks and booklet notes. Despite the original album’s inner sleeve claim (copped from a Thomas McGuane novel) that “The dog ate the part we didn’t like”, the bonus bits are very fine, making it a mystery that the original album was curtailed to a single disc set. A military drum tattoo introduces “Play It All Night Long”, a portrait of Southern living that’s more Neil Young than Lynyrd Skynyrd, all disease, post traumatic stress disorder, incest and alcoholism. “Frank And Jesse James” is an Everly Brothers tribute disguised as a civil war epic, but most affecting is Zevon’s own reading of “Hasten Down The Wind”, preceded by the comment “Speaking as one who’s abused the privilege for a long time, I tell you, it’s great to be alive”. Sparse and shivery, it clearly runs against the prevailing mood of the original set; nevertheless, it’s perhaps the most affecting performance here.

“Stand In The Fire” is a helluva Zevon primer; it’s like a great American novel that you can sing along with. Still, being possibly the only album I own that carries a credit for a martial art/stunt coordinator, I can’t help thinking that it would’ve made an even better DVD.

WARREN ZEVON Excitable Boy (Asylum/Rhino)

Still only clocking in at a slender 42 minutes even when dragging four bonus tracks behind it, “Excitable Boy” has a crispness and sheen that’s typical of a 1970s Asylum release, some distance removed from the bloodlust and gore that characterises “Stand In The Fire”. That’s despite the fact that the two albums have several key songs in common: perhaps the relative restraint displayed here has something to do with the calming influence of the cream of West Coast talent working on the album, including Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Jennifer Warnes and the Fleetwood and Mac of Fleetwood Mac, a pretty heavy-hitting guest list even before considering that this was only Zevon’s third album.

“Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” demonstrates the scope, ambition and imagination of Zevon’s storytelling, and with all that spit and polish the title track widens the contrast between its content and presentation. “Accidentally Like A Martyr” and “Tenderness On The Block” map the more traditional singer-songwriter territory of wistful regret, but the lyrically spare “Nighttime In The Switching Yard” sounds like an attempt to hijack the disco bandwagon. Well, you’ve got to keep your options open, I suppose.

Of the bonus bits “I Need A Truck” is a witty acapella sliver, at odds with the parent album but nice to have, there’s a rougher alternate tumble through “Werewolves Of London” that more closely approximates the “Stand In The Fire” live version and a couple of sensitive piano ballads. All told, it’s a fine album, quite subversive in the way it smuggles its lyrical payload beneath a luxuriantly polished surface.

WARREN ZEVON Warren Zevon (Rhino) 

Warren Zevon's eponymous second album, originally released in 1976, is another of those that, like my recent rediscovery of the brilliance of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" , gives me hope that there's still swathes of great music somewhere out there that I've yet to hear.

Perhaps I was prejudiced against it by the glittering guest list, leading me to expect some kind of smooth but insipid LA confection. I mean, really, Phil Everly, J. D. Souther, Jackson Browne, Lindsey Buckingham, Glen Frey, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt and Carl Wilson on the same album? You can tell what that's going to sound like without even listening to it, can't you? Well, that reckons without Zevon's barbed songs about all kinds of addictions providing the sour to counteract the inherent sweet, and arrangements that are given extra pungency by fiddle and pedal steel. Added to which, when Zevon opts to rock out he does so in a far more convincing manner than the faintly embarrassing display that producer Jackson Browne manages on his own records, sounding instead almost like Springsteen in self-destruct mode.

The highlights on an album whose tracklist already reads like a "Greatest Hits", due no doubt in part to the fact that some of these compositions predate the album by up to four years, include "Hasten Down The Wind" - at this point in his career Zevon can't write a love song that isn't about the tragic dissolution of a relationship - and the spectacularly spiteful "The French Inhaler" ("You said you were an actress/Yes, I believe you are/I thought you'd be a star/So I drank up all the money/With these phonies in this Hollywood bar/With these friends of mine in this Hollywood bar"). "Carmelita" is magnificent, a junkie's promise with a delicate Mexican inflection, almost like a luxuriously reupholstered Richmond Fontaine song. Zevon imbues such failure and resignation into the lines "I pawned by Smith-Corona/And I went to meet my man". Finally there's "Desperadoes Under The Eaves", an even darker, sleazier composite of "Hotel California" and "The Last Resort".

This album is a grower: it took weeks for what originally disappointed me as half-songs familiar from the live set "Stand In The Fire" and half-filler into one of the most satisfying albums I've heard this year, but the effort was more than repaid. "Warren Zevon" is a great record, one that even now hasn't, I feel, received the recognition it deserves.

Rhino's recent 180 gram vinyl reissue certainly helps its cause. Mastered by analogue guru Kevin Gray, and presented with packaging restored to that of its original issue, it sounds very fine indeed, if not as mindblowing as the same team's definitive version of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks".