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Tom Waits – Mule Variations

This is a perfect Sunday album, hence my choice to post it for today. It is its own kind of religious experience.

I’m pretty sure, as I write this post, that it’s going to draw a lot of comments. Tom Waits’ fans are fiercely loyal. They are protective. They are legion.

When I first heard Tom Waits, it was through my lovely wife (who was, at the time, my girlfriend. She was living in Toronto, I was living in Waterloo). She loves Waits, and loaned me Beautiful Maladies, which is a 23-track Hits collection from his years on Island Records. The first time I played that disc, the overriding thought in my head was “What the FUCK is THIS?” There were elements of it to which I took right away. But it jangled and clunked loosely when my ear was expecting the opposite. I know now that it’s all deliberate, and masterfully so, but at the time I was thrown. And his vocals… I did not get to it immediately. But I plugged on. I played it often in the time I had that disc on loan, and it grew on me. I went a long way down a dusty, inimitable road from first listen to when I returned that disc.

At the time, I talked with my lovely wife on the phone about it. She educated me a bit on Tom. You could even say that loaning me that disc might have been a bit of a relationship test. She wouldn’t have dumped me if I’d outright hated it, not even close, but it told her a bit about me. It was a challenge in its own way and, after sixteen years together, I’m proud to say I passed.

[UPDATE: I just asked her about all of this now, and she said loaning me that disc wasn’t a test. However, apparently if I’d said I hated Leonard Cohen’s work, she’d probably have kicked me to the curb. Haha, whew! Fortunately, I was already a long-time fan.]

Anyway. A few short months later, summer of 1999, we were in Sam The Record Man (R.I.P. Sam’s), and she saw Mule Variations in the New Release racks. She picked it up, stared at it for a while as though she might absorb it through osmosis, said how much she’d love to hear it, then put it back on the shelf. Being a graduate student on loans meant not always being able to drop cash on a disc. However, her boyfriend had a good job, and when she walked on, leaving the disc behind, I picked it back up and held it in my hand the rest of the time we were there, out of her sight. I found another disc for myself, and paid for both on our way out. When we got to the street, I handed her the Tom. She hadn’t noticed a thing.

In fact, Sam’s had had most of Tom’s albums for $5 each all summer, so every weekend that I went to visit her, she had to work a few hours on the Sunday. I’d walk around, see the sights while I waited for her… and I’d pick up a Waits album or two, hide them in the trunk. Eventually, I had them all. She got the whole discography for Christmas. Oh yes. Good ahead and tell me I ain’t a romantic.

Of course, Mule Variations is a fucking masterpiece. If you own it, chances are great you love it. So you can probably skip the rest of this post, though I’d be happy if you stayed. But if you haven’t reached this record in your listening experiences yet, now is the time. Read on. Then go buy the thing. Here’s why:

Big In Japan was a single, and what a track. I remember reading somewhere that that intro is a looped snippet of a recording of Tom destroying a bedroom dresser. And away we go. This track has a great and crazy funk groove and a menacing crash bang boom to it. You know it well.  [NB. He was also apparently Big In Norway, where this album charted at #1.]

Low Side Of the Road is an atmospheric slow blues bluegrass seether, with breathy sax. If ever a song sounded like a sepia tone picture, this one is it.

Hold On was also a single, and it’s a gorgeous shuffling dance song with a great story. Love it so much, I taught myself to play it on guitar.

Get Behind The Mule is one of my album favourites. I love it stem to gudgeon. It’s bluesy, dusty, and just grand. ‘Stirrin’ my brandy with a nail,’ indeed!

House Where Nobody Lives is a sad relationship song, where the house is also a victim. This song has the potential to choke you up, even if you’ve heard it a thousand times (like me).

Cold Water is a clunky guitar stabbing cowbell track that sounds like it ought to fall apart at any moment. It’s the song equivalent of a dunken jakey sidewalk shuffle. Brilliant! And that guitar solo… Holy shit. Slinky messy gritty bliss.

Pony’s gorgeous banjo/guitar/organ balladry is proof that only Waits can do such a thing and make it this goddamn good.

What’s He Building? is the only extraneous track here. My lovely wife loves it. Me? I think it’s OK, but it totally disrupts the flow of the record. Maybe tack it on as a hidden bonus track, but don’t break up the record with junk like this.

Black Market Baby is the perfect slinky, vinyl scratchy soundtrack to a drunken private eye film noir. ‘She’s a diamond that wants to stay coal.’ Oh man.

Eyeball Kid is another clunky oddball chanter that plays as peformance theater, right down to somebody smacking on a steel pipe.

Picture In A Frame is another one of those songs that just sticks with you for the rest of your life. It’s a simple piano ballad with backbone bass, but it’s so achingly gorgeous. I LOVE IT. Back when we used to go see the Knox Acoustic Cafe shows, several of the artists covered this song. Hell, I taught myself to play it on guitar, too. It’s fucking brilliant.

Chocolate Jesus is a banjo bass tambourine plunker with the occasional rooster crowing thrown in. Cool track with a freaking great harmonica solo.

