Thursday, October 28, 2010

300



Before we get to the conclusion of our Tom Waits primer, there's something that bears mentioning. We don't like to call attention to our own accomplishments, but this marks our 300th post. It only took us three years and five months! So cheers to us, and to you, the reader (I use that in the singular since I imagine that's probably closer to the truth). Thanks for validating my efforts. The occasional comment, the anonymous poll vote--they never go unnoticed, or unappreciated.

Thank you friends, I rejoice to the skies!

Tom Waits Appreciation #6: Mule Variations

This will be a shorter write-up than the past five, because I've already covered Mule Variations in our Musical Surgery feature. Yes, this is Bloganese for "These write-ups take forever and I don't have the time for another right now." Hey, start paying me to do this and you'll get your full write-ups.


Mule Variations (1999)


In 1999, Tom released Mule Variations. It was his first original studio album since Bone Machine (1993's Black Rider because it was a collections of songs written for a play. #wikiplagiarism). This seven year gulf is the longest new release drought in Tom's career (rivaled only by his current six year-and-counting drought [Orphans doesn't count]).

But the wait for Mule was well worth it. It's a stunning album, littered with oddities not unlike its predecessor, but this is never a burden. Bone Machine was a jagged contraption, bound by a thin membrane that served as a reminder that its parts belong to the same device. Tom conveys a more unified aesthetic on Mule Variations, grounding any aberrations with down-home ballads and crumbling blues shuffles. This is an album borne out of the junkyards, from underneath railroad bridges and behind the old decaying houses that loom in the rural shadows.

Mule Variations won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and "Hold On" was nominated for Best Male Rock Performance. Asked his thoughts on the former, Tom--notoriously suspect of awards and labels--acknowledged that "Contemporary Folk" isn't too far off in describing his music. Agreed!

Songs to Know: Again, I'll reference you to the Musical Surgery piece. But here are a few Youtube clips I'll lazily provide you, including the music video for "Hold On".



Utterly ooky spoken-word track, "What's He Building In There?" Talk about creating an atmosphere through delivery and ambient sounds:



Brilliant video for the album-closing "Come On Up to the House", featuring the world-class Waits lyric, "Come down off that cross, we could use the wood":



Waits-o-meter:


4: There are more immediately likable tracks on Mule Variations than on any Waits LP since 1978's Blue Valentine (also worth checking out). Some of the junkyard jams like "Eyeball Kid" and "Filipino Boxspring Hog" might not sit well initially, but those are pills in the pudding as far as digestibility is concerned.

Also Check Out: I mentioned it in the Bone Machine write up, but the 2006 collection entitled Orphans is a brilliant compilation of unreleased Waits material. Generally it's more reflective of his latter-era stuff, but there's certainly something for everyone in its three discs of material.

Up next, we conclude Waits 101.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tom Waits Appreciation #5: Bone Machine


Bone Machine (1992)

When we last heard from Tom Waits, he released a theatrically-charged double album, Franks Wild Years. It was the culmination of a trilogy characterized by dark lyrics, unorthodox arrangements, and, at times, bizarre instrumentation. But amidst all that chaos, the taxonomy of Waits' progression was at least vaguely recognizable. Sure, these weren't the Waits' jazzfolk records of the 70s, but we still hear brass sections and beatnik deliveries that earmark the songs as distant cousins of the old stuff.

Then came Bone Machine, and album that represents yet another sea change in the man's aesthetic. It blends dystopian dirges with soothing balladry. It offers minor key gospel, spastic, dark reapers and--would you believe it--a few straight rock tracks. Indeed, Bone Machine was beautifully fractured, featuring an uninhibited--and at times, downright silly--Tom Waits playing the music he wanted to play.

Songs to Know: Need proof that Bone Machine is chock full of oddities? Look no further than the cover.Yes, that's Tom Waits--wearing goggles and a cap with devil horns. Seems kind of silly and juvenile yet suitably Gothic. This proves to be a fitting reflection of the music contained therein. We see the rise of some latter-era Waits idiosyncrasies: Sneering, bullhorn-filtered vocals; eerily textured spoken word pieces; and exquisite folk balladry.

The two opening cuts ("Earth Died Screaming" and "Dirt in the Ground") drip with gloom and pessimism, and you wonder if you're in for an album's worth of the same. But not all of Bone Machine's tracks echo these dour themes.

In fact, Waits' ballads are a large part of his late period appeal. If there's a larger criticism of his recent music, its that there are too many experiments; that his albums are diluted by his apparent desire for unconventionality. The AV Club's Noel Murray wrote that Waits "has the irritating habit of coming up with achingly beautiful melodies and tender lyrics and then bellowing them through a megaphone in a Tasmanian Devil voice, as though he didn't trust his listeners to be left alone with mere sentiment."

It's a bit overstated and imprecise, but it's easy to generalize Waits' most appealing tracks as those that aren't reaching for uncharted territory. "Who Are You," for example, is the first ballad on Bone Machine, and it arrives in stark relief to its four dark, disjointed predecessors. It's a steady, remorseful song, the words of a spurned lover at a chance meeting his ex. Grand weeper "Whistle Down the Wind" is one of my favorite Tom Waits songs. It features such a vivid message, one that's understood by anyone who's felt trapped in their own home, but feels unable to leave:
Well, I grew up here all of my life, and I dreamed someday I'd go
Where the blue-eyed girls, and the red guitars, and the naked rivers flow
Now I'm not all I thought I'd be, I've always stayed around
I've been as far as Mercy and Grand, frozen to the ground


The Highland fiddles and sorrowful pedal steel make this one of Waits' most tender, poignant ballads. "A Little Rain" and the album-closing "That Feel" round out the album's softer side--the latter a Keith Richards co-write.

You may actually recognize a few of Bone Machine's cuts. If you're a Ramones fan, you've probably heard their version of "I Don't Wanna Grow Up", Waits' rollicking brush-off of responsibility and the drudgeries of aging. It's striking how jovial he sounds, compared to the likes of "Earth Died Screaming" and "Dirt in the Ground." "Goin Out West"--a devil-may-care stomp that sees Waits' howl "I got hair on my chest/I look good without a shirt!"--was featured in the film Fight Club. If you have a moment, scroll back and listen to "Martha" from Closing Time before you check out "Goin Out West". Yes, it's the same guy.



Waits-o-meter:


10: I think this is proving ground for Waits' fans. There's so much going on over the course of Bone Machine; plenty of opportunities for none-the-wiser listeners to be scared off. It's certainly not an easy album. Start with the ballads, then inch over to the likes of "Going Out West" and "I Don't Wanna Grow Up"...and then sample the rest at your own risk. Just remember, I wouldn't recommend "In The Colosseum" as your first exposure to Waits.

Also Check Out: If you listen to Bone Machine and find that you're strangely drawn to the oddball stuff, then might a recommend the Bastards disc of Orphans--his 2006 three-disc collection of unreleased/scattered material.

Up next, we revisit and album recently covered in a different Deeper In edition...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tom Waits Appreciation #4: Franks Wild Years


Franks Wild Years (1987)

Tom's 80s trilogy culminated in a grand way: Franks Wild Years [sic] is not only a double album, but it soundtracks the Waits/Brennan-penned play of the same name. While it was never performed on Broadway, there's an overriding theatrical aesthetic that defines the album. While not as stylistically fractured as Swordfishtrombones, we do see Waits steadily shifting roles (lounge crooner, tenement-dwelling wailer, sneering devil). Again, that'll be the modus operandi from here on out. Waits' goal is no longer to fashion a singular feel to an album. Rather, he creates a world in which his unique songs are able to live and breathe. And such is Franks Wild Years.

Critically, it's considered the least essential of the Frank trilogy. I guess it wanders a bit--very few double albums don't--but song quality remains high. I still consider Franks Wild Years to be a top-tier Waits album based on the strength of the songwriting alone. But sometimes Waits' delivery will be off-putting just because it's so over the top; at times it's maniacally operatic. I'll touch more on that in the Songs to Know section. Speaking of which...

Songs to Know: Since it's stage music, the songs are dramatically embellished and expansive, despite variations in tempo, intensity, and style. Take a delicate creeper like "Blow Wind Blow", which is still theatrically adorned in a way that it achieves farther reach than aesthetically similar songs like "Chocolate Jesus" from Mule Variations.

If you're a fan of The Wire, you already know one of the album's best songs. "Way Down in the Hole" is thematically uncomplex, an evangelical reminder that amidst Frank's exploits, he's got to "Keep the devil way down in the hole". Playing the role of that devilish foil floating above his other shoulder, "Temptation" broils at a menacing pace.



Tom always offers up a ballad or two, and FWY is no exception. The difference here is we don't hear the tender whisper of, say, "Time" from Rain Dogs.   "Innocent When You Dream" reeks of nostalgia, but Tom sounds more like a caterwauling Muppet than a lovelorn vagabond. The same goes for album-closer "Train Song", which is still the most digestible track on the album.

Three tracks that I'd be remiss to go without mentioning: "Hang On St. Christopher", "Yesterday Is Here", and "Cold Cold Ground". Each is a unique and able representative of the album--cool, creepy, and cathartic, respectively. A review of just this trio will prepare you for the greater mix of styles you'll find on Franks Wild Years.



(not an official video)







Waits-o-meter:



7: It still registers on the higher end of the scale, although that rating is inflated by a few oddities like shabby tenement anthems "Please Wake Me Up", and "Frank's Theme"; and "I'll Take New York", which sounds like Sinatra's famous "New York, New York", inebriated and stumbling down Broadway.

Also Check Out: I mentioned Rain Dogs in my last entry. I also mentioned that I was going to dig out and old write-up I'd done of the album and post it. Upon excavation, I realized that it was pretty horribly written--if nothing else, it served as a benchmark to my progress as a writer. Point being, I will probably end up renovating it at some point and posting it for your consumption. But for now, just know that it's great and might still be his best work.

Up next, Tom wipes off the stage make-up and takes to the junkyard.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Mavis and Jeff's Excellent Adventure

First of all, apologies that Waits 101 has hit the skids, but things at the office have become pretty busy, so unfortunately I can't carve an hour out of my day to write. The second half will get rolling pretty soon. Think of this as a time to immerse yourself in the three albums we've already covered.

As busy as I am, I wanted to take a moment to call attention to Mavis Staples' new album, You Are Not Alone. Yes, it was produced by Jeff Tweedy, and yes, that's probably the only reason I took an interest in it in the first place. But no matter my motives, I did check it out, and it's really excellent. I'm not much of a soul music fan, and I'm wary of blindly embracing albums via a production credit (see: Ryan Adams-produced Songbird by Willie Nelson, which I scarcely touched after its initial release.) But You Are Not Alone really surprised me. Embedded below is Mavis and Jeff chatting about the record in an endearing little documentary clip:



"I don't know where Tweedy's been all my life." -- Mavis Staples

I hear you, Mavis. I remember thinking the same thing after I first listened to Summerteeth.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tom Waits Appreciation #3: Swordfishtrombones


Swordfishtrombones (1983)

Why: After Heart Attack and Vine, it was anyone's guess what Tom Waits' next album might sound like. It was anyone's guess; but no one would have gotten it right. Swordfishtrombones was like nothing Waits fans had ever heard. How does a man go from the overdriven blues'n'ballads soiree like Heartattack and Vine to a batch of cacophonous storysongs? It's hard to explain Swordfishtrombones in a neatly packaged complex sentence. The songs ally like items on a thrift store shelf; uniquely originated but curiously cohesive. It doesn't hurt that they often sound like they're played on thrift-store instruments, either...

Think of it this way: Hearing Swordfishtrombones is akin to watching a film with your ears. Gone are the days of clever sets of lyrics over some basic guitar or piano chords. Gone are the days of creating an album with a four- or five-piece band. On Swordfishtrombones (and everything thereafter), Tom strives to create a detailed scene with each song. He'll alter his vocal delivery, scatter noises throughout, create percussion sounds from virtually anything, bring in a brass band for one song and a junkyard percussion gang for the next...whatever it takes. But it never sounds overly chaotic. This is wheelhouse Waits, and although it was a new direction, those who had faith in Tom's choices would be rewarded repeatedly over the next three decades.

Most attribute Tom's approach to his then-new bride, Kathleen Brennan. She's a writer and artist who's been a major part of Waits' music since their 1980 marriage. She influenced him to take risks and adopt a more experimental approach, and has collaborated on most of his music since then. This might have a distinct "Yoko Ono" ring to it, and there are Waits fans who think meeting Brennan was the worst thing to happen to his music. Please don't count yourself among them.

Songs to Know: Off the bat, you'll realize this is a different kind of record. We hear a skeletal combination of marimbas, a single tooting horn, a jagged guitar line, and Tom spewing lyrics in a cartoonish bark. "Underground" sets the tone for the album; not musically, but thematically. "There's a world going on underground", he howls. And indeed, most of his songs are about fringe characters, living out of the spotlight, in the seedy underbelly of society.

