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"An inebriated good evening to you all"

Class C

Main Category: Singer-Songwriters
Also applicable: Avantgarde, Roots Rock
Starting Period: The Interim Years
Also active in: The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties,

From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Tom Waits fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Tom Waits fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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It's a little tough to write anything on Tom Waits - he's one of those artists you have to really really dig deep into before you can actually pronounce final and firm judgement, and I've only been listening to him for several months as of the time of this writing. Despite all of his controversies, diversity, and weirdness, Tom fits into the "singer-songwriter" category quite fine, if only because to Mr Waits, music was always only one side of the schtick - and more often than not, an inferior one. It's not that Waits could never write melodies. I'll be the first to admit that, unlike many of his singer-songwriting colleagues (say, the one whose name begins with a season and ends with an age period, for instance), Tom paid a good deal of attention to melodies more often than not; less in the early period, much more so in the later period. Besides, essentially Tom is more of a jazz than of a rock person, and you know the jazz definition of melody is quite a different thing altogether. But that's not the thing - the thing is, it's the combination of the music, the lyrics, and the vocal delivery that does the trick. I'd say even, it's the vocal delivery that does the trick most effectively: were Tom to sing la-la-la all the time, it wouldn't have worked out that well, but it would still be laudable.

The most amazing thing about Mr Waits, of course, is how he managed to reinvent himself so drastically and radically over the years. He began his career in the early Seventies as a simple, unpretentious piano balladeer - filling in a niche in the pop/rock world that had so far been neglected. If Dylan was essentially dwelling in the back of his own mind and Springsteen was dwelling in the slums of the big city, Waits chose the night life of said big city as his emploi and settled his protagonist in/outside of/close to the cheapest saloon in town. First the protagonist just romanticized on any subject he could find, but soon enough he also began rambling philosophical and in the end Waits settled down into a joint emploi, as is the usual term, 'beatnik-poet-meets-Hollywood-noir', you know the drift. With increasingly sophisticated lyrics and increasingly lowered voice (until he started sounding like a cross between a white Louis Armstrong and Azrael the Angel of Death), Tom managed to capture both emplois to a tee.

Then "trouble came", as in the early Eighties, with albums like Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, Waits almost completely reinvented himself as a rather detached, weird, slightly gaga, even, er, 'crooner' belting out rambling and inaccessible lyrics over totally crazy and increasingly complex jazzy patterns that used to border on avantgarde and often crossed that line. In other words, the guy became a Captain Beefheart of sorts, strange, incomprehensible, and for many people, totally off his rocker. And yet, his reputation hadn't suffered a bit - people who welcomed him as the ultimate barroom hero of all time unexpectedly accepted his new status as that of the revolutionary 'alternative' hero. To be fair, it should be noted that Waits' evolution was not as immediate as it may seem: attentive listening to his catalog in chronological order shows that this evolution was gradual, and Swordfishtrombones (1983) will not sound so completely shocking to anybody who's preceded it with Heartattack And Vine (1980), although, of course, putting that album back to back with Tom's first two records would be simply forcing the unconnectable puzzle pieces to connect, even more so, maybe, than when we juxtapose the first and last Beatles' album. Even more, despite the obvious and standard limitations of the entire 'singer-songwriting' genre, no two albums Waits ever made, apart from maybe two or three exceptions, really sound the same. There's always some new element added, some new twist of style to interest the listener.

Still, the very fact of that evolution is amazing. Many times in the history of pop/rock people had moved from something 'inaccessible' to 'accessible' - such was the fate of most prog-rockers, for instance. The reverse process, however, only happened while a band was 'growing up', like, for instance, the Beatles when they were maturing from a singles-based pop band to an album-based art-rock outfit. But Tom never had this need for maturation: his official debut album already beat out all competition, heck, even the Eagles took a song off it to cover it. You know how this 'sincere songwriting' business goes, anyway: once you've established your niche, you don't usually stray too far away from it. Waits is by far the only person I know who strayed so far away he nearly forgot the way back. For that alone, he certainly deserves recognition. And then there's the inventiveness, the voice, the magnificent lyrics, the clever arrangements... boy, where do I begin. Shit, let's just head on to the reviews.



Year Of Release: 1991
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

You sure can see why the Eagles liked to cover this guy in the beginning.


Track listing: 1) Goin' Down Slow; 2) Poncho's Lament; 3) I'm Your Late Night Evening Prostitute; 4) Had Me A Girl; 5) Ice Cream Man; 6) Rockin' Chair; 7) Virginia Ave.; 8) Midnight Lullabye; 9) When You Ain't Got Nobody; 10) Little Trip To Heaven; 11) Frank's Song; 12) Looks Like I'm Up Shit Creek Again; 13) So Long I'll See Ya.

Columbia decided to release these early early outtakes twenty years after they'd been released... A whole pile of hot sweaty nifty shitty outtakes. Oh did I say 'shitty'? This ought to start a debate about whether there was a need for this release or there wasn't any... or an even larger debate about whether there is a need for 'dubious' archive releases at all. But for now, let us just adhere to the principle that every archive release has its use and any kind of tape made public is better than any kind of tape left private. Something like that.

And since we were speaking of Tom Waits after all, where does he come in in all of this? Well, he just happened to throw together a couple dozen tracks during a prolific recording session in 1971, but for some reason the tapes went unedited and unissued and most of the songs were demos anyway and most of them were released later, particularly on Closing Time and Heart Of Saturday Night. This, then, is the earliest Waits recording known to that particular kind of mortal man who's not known as a 'close Tom Waits associate'. Bootlegs excluded, of course. What kind of low-life scum would be buying a bootleg anyway? Bootlegs are for fruitcakes and sissies. Stick to good old Russian pirate releases.

The primordial question is: did Tom Waits suck? Did he? Was he really any good that early in his career? Well... he certainly didn't suck, that's pretty obvious. But were I to say he was mature and completely 'arrived' by 1971, I would be utterin' a preposterous lie for which I'd have no choice but to spend the rest of my life locked in a prison cell with Ricky Martin. (Ooh, I can imagine the consequences...). No, Tom was still young. Young and often splutterin' out silly naive gibberish like 'Had Me A Girl', where he imitates one of his idol's (guess which one) 'love for lists' by having all the lyrics run 'well I had me a girl from [insert random location], she [insert random activity on anybody's part], and my doctor says I'll be okay, but I'm feelin' blue'. It's not really funny and definitely not meaningful either, seems almost like he's really improvising, especially since on one of the lines he just breaks off devoid of inspiration... then again, if it is improvisation, it's pretty cool for an improvisation.

Of course, there are numerous early mini-gems on here, but not quite up to the general standards of Closing Time - the melodies are not quite up to par, and the underproduction is just a whiff, well, er, underproduced. Know how dang hard it is to strike an excellent balance between all those things when you're a singer-songwriter? Expressive vocals, meaningful lyrics, tasteful guitar/piano playing, neat little orchestrated touches, song sequencing... man, I sure couldn't do that. And that ain't done on Early Years either.