Georgia Lee is an absolutely wrenching song. I have a hard time hearing this song every time it comes on, and I’ve heard this record so often you’d think I’d get over it. I can’t.

Filipino Box Spring Hog is another bluesy clunky Waits stomper that sounds so simple but, of course, it never is. Love his vocals here, and that harp again too.

Take It With me is a simply gorgeous piano ballad. It’s almost whispered. Damn.

Come On Up To The House swings, plods, and reminds us, in closing, that this album has been a religious experience. Not necessarily a conversion, but the gospel of Tom has been heard and he has looked upon it and saw it was good. It’s a life philosophy song, the perfect exit to the album. ‘All your cryin’ don’t do no good,… Come down off the cross, we can use the wood…” Can I get a hallelujah and an amen? Hell yes.

In sum:

If you own this, you already know. Carry on as you were.

If you do not own this, it’s OK. Don’t feel bad. But go buy this. NOW. I don’t often tell you that your life is incomplete without an album. I prefer to let people choose what they will hear. But this one is non-negotiable. Go. Go! GO!

 

BONUS #1: There were two extra tracks for this record. Buzz Fledderjohn, and Big Face Money, both of which appeared on the Australia, New Zealand and Japanese releases. These tracks later appeared on the Hold On singles, domestically, and we have those here at the house too. Some day I’ll write that up, as well.

BONUS #2: This album won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and was nominated for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, the latter of which I’m sure Waits found fairly amusing.

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Haiku Vol. 2! Nick & Norah, Tom Waits, Watchmen, Verve and Tanglefoot

I didn’t receive any online comments about the first batch of haiku telling me to knock it off, which I take as license to keep firing away, so here’s some more!

Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist

calculated quirkiness
movie and songs like Cera
so predictable

Tom Waits – Mule Variations

complete masterpiece
grit gravel and dusty soul
worthy of all praise

Watchmen Soundtrack

not what I think of
when I remember the book
but what do I know?

The Verve Story (boxset)

so many classics
it almost boggles the mind
I could live like this

Tanglefoot – A Grain Of Salt

excellent debut
folk sea shanty brilliance
proud Canadians

Notes on the Favourites Project, Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Depeche Mode and Tom Waits

Let the ‘Favourite Record’ fun begin!

This little project has quickly become an interesting sociological experiment. Responses to my little query have varied greatly. Some people know what their favourite record is without hesitation. Others say one thing, then quickly ask if they can change their answer. A couple of people have just said whatever new record they’re listening to right now, not their all-time favourite (and to be fair, the question does not actually specify any such restrictions).

Still others say there are far too many and then get bogged down in trying to chose. I’ve even had a couple of people choose just a song they like, which doesn’t count. A few folks knew which song they liked but not the name of the record it’s on, and one person admitted that her friends just give her copies of stuff they like and she plays those without really knowing or caring who the bands are. Very interesting, indeed.

I fall into the category of the person who thinks of one right away and then can think of a zillion others that would also work (as you’ll soon discover, below). There’s just too many great records. Honestly, I’d need several crates for discs I’d take to a deserted island…

Anyway, shall we get to it?

(takes a deep breath)…

01 MINE: Rolling Stones – Exile On Main St.

None of you will be surprised by this. I’ve already reviewed this disc in these pages and raved about its wonders and depths, its messiness and glory. Of course, being a music geek like I am, a million other records came crashing in behind that first thought, like Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, Black Flag’s Damaged, Metallica’s Master Of Puppets, Sloan’s Twice Removed, and then there’s… well, suffice it to say, I could think of countless others that could just as easily have been my instinctive response to this challenge, but Exile it was. Fair enough. It is, indeed, a bloody brilliant album. I love it to pieces.

02 MY LOVELY WIFE: Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue

Once upon a time, I played trumpet quite a bit. During that time I got a glimpse, in my own completely mediocre way, of what might be possible on the instrument. Then I heard Kind Of Blue, and I realized that I knew nothing.

My lovely wife chose this as her favourite record, which just goes to show that she consistently has impeccable taste (ahem)! This record is deservedly held aloft as a jazz immortal, as unimpeachable. And talk about tone. It’s a sound every horn player only dreams is possible. As a document of a staggering mind’s explorations in its prime, this album is almost inhuman. Of course, you’ve all heard it, so you know that words are inadequate. Damn. Yeah. Own this. Love it.

03 THAIN: Depeche Mode – Violator

I have to admit, I’ve never been a big fan of electronic music. Yes, I was a child of the 80’s and therefore it was categorically impossible to avoid this type of music, and I even owned People Are People on cassette at one time (though I rarely played it… thanks, Columbia House), but it hasn’t ever really been my thing.

However, Thain said this was her favourite record, so I gave it a spin. And yes, the synth/electronic thing is certainly there, but there is a depth of movement underneath the surface that is far more worthwhile than the melody lines. This record creeps up behind you, places a soft hand on your shoulder and creepily relishes when you jump. It’s dark, it’s full of need and awareness, it has a slinky elegance all its own, and it’s very, very real. Impressive.