Note that I'm not championing "Underground" as a go-to track for newbies. If nothing else, its bizarre composition would repel the faint of ear. In fact, Swordfishtrombones doesn't really have a single. It's meant to be appreciated as a collection of vignettes, and that's how you have to approach it. Listen to "Shore Leave" and tell me it doesn't evoke images of a sailor on liberty in some seedy southeast Asian seaport. Play "Town With No Cheer", and you'll feel like you're wandering through the desolate streets of a dying town. "Trouble's Braids" conjures all the urgency of its refugee fleeing from bloodhounds. "Franks Wild Years" will seat you at the next stool, while the barfly tell this story for the hundredth time, at the behest of all the regulars.*



These songs are experiences, each as quirky and untethered as the next. Each track on Swordfishtrombones deserves a namecheck, but you get the idea. As hokey as it sounds, this is art that transcends the music itself. It can be an immersive, cinematic experience if you allow it.

Waits-o-meter:



8: Even dissenters would have to agree that Waits sounds more comfortable in his skin than ever. He's uninhibited, ditching imitation and hacking his way through a nettled forest rather than treading the rutted path. Swordfishtrombones isn't for beginners, but there's a reason it's considered a major achievement of not only Tom's career, but of musicmaking in general.

Also check out: Tom's next album, Rain Dogs, still stands as my favorite of his albums. I won't profile it because I've previously done a write-up (back in the days of Myspace blogs!) I'll go find and post it as a supplement to this feature.

Up next, we'll cover the third leg of the Frank trilogy, Franks Wild Years.

*Incidentally, Frank is the central character of the trilogy of records--including Swordfishtrombones, 1985's Rain Dogs, and 1987's Frank Wild Years. The namesake is thought to be Waits' father.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tom Waits Appreciation #2: Heartattack and Vine


Heartattack and Vine (1980)

Why: If the only prior exposure you had was Closing Time, your first thought upon hearing Heartattack and Vine would be "Who is this singer and what has he done with Tom Waits?" That might be a stretch, but there is a marked difference between the soothing, gravelly crooner from Closing Time and the fiery Revivalist bluesman we hear on HAV. In fact, you'd have to go back to Waits' third album, the live-in-the-studio Nighthawks at the Diner, to find Waits first assuming a more gruff, uninhibited vocal approach. Nighthawks isn't remembered Waits strongest batch of songs, but it introduced the world to Waits' sly stage charm and quick wit. And of course, it features "Big Joe and Phantom 309", a stirring performance I'll always equate with one rainy drive.

At any rate, we'd never really hear the Closing Time/Saturday Night Waits again (unless you count his film score One From the Heart). The next five albums were populated by noir-ballads and spoken-word sagas. Still, they each have a unique feel, as Waits isn't one to rest on his laurels. Heartattack and Vine is unagitated, but clearly up to something. It just feels like a smokey dive bar: the shifty-eyed blues numbers wandering around, shooting pool and taking drags; the weepy ballads perched on stools, waxing nostalgic over cheap beer.

I should mention that I nearly profiled Small Change, Waits' fourth album that still stands as one of his crowning achievements. It covers a broader range of styles, and "Tom Traubert's Blues" is perhaps the most celebrated Waits-penned anthem. But I thought Heartattack and Vine was the way to go, since it's the other bookend of Waits' early era. And while Small Change probably sports better songwriting overall, the highs are higher on Heartattack. Speaking of that...

Songs: As I mentioned, you'll basically find two breeds of song on Heartattack: Brawlers and bawlers (to keep with the Tom Waits vernacular). The brawlers are sneering, sweaty, and gnarly, including the title track that boasts one of Waits best one-liners: "There ain't no devil, there's just God when he's drunk". "Mr. Siegal" is a rabble-rousing blues stomp that finds Waits further exploring devilish lyricism and a ravaged vocal style.

But the bawlers cemented the album's classic status, thanks in part to The Boss. Bruce Springsteen famously covered "Jersey Girl", and it's become a fan favorite--and probably thought to be a Springsteen original by many. "On the Nickel" embodies early Waits in so many ways: The simple piano/string approach, the Newman-esque delivery, the hobocentric lyrics. It's the only pre-80s song Tom played when I saw him, which tells you something about his regard for the tune.