Which doesn't really mean it sucks or anything. The early versions of well-known classics are all decent - 'Ice Cream Man', 'Virginia Ave.' and 'Midnight Lullabye' are almost as good as two years later (although 'Midnight Lullabye', as awesome a song as it is, still isn't pulled off anywhere near as effective as the stately epic 'and dream, dream...' coda on Closing Time). And sorry if I gave you the idea that 'Had Me A Girl' is really typical of the album - it's not. Most of the time, it's the same slow moody humorless life observations, just underdeveloped. But it's still a must for fans. Songs like 'Poncho's Lament', 'Rockin' Chair' and 'Looks Like I'm Up Shit Creek Again', great or not, derivative or not (Dylan influences rule supreme on the album), are warm and inviting, and this early version of 'Little Trip To Heaven' gotta rank among the gentlest love ballads Tom ever wrote (yeah, I know that song also made it to Closing Time, but for some strange reason I don't find myself in the mood to be investigating right now I just prefer this early version. Gimme some space for unpredictability!). In other words, if you're looking for genius, you got it pal, genius is all over this record. If you're looking for masterfully crafted songs, maybe you should just skip forward to the original officially released stuff.

It's funny to note, though, how damn gentle Tom's voice sounds everywhere on this record. Whoever admires the fast rate of the evolution of Tom's personality from the late Seventies to the early Eighties should pay some attention to the fact that Tom's evolution from the early to mid-Seventies was even faster in a certain way - Early Years, for all their historical and personal worth, present us with a young ambitious but not really outstanding singer-songwriter who's just another face in the huge singer-songwriting crowd. From here, Tom could have easily gone on to unsophisticated Eaglish soft-rock or something like that. This stuff doesn't take a whole lot of effort to appreciate - especially if you've been prepared for 'non-beautiful' singing voices by the likes of Bob Dylan. Yet the evolution went in the right way, and even if Mr Waits would go on singing his brand of 'schlock' for a whole decade from now on, subsequent albums would find him rising above this schlock and regarding it with just enough irony and humour instead of really falling for it lock stock and barrel. So kudos to Mr Waits' evolution, and let's get on with it! There's still the second volume waiting for us, to see if it's better or worse.



Year Of Release: 1993
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Perhaps the most accessible Waits album ever!


Track listing: 1) Hope I Don't Fall In Love With You; 2) Ol' 55; 3) Mockin' Bird; 4) In Between Love; 5) Blue Skies; 6) Nobody; 7) I Want You; 8) Shiver Me Timbers; 9) Grapefruit Moon; 10) Diamonds On My Windshield; 11) Please Call Me Baby; 12) So It Goes; 13) Old Shoes.

Obviously, Columbia was at the end of its rope - more than half of these tracks are versions of songs that later made it onto the original releases; most of the 'elsewhere unavailable' stuff was released on Vol. 1. It is interesting to note, though, that this second volume also includes some numbers which were radically reworked by Tom later to fit his beatnik image as opposed to this here Dylanistic crooner. 'Nobody', for instance, which got a far rougher treatment on Nighthawks At The Diner (although it was the lightest song on that album, to be frank). The most crucial difference, though, is with 'Diamonds On My Windshield'; running a little ahead, let us not forget the song was Tom's first effort at an imaginative beatnik rant and while later on these things became normal for him, on Heart Of Saturday Night this stuff was pretty shocking. But on this early version, Tom actually sings it - the lyrics are a bit different, but essentially it's just the tone and style that are different. This is a perfectly acceptable jazzy shuffle; kinda minimalistic, true, but the structure is no big shakes. Wonderful little piano phrases, though, that add a whole new delirious atmosphere of mystery and thrill if you wanna call it so.

Other 'repeating' tracks include early versions of 'Grapefruit Moon' and 'Please Call Me Baby' and 'Shiver Me Timbers' and suchlike, all excellent songs, but all of them very hard to distinguish from the finished product... the only big difference is that 'Ol' 55' is given here in an acoustic guitar arrangement instead of the usual piano treatment. And the underproduction really works against the song, not giving it the epic feel of Closing Time; something tells me, though, that those fans who'd have their right hand cut off to have Tom forever separated from the Eagles would definitely embrace this version more. Hard to tell; there are also people who like Harrison's acoustic demo of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' better than the fully produced original. Which causes a natural question - if it's like that, what the hell do we actually need production values for? Good production + good melody = better than a good melody with no production. (And yes, Closing Time boasts a good production. And the Eagles had good production, too, their problem was with melodies. That's blasphemy? Could be, but you know I really don't have any theoretical difficulties with the Eagles.).

In any case, there are still several 'new' songs on here which are maybe even better than the ones on Vol. 1. 'Mocking Bird' might just be a successful Dylan imitation (I bet you anything you won't even suspect that it's Tom singing when you put this stuff on), but the idea of that ominous whistling in between the verses in unison with the main piano melody puts both Elton John and Billy Joel to absolute shame. To tell you the truth, this is one of the best Dylan songs that Dylan never wrote I've had the pleasure of hearing, and easily justifies acquisition of the album alone.

'Blue Skies' is also gorgeous. 'I Want You' is pretty strange, though - a short one-minute snippet with the lyrics limited to a short 'I want you, all I want is you, you, you...' and a couple more scattered cliches. I think it was just a brief moment of fun that Waits had in the studio in between serious recordings, yet the people at Columbia decided it would actually fit in in the regular scheme of things. Stupid. Compensated with the quiet melancholic introspection of 'So It Goes', which would be a perfect album closer if not for a totally redundant 'Old Shoes'. In other words, the track sequencing also sucks. And generally, were I more honest, I'd just put all the 'redundant' tracks on Vol. 2 and all the non-redundant ones on Vol. 1 and please the hard-working customer. Of course, a different approach is possible - nobody but a Tom Waits diehard will go for this early stuff anyway and the Tom Waits diehard will be more than willing to get all of these tracks. Of course, a different solution to this is possible - start playing 'Mocking Bird' on the radio and herds of classic rock station listener will flock to the stores in no time in order to get Vol. 2. Of course, though, we always choose the solution that'd be more pleasing for the record industry anyway. But really, I shouldn't care - I got both volumes for a minimal price.

Funny, though, looking at Tom through all these photos... funny how his looks never changed all that much, be it 1971 or 1981 or 1991 or anything like that. His voice, yeah, that's a different thing. That's the way it goes with ugly people (and I do mean to say that Tom's mug was, is, and will always be pretty ugly) - they never change much throughout their lives. Think the pretty faces of Bob Dylan and Keith Richards... what was the fate that met them eventually? Ooh, pretty scary. Tom Waits now, he was pretty scary from the very beginning. I guess that's why nobody buys his records, apart from the several billion or so fans who all buy his records because they have an inferiority complex. "See here, now here's a guy that looks even worse than me, darling! NOW will you marry me?" Or something like that.



Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

I've never yet heard an album that would be more adequate to its title...