04 STU: Tom Waits – Rain Dogs

For those of you who aren’t aware, Stu runs the Vinyl Diner, the best record shop in Saskatoon (and one of the absolute best I’ve ever had the pleasure of prowling anywhere), and so he’s even more of a music fanatic than I am. It is thus understandable that he sent me not one response to this challenge, but thirteen! The list was impressive, and all his choices impeccable, the result of many considered hours of listening and constant contact with a wide variety of styles. I can’t review them all, so I just chose this one at random from his list.

Tom Waits gets a lot of play in our house. His rough yet warm growl, his uncanny songwriting ability, the dirt and grime on every surface of his creations… they all add up to a superlative artist who truly stands alone in excellence. Rain Dogs is a fine example, and one of his more popular records. From start to finish, it plays like a greatest hits collection and, trust me, no one else in 1985 could have even dreamed of creating these masterpieces. Totally perfect.

There’s tons more, too. I’ll get to them as quickly as I can. I hope you’re having as much fun reading these as I am trying out all your favourites and writing about them!

Tom Waits – Beautiful Maladies

I believe I’ve mentioned here before that I haven’t always been a fan of Tom Waits’ music. Or, more accurately, his voice. Well, it was this particular CD that my wife lent to me, back when we were dating, upon which I based these first impressions.

Of course, such nonsense just goes to show how out of the loop I was, not really trying out Waits’ growl until this release. Hell, he’d already been playing and recording for a couple of decades by then. But I was the jazz and swing kid, and his name just never came up. My wife, of course, is a huge fan of All Things Waits, and we have every album in our house.

I hereby officially retract my initials impressions, which were that basically he sounded like a bullfrog in a tin can, howling into the pit at the gates of hell. Looking back it’s understandable, but with time I’ve learned that that is a harsh indictment. True, his voice is gravelly and rough, but I’ve realized that this is the way things were meant to be for his songs. Just listen to Rod Stewart’s soul-sucking destruction of Downtown Train for proof. Only Waits’ voice can bring these tunes the edge they need.

The cantankerous clatter of the music is worthy of mention here, too. To me, his songs sound like Archie’s jalopy, rattling down some dusty road with bolts flying everywhere, on the verge of complete collapse at any second but never quite giving up. The syncopated notes bash up against each other to create the sounds of madness. But let’s not forget that they are sounds forged in the American tradition, steeped in the lore of delta crossroads and deals with the devil at midnight. With this in mind, it all works. It just fits.

No one else could make these songs happen as they should. Many have tried, but short of the Ramones’ straight-on cover of I Don’t Wanna Grow Up there aren’t many that are credible. Holly Cole gave it a try and they came out sounding like well-written lulllabies, and even John Hammond’s kick at the can came out sounding like… John Hammond.

Face it folks, if you want it done right you have to go to the man himself, and this collection of songs from his years on Island Records will lick you up and down like a hellhound’s tongue and, if you’re a lucky convert like me, stand as proof that the man knows what he’s doing and he’s worth every second of your time.

Tom Waits – The Classic Interviews

I didn’t always like Tom Waits. The first time I heard Beautiful Maladies, which was pretty much my introduction to him, I really couldn’t stand it.

But time has shown me the beautiful, ragged genius I initially missed. Now I’ve heard all his albums and I even have favourites. I’m not sure exactly how it happened. He just kinda grew on me, like a fungus. I suppose it helps that my wife is a Big Time (haha get it?) Tom Waits fan and so he gets a lot of play around our house.

This CD is an unauthorized collection of 4 interviews put out by some UK label no one cares about. You know the type I mean. Yeah.

Let me say right off the bat that it’s pretty much only for people who’ve named their dog the Eyeball Kid. And I was mightily disappointed by the included 16 page booklet, which advertised rare stuff, etc, and which turned out to be just a couple of pictures of the man, and then reprints of all his album covers. Whatever.

The interviews themselves are interesting, as far as it goes. He takes a long time to talk, says “uhhhh…” a lot, and hardly ever answers the questions he’s asked. He attributes this to advice he once received that he should ‘answer the question you wish they’d asked you.’ It’s disorienting (while also entertaining).

It is a bit odd, too, that the interviews were presented here in reverse chronological order. I can’t think of a reason for doing this, unless they were trying to be “arty,” which would suck. It is kind of neat, though, to hear his voice improve as you go, since when he was younger it wasn’t quite as low and rough as it is now.

I found the interviewers to be annoying. I know why he makes stuff up – it’s to amuse himself while these blatant fans slobber all over themselves at the chance to ask him their burning questions (‘What’s the name of your dog?’ coos one), hit on him, his wife, and generally rave about every move the man makes. He takes it all in stride, but I could tell he was hoping they’d just get on with it.

He talks a bit about how he writes songs, but I never really trusted he wasn’t making that up either. He’s amusing, insightful, and intelligent – or he’s a pathological liar. Either way, I could tell this CD was just an excuse to cash in on his name.

Only true fans would play this more than once.

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