As eye-misting as "On the Nickel" may be, it seems like "Walking on Sunshine" compared to "Ruby's Arms". The album-closer has got to be one of the saddest songs ever put to tape. The opening horns, the sweeping strings,the piano progression, Tom's desperate delivery, those somber lyrics: Just twists my chest every time. It's the kind of song that Tom's rugged voice suits so well; you believe that he's the character who's wandering out into a freight yard, leaving his sleeping lover in the first light of morning.



Waits-O-Meter:



4: With Heartattack and Vine, Tom is still holding a lot back. His jazzbo persona is starting to split at the seams--soon it will burst, and leave a shadow-dwelling carnival barker in its stead--but for now, he's still confined to a vaguely recognizable archetype. Still, the ramped-up vocal attack might frighten the uncautioned ear.

Also Check Out: The aforementioned Small Change is, in the grand scheme of Waits' catalog, a more important album to know. But don't overlook Blue Valentine, which is climbing my list of early-Waits favorites every time I hear it.

Up next, Tom loses the jazzbo shtick and moves on to the most risky (and successful) period of his career.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Tom Waits Appreciation #1: Closing Time


Closing Time (1973)

Why: I deliberated over which of Waits' first two albums I should feature. They stand as the most unchallenging Waits records--not a bad thing, especially considering the demanding nature of much of his catalog. But they cover a lot of the same territory, and with about eight albums from his early period alone, I had to spread it out a bit. Plus, being familiarized with Waits' first release is important, especially when you reach the more experimental stuff. His progression is staggering. At any rate, Closing Time seemed right.

While some fans maintain that Waits neophytes should be baptized by fire via some of his more bizarre work, I think Closing Time is the perfect point of entry for the uninitiated. At 45 minutes, it isn't a long album. But more importantly, Tom's vocals are as tame as you'll ever hear them. This is key, because Tom's voice can be the most difficult hurdle in embracing his music. And understandably so -- the guy has spent much of his career roaring at the mic like a rabid hellhound. It's an element of his style that takes an acquired taste to appreciate. But with Closing Time (and follow-up The Heart of Saturday Night), we hear a docile, warm delivery that's a little craggy but isn't any stranger than John Prine or Bob Dylan. Building up your tolerance is the key.

Closing Time is a safe record. I feel comfortable recommending it to just about anyone, because the music is both high-quality and accessible. Tom Waits is a proponent of the former; the latter, you'll soon realize, he could take or leave.

Songs to Know: The album is populated by weepy love songs ("Martha", "Little Trip to Heaven"), boppy jazz ("Virginia Avenue", "Ice Cream Man"), and warm barroom ballads ("I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You", "Rosie"). I call special attention to "Martha", which still stands as one of Waits' more perfect compositions. The piano/string ballad is the story of a man catching up with a lost love forty years later. Waits' ragged voice is the perfect vehicle for conjuring the feelings of nostalgia and regret that linger throughout the song. Listen to this song and try not to be emotionally stirred. If you succeed, be sure to get your oil changed every 3000 miles, you dirty cyborg:



Waits-o-meter:


2: His voice may catch you off guard at first, but it sounds like Barry Manilow compared to his later stuff. The songs are simple folk compositions (appealing enough for the Eagles to bastardize), with a little bit of slow jazz swirled in. I suppose the brassy stuff might turn some folks off, but I think there's something for everyone on Closing Time.

Also Check Out: The Heart of Saturday Night, Tom's second album. It's relatively similar with a little bit more beatnik jazz stuff, and it's ballad-heavy. "Shiver Me Timbers" is one of Tom's finest early-period sad bastard piano ballads. And it boasts one of my favorite album covers. Here are both:



There is a chance that these are the only two Waits albums you'll like. I would consider this a minor tragedy, but understandable all the same. Waits wasn't content with playing the jazzy beatnik role his entire career. Like many great artists--The Beatles, Dylan, Radiohead--Waits evolved stylistically, and pissed off a lot of fans in doing so. Closing Time came out in 1973. By the 1980s, Waits was almost an entirely different animal. Only 1982's One from the Heart was a stylistic regression...but I guess when Francis Ford Coppola asks you to score a film, you swallow your pride.

Our next column will look at Tom's last early-period LP proper: 1980's Heartattack and Vine.