Best song: MARTHA

Track listing: 1) Ol' 55; 2) I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You; 3) Virginia Avenue; 4) Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards); 5) Midnight Lullaby; 6) Martha; 7) Rosie; 8) Lonely; 9) Ice Cream Man; 10) Little Trip To Heaven (On The Wings Of Your Love); 11) Grapefruit Moon; 12) Closing Time.

It's a very, very funny coincidence that Tom Waits' debut album came out in the exact same year as did Bruce Springsteen's one. Both men were apparently working in the same direction - establishing a distinct roots-based singer-songwriting style with a huge (and obligatory for every singer-songwriter) emphasis on introspectiveness and life philosophy, meaningful lyrics and a gruff, rough, down-to-earth vocal style. Both were Dylan fans. Both featured jazzy piano/brass arrangements to convey their thoughts (although Bruce did rely somewhat more on guitar).

And there the coincidences end, because Tom Waits has something Mr Springsteen didn't have, at least, not at the time: humility and lack of pretentions. Closing Time is light years away from Waits' schizophrenic Eighties' period; there's no way you could predict the bizarre turns and twists of Tom's career by listening to these simple, humble tunes, and frankly speaking, unless you have a high level of tolerancy for roots music, you'll have a really hard time sitting through this stuff, as it requires at least a couple of listens for the melodies to stand out. And when they do stand out, oh boy, do they stand out. Waits is thrice the melodymaker than the Boss could ever hope to be. Not that I blame the Boss - the Boss had other things to do with his life. Tom, meanwhile, just has to write interesting melodies, because so far, it would be hard for him to get by on the lyrics alone.

Not that the lyrics are bad. True to the album's name, it gives us a series of 'portraits' - lyrical portraits of people sitting down there at the bar, you know, all those losers with their complexes and depressions and memories and stuff that waste their time late at night with a drink and a... never mind. Very simple lyrical portraits. Simple is the word. A guy dreams of his old car; another guy watches a girl sitting in the corner; yet another guy phones a long-lost love; there's a guy wandering nearby who simply has nowhere to go; a guy sitting on his windowsill dreaming of a girl he can't get; you know how it goes. No cheap sentiments, no phoney heroism, no fake romanticism, no long-winded metaphors. Just realistic poetry, so realistic it almost hurts. The amazing thing is that what with all that simplicity and lack of complex forms, Waits somehow manages to evade cliches, or at least makes even the cliches seem right in their places. In a sense, Waits is acting like a "poetry sanitation agent" - ripping away all the artistic garments that had been piled upon it in the past years and returning to pure basics. Which is a harder and more dangerous occupation than trying to pile up a new garment, but Waits gets away with it.

But yeah, like I said, it would be a bit hard to make all the album dependent on lyrics alone and make the listener's interest never fade away. More good news is that Waits actually has a lot of stylistic diversity here. Sometimes he goes for painfully long stretches of watery piano balladry that's still beautiful, but can eventually become monotonous. But at other times, he interpolates his ballads with straightforward country, blues, fast rollicking jazz-pop and slow cabaret jazz stuff. So it's all in the same vein, yet everything is a little different.

Basically, the first seven songs on here are all winners. 'Ol' 55' is a gorgeous nostalgic ballad with some of the most touching piano chords you'll ever encounter in this whole genre; contrary to the majority, I think the Eagles covered it in a good way (they were Waits' label buddies and probably decided to do the beginning songwriter a favour, eh?), although it's obvious that the Eagles would have a hard time trying to beat Waits at his own game. 'I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You' switches from piano to acoustic guitar; it's the one song that tells about a guy watching a girl (nothing else) and while most of its chords are straightforward and fairly generic, the vocal melody somehow manages to be completely original and memorable, not to mention absolutely devastating in its simplicity and "naivete". 'Virginia Avenue' gives us Mr Waits in his 'gruff' emploi - the rampant self-inassured guy wandering from place to place with nothing to do, drunk, of course, and utterly miserable but not quite realising it himself. Note how Waits sings in unison with the ominous piano chords from time to time! Revel in that!

'Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)' is straight country, pulled out by Waits' vocal delivery and Waits' vocal delivery only. Put this song on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and watch it crumble into dust; see, sometimes a gruffy-scruffy vocal delivery works where perfectly arranged vocal harmonies do not. But it's nothing compared to 'Midnight Lullaby', often called one of Waits' best songs ever - I don't know if I'd go that far, but I'm really astonished at how much energy and desperation it really packs in itself. A slow, loungey jazzy tune with mild piano chords and a lazy sax blowing and Waits singing his 'sing a song of sixpence, pocket full of rye/Hush-a bye my baby, no need to be crying' lines in a seemingly prostrated state, and yet every time he ends the verse with 'come on and dream...', the prostrated state becomes a self-imposed penalty rather than a random situation. If that doesn't make sense, let's just consider this sentence an incentive for your going out and getting acquired with this stuff, in case you aren't.

Still, my favourite is 'Martha' - I never thought a simple piano ballad backed with cheesy orchestration can be so beautiful, unless it's the Beatles or the Kinks, but yeah, I guess it can. The "those were the days of roses, poetry and prose" chorus really makes me weep if I'm in the mood for weeping. Amazing how a young guy in his Twenties can communicate an old man's genuine and sincere feelings with so much emotional power... the only other gentleman I know who'd be able to do that, but in an entirely different way, would be Mark Knopfler, I guess. And then there's 'Rosie'. Funny how 'Martha' and 'Rosie' follow each other. They have nothing in common mood-wise and everything in common arrangement-wise. Funny, eh? 'Rosie' is a good song, too.

I'm not iron solid, so I can't deny that the album loses me a bit in the final numbers - stuff like 'Lonely' and 'Little Trip To Heaven' is way too diluted for me, although even here ol' sly Tom has a move of salvation, suddenly putting out the only fast number on the record, the rollicking jazz-pop number 'Ice Cream Man'. At first it seems kinda incompatible with the rest of the album - hey, it's a fast smutty number about a woman lover that has nothing to do with depression or nostalgia and has that stupid arrogance that's lacking on the other songs. It's only on second listen that you understand the song fits in perfectly on this quasi-concept album - it really complements the big picture without falling out of it.

And so, with the final title track being an instrumental suite that's really supposed to symbolize the last minutes of the workin' day of our late-night bar, we fizzle out, and do we want to return there again? Well... I sure do. It's been a nice trip, well worth repeating. And in a certain way, I guess one could dub this Waits' best album, his first and freshest vehicle of self-expression that's nevertheless fully mature. Many people would consider this the beginning and end of their artistic growth; it is to Tom's favour that he didn't.



Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Romance makes way for urban panoramas. Well, that's only logical.


Track listing: 1) New Coat Of Paint; 2) San Diego Serenade; 3) Semi Suite; 4) Shiver Me Timbers; 5) Diamonds On My Windshield (Looking For); 6) The Heart Of Saturday Night; 7) Fumblin' With The Blues; 8) Please Call Me Baby; 9) Depot Depot; 10) Drunk On The Moon; 11) The Ghosts Of Saturday Night (After Hours At Napoleon's Pizza House).

The rating went a little bit down for one single reason: Mr Waits didn't bother to write such a near-immaculate collection of melodies second time around. There's nothing in terms of memorability on his second album that would approach gems like 'Ol' 55' or 'Martha'. But you can't do everything at once, and the main goal of this album was actually to branch out and spread. Branch out and spread? Within the late night jazz formula? Sheesh. Don't let people bug you telling that all Tom Waits before he went looney with Swordfishtrombones sounds the same; that'd be a bloody lie. Well, he does sound the same, if it's instrumentation you're speaking of, but the goal of this record is significantly different from the first.

Look at the album covers. On the debut album, Waits is sitting at his piano within the bar; here, Waits is pictured on the street, coming out of the bar against a typical nightlife background. This perfectly reflects the difference in content: Closing Time was mainly devoted to nostalgia and unshared love moanings, while Heart Of Saturday Night is a far more 'biting' album, more in the vein of 'Virginia Avenue' than 'Martha' or 'Rosie'. That's not to say there are no love ballads on here: in fact, I count the best of these, 'San Diego Serenade', as the highest point of the album. A lush, gorgeous, mildly orchestrated piano ballad that hits you below the belt with its minimalism and beautiful lyrics. Of course, it's also very important that it's all a matter of delivery - and Tom's gruff-griff delivery is perfect (I shudder to think how the song could have fared, say, in the hands of Sinatra. Yeeesh!).

But the song's really not typical of the entire album. It usually sounds somewhat rougher, based strictly on the late night jazz formula with rambling piano chords, menacing trombones and dexterous basslines. Yeah, the melodies are formulaic, but the good news is, they are melodies; remember that if there is a melody, it may as well be generic as long as there are nice lyrics and a convincing and unique vocal delivery and image to pull it off. (That said, when there's no melody at all, sometimes even a fascinating vocal delivery doesn't help). The first side of the album is all golden. 'New Coat Of Paint' leads us straight into the old perverted prosperous criminal luxuriant rotten city that the record is dedicated to - "Let's put a new coat of paint on this lonesome old town/Set 'em up, we'll be knockin' em down", Waits proclaims, and that's quite a different start from the humbleness and inoffensiveness of 'Ol' 55', isn't it? Ol' Tom is out for blood. He calms it down immediately on 'San Diego Serenade', but then enters with more sarcasm and bitterness on 'Semi Suite', where he recounts the story of an ol' truck driver and his wife and their predictably uneven relations. There are those "moments" about songs, you know, which can't be explained normally, and the "moment" where Tom growls 'cause he's a truck drivin' man stoppin' when he can' and the trombones rise in unison against his call somehow draws me in so tight I can't turn away. I suppose that's the Waits magic, isn't it? Count me an addict now.

'Shiver Me Timbers' is a stunningly beautiful ballad of a guy leaving home to be at sea. That's about it. I don't know what to add. The infamous trick about all this stuff is I REALLY don't know what to say. Waits gets you by making matters as simplistic and trivial as possible. 'San Diego Serenade' is a simple love ballad. 'Semi Suite' is a simple account of a truck driver's life. 'Shiver Me Timbers' is a simple tale of a guy going to sea. Nothing else. It's not even lyrical minimalism, because the lyrics are well thought-out and even a bit more complex than before. It's... it's some kind of literary minimalism, just artistic minimalism in general. A minimalism that leaves you completely disarmed, as I already mentioned.

And then SLAP! on comes track number five. You were hardly prepared for that one. A jazz rhythm section with a valiant bassline and Waits, in the same standard gruff voice, just recites poetry. That's some sort of "preview" of what would later start coming in spades, but I sure think nobody predicted this turn after listening to Closing Time. It takes time to realize the brilliancy of 'Diamonds On My Windshield', but it is brilliant: an account of a guy's journey in his car through the big city at night. The flowing bass, then, is supposed to illustrate the gradual 'procession' forward, while Waits lists all the flowing impressions. It's fascinating. And then we get to the title track. It's... it's about a guy who just got his pay and takes his girl out on a Saturday night. Full stop. It's beautiful.

Of course, every wonder has to end - I must say that the second half of the album never impressed me that much, mainly because it brings nothing new out; just some more late-night menacing jazz ('Fumblin' With The Blues'), innocent balladry ('Please Call Me Baby'), melancholic introspectivity ('Depot Depot'), sad slow romance ('Drunk On The Moon') and poetic recitations ('The Ghosts Of Saturday Night'). But somehow I think that it we swapped the sides and put the album out that way, I might have raved about this side and kept quiet about the other one. It's all a question of positioning. There's not a weak cut on here, really; it's just that it really hurts to speak in words (hmm, actually, in rhymes, as I just noticed) when you're describing Waits' albums. For a typically "second" record after a typically "groundbreaking first" one, this one's a masterpiece.



Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Urban panoramas make way for beatnik rants. This is real class, though.

Best song: err... the intros, I guess.

Track listing: 1) Opening Inro; 2) Emotional Weather Report; 3) On A Foggy Night; 4) Eggs And Sausage; 5) Better Off Without A Wife; 6) Nighthawk Postcards (From Easy Street); 7) Warm Beer And Cold Women; 8) Putnam County; 9) Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission); 10) Nobody; 11) Big Joe And Phantom 309; 12) Spare Parts II And Closing.

MAN! This is weird. Unfortunately, it's also very hard to appreciate for somebody who's not deeply engulfed in American culture... in fact, for anybody who's not deeply engulfed in the late night ramblin' beatnik aspects of American culture. What happened is this: Tom assembled a small backing band (drum'n'bass, sax, piano - Tom himself occasionally plays some acoustic and some piano), booked a studio, invited a small bunch of interested persons and recorded the entire album live in the process of an hour and a half long "performance" designed to look like just a regular performance in a night club. In fact, judging by Tom's jokes he lets out at the audience from time to time ("how's the service here? It's alright? I mean I give you beer and everything, don't have to pay or nothing. Well they hit you up at the door on the way out..."), the atmosphere was really suitable for a late night performance.

This ain't just a late night bar performance tho'. It's Tom Waits assuming his rough gravely voice (granted, it's not as gravely as it would become in about six or seven years, but hey, give it time and room to grow) and performing a bunch of 'jazzy rants'. I.e., the piano or the bass'n'drums rhythm section plays some slight rudimentary melody whilst Tom is reciting his beatnik stuff against this background. Now one thing I know, beatnik poetry has never really fascinated me that much, and I ain't never had particularly warm feelings towards Kerouac either - but we might as well leave that aside, because the entire atmosphere of Nighthawks At The Diner certainly goes over basic readings of beatnik poetry.

First, it's Tom's voice, of course. His impersonation of that rambunctious drunken dirty - but soulful - "street rebel" is one of the best in the business, rendered all the more amazing by the fact that he was still in his early Twenties at the time. The gruff 'har har' alone that he emits from the depths of his pharynx are worth a fortune alone. And then there's the sense of humor. All of his poetic rants are regularly interrupted by 'intros' where he narrates a silly story, pulls a couple punches, just talks ridiculous nonsense at times, all of it possessing an undeniable magic aura as if you were sitting beside a wise old guru or something. In fact, the introductions are at times even more attractive and involving than the "songs" themselves. How can you concentrate on the friggin' songs if the guy keeps pouring out stuff like "well you know I've been playing night clubs and staying out all night long, come a home late, gone for three months, come back and everything in the refrigerator turns into a science project"? Or: "My veal cutlet come down, tried to beat the shit out of my cup of coffee. Coffee just wasn't strong enough to defend itself." Or: I'd like to thank you all very much for coming this evening. It's really made my night, it would have been real strange here if nobody would have showed up". And so on, and so on. All interrupted by obligatory "har hars" and similar growls.

The songs themselves... I don't know what to discuss, actually. There's not a single true ballad on here; the closest thing to a ballad, I guess, is 'Nobody', but it's certainly sung with a tongue-in-cheek attitude in the same gruff voice as everything else, and in general, it's more of a formulaic bluesy thingie than a truly heartfelt love ballad like anything on Closing Time. ('Formulaic' not necessarily in the bad sense). Everything else, okay, well, I guess on certain tracks Tom sings more and on other tracks he doesn't sing at all, but it's hard to tell, really. He gets in one "cover" - when he definitely reads a piece of poetry by Red Sovine ('Big Joe And Phantom 309'); all the rest are originals, but trust me, Tom never spent much time trying to get these originals to some musical background. The lyrics, for the most part, are priceless, though.

Right after the first song ('Emotional Weather Report' - as if Tom were 'forecasting' the rest of the show), he states: 'well I think it's about time I took you on an improvisational adventure into the bowels of the metropolitan region', and from then on, it's just that. As was promised by 'Diamonds On My Windshield' off the last album. So we just ramble through the city ('On A Foggy Night'), visit seedy eating places ('Eggs And Sausage'), revel in misogyny and even misanthropy ('Better Off Without A Wife', predicted by the album's funniest intro in which Waits quotes Mendelsohn on the piano), analyze all the facilities in town (the epic eleven minutes long 'Nighthawk Posters'), and so on and so on. The moods are all similar; the only way I could possibly be expanding on this description would be to start quoting the lyrics, but that would sure be a more endless process than vote recounting, so I'll pass.

I'll pass and I'll say that as much as I like the vibe of the album, I'm still only ready to give it an overall 10 because it is very much an acquired taste and would be all but inaccessible to the average listener who's not well versed in that aspect of American culture (hey, I'm not that versed in it either, but dammit, I don't pretend that I did this stuff, I really do! I'm serious!). The music is pretty much inexistent; it's only there to provide the atmosphere. But the atmosphere is invaluable, and if anything, Nighthawks are an extremely important release in that it showed Waits would never start moving in the grand'n'pompous near-phoney direction of Mr Springsteen, nor would he sell out and overblow his sappiness, like the Eagles. As monotonous as these seventy minutes are, Nighthawks is still an essential step forward, preparing Tom for future chef-d'oeuvres.



Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

So goshdamn dirty, rough, smelly and sincere you don't even notice the musical primitivism.


Track listing: 1) Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen); 2) Step Right Up; 3) Jitterbug Boy (Sharing A Curbstone With Chuck E. Weiss, Robert Marchese, Paul Body And The Mug And Arte); 4) I Wish I Was In New Orleans (In The Ninth Ward); 5) The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening With Pete King); 6) Invitation To The Blues; 7) Pasties And A G-String (At The Two O'Clock Club); 8) Bad Liver And A Broken Heart (In Lowell); 9) The One That Got Away; 10) Small Change (Got Rained On With His Own .38); 11) I Can't Wait To Get Off Work (And See My Baby On Montgomery Avenue).

Damn, I'll probably have a hard time trying to explain why I castigate Born To Run so nastily and yet award this almost totally melodyless record one of the highest ratings available. Sheez, I can't even hum a single line off it, apart from maybe 'go waltzing Matilda with me'. Crap, I'm in a real mess this time.

That was an intentionally confused intro to a review of an intentionally confused album. See, Tom Waits got drunk. Not in a literal sense, of course (I honestly don't know the story of Tom's relations with alcohol and other substances, although I guess it must have had its moments). It's just that Small Change is in the same style of Tom's previous albums, only this time all the stories and descriptions and rantings are done by the protagonist in a completely and irreversibly soaken state of mind. Waits' voice is on the move, too - down the scale, that is, as the grunts and growls step about an octave lower than they used to be placed. And just about every delivery on here is fascinating.

Like I said, musically it's no great shakes; same orchestrated piano ballads and drums'n'bass-led jazzy shuffles with no clearly defined instrumental (nor, in many cases, vocal) melody. It's clearly a mood album, and simply put, it's one of the greatest mood albums of all time. It's as dirty, messy, confused, and mean as the front cover with the unshaven Tom and the striptease dancer suggests; every bit of that and more. The central theme, more or less, is (again) night life, either in New Orleans or in general, but Tom's lyrics had already gone a long way from where they were before - instead of simple, minimalistic word-pictures he now mostly sticks to endless streams-of-conscience, all let through this prism of the perspective of a disillusioned, disspirited, yet still hopeful, sleazy old drunkard. It's all highly artistic, yet it has a shivering realism of its own. It's a record that should be the best friend of every unhappy, tired, degraded clochard in the world; how come it isn't one is a question I cannot answer. The only thing that matches this spirit, in my humble opinion, is Dire Straits' debut album (not that I'm really comparing the two - but there's a lot of similarities in style to be found).

Let's just dig it track by track, it really deserves this. You've probably heard 'Tom Traubert's Blues' already - one of Waits' most famous songs (hey, even Rod Stewart covered it, which is kind of a crowning achievement, I guess, isn't it?). It's about 'vomiting in a foreign country', as Tom expressly put it while introducing the song at concerts. It's also exceedingly beautiful - a picture of an old drunken guy hopelessly lost in a foreign land where 'no one speaks English' and the only link he's managed to preserve with reality is this 'waltzing Matilda' tune which he keeps humming to himself at any given time. ('Waltzing Matilda' is an old Australian hymn that inspired Tom into penning this one). You may dislike the sappy strings; I don't even notice them, as I'm entirely concentrated on Tom's "black" vocals and all the desperation he puts forward in his voice. Don't songs like these make you sorry for their protagonists?

Next up is a 180-degree turnover with 'Step Right Up', a straightforward jazzy ranting that's almost dangerously close to rap - in structure and spirit the closest link you can find is Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'. In structure and spirit, as Tom's goals and means almost coincide with Bob's: with a clever use of old tired cliches, catch phrases, classic and self-made aphorisms and sneery remarks on the subject of night (and occasionally day) life in the big city, all delivered in a rapid fire thunderstorm of blurry raps, he recreates that atmosphere of the hideous, soul-annihilating fuss of modern life to a tee.

'Jitterbug Boy' is a breather - an endearing set of "memoirs" from a guy who has 'eaten Mulligan stew, got drunk with Louis Armstrong'. Good thing, too, as we need breathers on here; yet even a breather on a Tom Waits album actually means more than you can guess at first sight. But then there's also 'I Wish I Was In New Orleans', a tune that didn't at first sit too comfy with me because I thought that Tom was trying to push his "old jazzman imitation" a bit too hard on this one, but then I remembered that, heck, after all, he just impersonated an old drunkard, whatever the race is. Don't let your little children listen to the song - that raspy vocal will make them run for cover, even if you yourself will be overwhelmed by the radiant power of that nostalgic anthem.

Even better is the next song - 'The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)'. You can tell by the title what it's about. It's undoubtedly got the best lyrics on the album. Just listen: 'The piano has been drinking... my necktie is asleep... and the combo went back to New York... the jukebox has to take a leak... and the carpet needs a haircut... and the spotlight looks like a prison break... cause the telephone's out of cigarettes... and the balcony's on the make... and the piano has been drinking...'. Even better, Tom managed to select some really nifty deep piano chords to go along with this stuff. Just the kind of stuff you want to be playing after a lengthy exhausting party when the guests are all gone and you're left, you know, in the proper condition and in confusion, too.

'Invitation To The Blues' is an absolute stunner as well, a bit more traditionally-oriented, I guess, an ode to a waitress in a casino or something like that, as if the unlucky 'pianist' whose piano had been drinking has just managed to open his bleary eyes half an inch and now stares at the first person around. 'Pasties And A G-String' is another rappy chant, this time really close to a hip-hop stylization with nothing but a few wild percussion rhythms to support Tom as he's wailing about the atmosphere at a late night burlesque show. Can't even quote no lyrics or I'd have to give out the whole damn thing. Then there's 'Bad Liver And A Broken Heart'... surely the title speaks for itself, now doesn't it? Would have made a far more representative album title than Small Change, I guess.

As usual, I feel a little bit let down and worn out towards the end... neither 'The One That Got Away' nor the title track speak volumes to me (the former seems like a very pale shadow of 'Step Right Up' while the best thing about the title track OF COURSE is the lighting of the cigar at the beginning of the song and the well recorded, satisfactory puff at its end, symbolizing the absolute finale of all things to come, I guess), but they're good. And the album finishes off on a brilliantly humble and normal song, with the only normal title on the whole record - 'I Can't Wait To Get Off Work (And See My Baby On Montgomery Avenue)'. Have I yet mentioned that almost all the songs on here have these 'parenthesed', almost ridiculously long, titles? Like, 'Jitterbug Boy' is really 'Jitterbug Boy (Sharing A Curbstone With Chuck E. Weiss, Robert Marchese, Paul Body And The Mug And Artie)', and so on. Well, this one's the only normal title, and the song's the only more or less normal song, unless you simply cannot accept a song that begins with the lines 'well I don't mind working 'cause I used to be jerkin' off most of my time in bars'. It's almost as if all the alcohol has cleared out of our heads by the end of the record and we're back to our ordinary self - a bit more self-conscious, a bit more restrained and logical, yet still very very human.

Anyway, the whole album is an experience - even more so than the previous three. It should definitely be listened to in one session without ever trying to tear the songs apart, as, for once, it's the spirit, not the music, that makes the difference. A wonderful spirit - highly artistic and powerfully realist at the same time. And ooh, that voice. You gotta hear it once. Then you can die happy. Or unhappy - this is not exactly a consolating record.



Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

Too little progress for me to really evaluate it higher. The melodies are rote, too.

Best song: BARBER SHOP

Track listing: 1) Cinny's Waltz; 2) Muriel; 3) I Never Talk To Strangers; 4) Jack & Neal/California Here I Come; 5) A Sight For Sore Eyes; 6) Potter's Field; 7) Burma Shave; 8) Barber Shop; 9) Foregn Affair.

Uh, eh, this is one of those small 'n' rare exceptions I mentioned - a record with very little progress and clearly inferior to everything else that surrounds it. Even if it does contain yet another all-time Waits classic in 'Burma Shave' (not one of my favourites, though), even the fans don't usually have a lot of nice words to say about it. It's... well, it's not bad. As a first impression of Tom Waits, it might even convert you. But it's, dammit, it's boring. Take this from a non-fan who's nevertheless absolutely convinced in Waits' genius - Foreign Affairs is boring, and in this way, the first serious misstep in Tom's career.

And why is it boring? Why, because it's nothing special! There's an ocassional orchestrated ballad, and there's an occasional jazzy rant, as usual, but they're not fresh, and they're not so original. Even the wall-rattling hoarse tooth-spitting bombastic vocal of Small Change seems to get lost along the way, as Tom 'sobers' his personage down and switches on to a collection of rather incoherent half stream-of-conscience, half personal philosophy ravings that are very hard to come by and almost completely lack in humour. And yet, serious as it all may be, there's almost nothing on the album that really grips me as tight as, say, 'Tom Traubert's Blues' or 'I Wish I Was In New Orleans'.

What's really bugging is that at times, Tom seems to be drifting a bit too close to generic mainstreamish schlock. Any album that opens with a thing like 'Cinny's Waltz', a pathetic two-minute Hollywood pastiche, just gotta cause some seedy uncertain looks. Okay, put that stuff as an intro to Small Change and it would work perfectly in the context of the entire setting, a sorta tongue-in-cheek intro to the whole drunken biz. But sheez, on Foreign Affairs, the third track is 'I Never Talk To Strangers', one of the most uninteresting things Tom ever did. A duet with Bette Midler, for Christ's sake; it's very nice that the song is based on an actual overheard conversation, but that doesn't mean the song itself - outside of any outside knowledge about it - sounds just like a generic piece of cabaret crap. No cool vocals (unless you think, of course, that Bette Midler is the queen of 'em all), no melody to speak of, pah.

Absolutely the same goes for Hollywoodish ballads like 'Muriel' and the title track, which do absolutely nothing to me. Maybe multiple repeated listens will endear the songs to the hardcore Waits fan, but to me, it simply sounds as if all this stuff was produced by Tom so he could get deeper into his Hollywoodish emploi to star in several upcoming movies. There's no tongue-in-cheek attitude here, at least, I don't feel any, and neither do I feel any particularly original atmosphere. It's all, you know, kind of a Selfportrait to Tom, except that I far prefer Selfportrait because it has actual hummable melodies, while all the sappy ballads on Foreign Affairs have nothing but 100-percent 'authentic' Hollywood atmosphere.

Oh well, at least the middle part's got some good stuff up there. Relatively good stuff. The 'Jack & Neal/California Here I Come' 'medley' comes across as one of Waits' best Kerouac-isms, funny in its own way, if not tremendously memorable. Conceptually, I think it's the first time Waits' lyrical subjects get out of the limits of big city life and start spreading across The Road - so if that sounds right up your alley, you better grab it fast. Another small innovation is the first appearance of a true grandiose "epic" in Waits' catalog, the nearly nine-minute 'Potter's Field'. I have not the least idea of what the song is about, but I wouldn't be me if I didn't mention that the alternation of grand orchestral interludes with bass-based rappy rants was a trick Waits hadn't employed before, and it lends the song a certain aura of universality. What kind of universality, though, I'm a bit baffled at that, I guess. Not that I even like the song. If it's atmosphere we're babbling about, I'd sure like the atmosphere to engulf me, and it doesn't. Who's the potter anyway?

And my favourite on here actually is not 'Burma Shave', an almost Springsteen-like story about a young 'delinquent' guy making it away with a gal and ending in a car wreck by the side of the road. It's a good song (probably), but a bit, er, uh, er, uh, repetitive if you get me. Now wait a minute, whadja mean, 'repetitive'? Name me a Tom Waits song that isn't repetitive! Oh, okay, the thing is, it just flaunts its repetitiveness because it's about the main thing about the song I gets to notice. No real melody, no really cool impersonation, just kind of a sad story. I pity the gal. I pity the guy. I know how it goes. I still insist my favourite here is and will always be 'Barber Shop', a cute little ditty that's almost upbeat in a certain way. Dig the jangly bass line and the weird percussion outbursts that predict some of the stuff on Rain Dogs (well, actually, it shares the same style with 'Pasties And A G-String' except that this one's more of a real song) and dig the lyrics and the 'good morning mister snip snip snip' introduction. The only song on here that you can tap your foot to, a little bit. The only song with a wee bit of humor. In short, the only song that really stands out from all the rest and so it draws my attention immediately.

Still, even 'Barber Shop' isn't enough to conceal the fact that this is one of the weakest records in the entire Waits catalog. It's not a crime: it's hardly unlistenable, and hey, you can't go off making genius records all the time. But I sure am glad he didn't continue working in this direction, or we might have ended up with a snotty Hollywoodish graphomaniac songwriter, instead of everybody's favourite alternative hero.



Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Multiple character profiles, a voice that's even deeper than usual and a stupid Broadway send-up to top it off. Delicious!

Best song: $29.00

Track listing: 1) Somewhere; 2) Red Shoes By The Drugstore; 3) Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis; 4) Romeo Is Bleeding; 5) $29.00; 6) Wrong Side Of The Road; 7) Whistlin' Past The Graveyard; 8) Kentucky Avenue; 9) Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun; 10) Blue Valentines.

Okay, that's a serious improvement. We're slowly nearing The Change, although most of the songs here are still in Tom's usual style. The album starts on an alarming note - with Tom's rendition of 'Somewhere', from West Side Story, no less. He'd really gone seriously Hollywood by that point, and I bet many of his fans were seriously worried about whether the guy would finally choke over that sappy schlock. Not that he pulls it off bad or anything - the voice can't be beat, and judging by Hollywood standards, this here 'Somewhere' gets a five out of five, but let's face it... generic Hollywood stuff is NOT what we want to hear from Tom. Not us the people who tend to lull more towards the rockier/bluesier edge of things, at least. So for all of us that's a bad start.

But it's followed by a good end! And actually more than that. Blue Valentine actually can be taken as Small Change Vol. 2, with slightly less involving melodies, but a sharper, darker and more menacing edge. Some - a lot, really - of the tracks are positively bluesy, with a real gritty band accompanying Tom and bringing in ounces and at times even pounds of electric guitar, while Tom himself mainly discards his 'complaining' intonations of the past for a new type of vocal delivery - shrill, hoarse, aggressive, and slightly cunning at the same time. Blue Valentine, then, does the trick of introducing the DANGEROUS Tom Waits to us, not just the solemn introspective minstrel of yore, but more like a pricky dark angel waiting for us around every dark corner, crawling from behind and whispering his evil tales into our ears. And evil tales they are. 'Somewhere' opens the album with a strangely fake statement of optimism; 'Blue Valentines' closes the album with a strangely sincere statement of pessimism. In between are sandwiched eight songs of evil, woe, gruesomeness and aggression.

The titles speak for themselves - 'Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun', anyone? The central epic of the album, though, is the eight-minute long '$29.00', telling the creepy story of a poor girl mugged and injured by street bandits. What's special about the song? Nothing, I guess. Not on first glance. But then you glance at the lyrics, you pay closer attention to Tom's ragged hoarse bellowing, you notice tiny little overtones in the playing and you realize the uniqueness of this experience - just like Steely Dan crossbred sarcastic socio-biting lyrics with 'routine' jazzy arrangements to unexpected results, Tom tells these dark alley stories with a typical 'dark alley arrangement'. And that's pretty scary. And the 'twenty nine dollars and an alligator purse' line is bound to stick to you forever.

In general, Tom really sticks to playing a 'self-alienating' part on the record. Most of the tell-tale tricks present the story from a neutral point of view - and these are stories of street hassle ('Romeo Is Bleeding'), poverty ('Red Shoes By The Drugstore') and suchlike. The actual presentation form does differ, though; within the given formula, what with all of its narrowness, there's still enough space to make one song sound different from another. 'Red Shoes By The Drugstore' is more or less in the general style of Tom's beatnik rants, like 'Diamonds On My Windshield'. But then there's the soft bleeding ballad 'Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis', again, a title which tells you more than you should know before the actual song begins. This one is a real tear-jerker, so don't listen to it too much unless you're not too sensitive.

And then there's 'Romeo Is Bleeding' which is melodic and bouncy and jazzy, and 'Wrong Side Of The Road' which is similar, just much more slower. And my second favourite - the magnificent 'Whistlin' Past The Graveyard', driven by a menacing sax riff, where Tom throws a real fit, culminating in the infamous 'I'm a real motherhubbard papa one eyed jack' refrain. Ooh, that voice...

So basically, well, basically you know I can't write too much about this stuff I sure don't know what else to write about it. You gotta have a lil' tiny shiny place inside your heart which should lock into one whole with the album, I know you probably have it somewhere. Too bad there's not too many hooks, but the time isn't ripe yet. It's the time to soak in the atmosphere which is really seriously different from the previous records. It's... well, I mean, take your average cabaret recording and then, whoopla, presto-change-o, suddenly all the gloss and formulaicness and artificial flavour are gone and are replaced by the Real Thing. That's hard to imagine, I know, and it sounds rather abstract, but hey, I'm not really asking to treasure Blue Valentine as a chef-d'aoeuvre for eternity. Trash it if you like, or concentrate on Swordfishtrombones. To me, a record like this actually says more about Tom's genius than his 'bizarre' period - not to sound denigrative, but in a certain sense, it's easier to play a weirdo than take such a generic musical form as 'cabaret boogie' (my very approximate term for this stuff) and render it in such a way that allows virtually no competition. Yup, that's the way life goes.



Year Of Release: 1980
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Transition album, one foot in the gorgeous balladeering, one foot in dry creepy delirium.


Track listing: 1) Heartattack And Vine; 2) In Shades; 3) Saving All My Love For You; 4) Downtown; 5) Jersey Girl; 6) 'Til The Money Runs Out; 7) On The Nickel; 8) Mr Siegal; 9) Ruby's Arms.

If some unhappy Tom fan happened to miss this album in 1980 and jumped from Blue Valentine directly to the Swordfishtrombones period, I'd bet my last ten cents he sure would have had a heart attack - no vine, though. But this here record actually sounds like a preparation camp for the Change, a natural taster of weirder things to come, yet with a lot of links to Tom's sentimental past anyway. Bet you anything, though, that the effect from the title track that opens the album made many a diehard Waits fan spring out of the chair. 'Heartattack And Vine' is essentially just another blues rant from Tom. Nothing else. BUT... it's actually radically different from everything he did before. Picking up his guitar, Tom squeezes out a horrible tone, drier than the driest Mexican sauce, distorted and ear-destructive, and pretty shiver-sending at that. He doesn't even play much - just isolated minimalistic sequences of notes. Then he makes a pause, and from somewhere deep out of the depths of your speakers comes a menacing 'hwrrrrrgggghh....' as if an ogre is slowly troddling out of his cave. Nice start, eh? And then, when Tom actually starts singing, he does it with such a wallop of aggression and hot passionate delirium that you'll have to check out your windowglass. I don't even pay attention to the lyrics, despite them featuring one of the greatest lines ever written - 'don't you know there ain't no devil, there's just God when he's drunk'. All I care for is this atmosphere. Sorta like Dire Straits with Mark Knopfler totally off his rocker and changing his melancholy minimalistic mood for a hyped up aggressive minimalistic mood.

And then there's 'In Shades', presented by 'The Tom Waits Band'. What the hell is THAT shit? Was it really recorded live, as there's a joyful fuzz 'n' buzz of a busy restaurant in the distance? Maybe it was, Tom is such a kidder, after all. But what's up with the tune itself? It's not generic blues. It doesn't sound that much different from the melody of 'Heartattack And Vine', though. It's pretty hypnotic, too - what with Roland Bautista's perfect sharp lead lines and Ronnie Barron's steady Hammond riff underpinnning it all. And the false drum ending. It's really stupid: just an instrumental bluesy tune, but I've yet to hear something else like this.

From then on, the album is equally divided between more of these dry-hot bluesy rants that make your hair stand on end, and Waits' traditional soft side - ballads, ballads and ballads. Yet, unlike Blue Valentine, this here record simply doesn't contain bad songs; even the more corny-sounding ones have great classy hooks. 'Jersey Girl', for instance. You probably know 'Jersey Girl'. You probably heard 'Jersey Girl'. You maybe heard Bruce Springsteen doing 'Jersey Girl'. Maybe you didn't? Wanna know why the Boss covered 'Jersey Girl'? 'Cuz it's so dang FITTING his style. A romantic working-class epic. Most Springsteen-like song Tom ever did, yeah, and the Boss felt that deep in his, er, whatever he hides under that Fender. Anyway, this isn't supposed to be Springsteen-bashing - on the contrary, the Boss has great taste, because this is a cool song, with one of Tom's most memorable vocal melodies in the chorus. It ain't much, it's just 'sha-la la la la la I'm in love with the Jersey girl', but it's dang moving, and dang catchy, and I give it both of my thumbs up.

For the lyrics, check out 'On The Nickel', though - one of Tom's best ballads as well. Yes, it's done in classic Hollywood style, but it ain't really a Hollywood song, it's no 'Somewhere', it's just a beautiful love song with lyrics I can't decipher for the life of me, well, not that I'm really trying that much. I have better things to do than work as a Waits decoder. The two other ballads are nice, if not as spectacular, and the three other rockers are all pretty much 'Heartattack And Vine' clones, but what clones. 'Mr Siegal' alone is worth the entire Southern rock genre, and I'll say that... well, no, I am exaggerating, I probably would not trade my entire Skynyrd catalog for that one. Just everything these guys did after the plane crash. A Lynyrd Skynyrd without Ronnie Van Zant, blah. Oh wait, I actually said something good about that stage of the band in some of my reviews, dang, this site is so big now I can't really be held responsible for everything. Just remember that sometimes when I write something in my review, I may mean exactly the opposite. I hope this will provide you with a clearer and more distinctive understanding of the site's scope, purpose, and overall value. Not that I'm selling it any time soon... least, I have to end the Heartattack And Vine review before that. Well, if you've heard 'Heartattack And Vine', 'Jersey Girl', and 'On The Nickel', you pretty much heard all the rest, but if you DID hear them and have a deeply-feeling emotionally-artistic nature, you'll yearn for more and end up buying the album. Despite what I said about 'transitional', essentially it's still pretty normal. You could call Tom demented on hearing these songs, of course, but you could also call him a successful atmosphere imitator of distinguished bluesmen, which doesn't exactly hit the bullseye, but at least such a conception will ease the pain. If you do feel pain when you listen to Tom's later stuff, which you shouldn't, you goddamn close-minded wanker.



Year Of Release: 1983
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

In which our hero Tom becomes that great Alternative hero once and for all.


Track listing: 1) Underground; 2) Shore Leave; 3) Dave The Butcher; 4) Johnsburg, Illinois; 5) 16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six; 6) Town With No Cheer; 7) In The Neighbourhood; 8) Just Another Sucker On The Vine; 9) Frank's Wild Years; 10) Swordfishtrombone; 11) Down Down Down; 12) Soldier's Things; 13) Gin Soaked Boy; 14) Trouble's Braids; 15) Rainbirds.

And here comes the reinvention that nobody expected, or, at least, nobody could definitely predict. The long gap in between Heartattack And Vine and this one actually finds an easy explanation: Tom spent about a year looking for a record company that would accept this bizarre set of recordings, finally finding such a company in Island Records. No mean feat, either; it was hard enough to convince the record company to issue Tim Buckley's Starsailor in 1970, it was probably thrice as hard to issue Swordfishtrombones in 1983.

So what is the transformation? If you've already heard this and the next several Waits records, you probably know how goddamn hard it is to describe Tom's style at this point. Okay, so let's have a go anyway - perhaps the principal change is in the instrumental side of things. On previous records, Tom was usually either accompanied by a regular, normal-sounding small jazz or rock backing band, or by an entire "strings department" on his more Hollywood-ish numbers. Here, he mostly dismisses both styles; his backing band is now firmly rooted in avantgarde jazz, with prominent percussion, bass and dissonant horn sections, a minimum of (usually freaky and feedbackish) guitars, and occasionally some goofy keyboards playing against the rhythm section, if possible. Little signs of this approach were already visible on the last album, but it's on here that the music really goes off the deep end.

Vocally, then, Tom undergoes a metamorphose, too - way too often, he simply refuses to sing, groaning and grunting and howling instead, or, more usually, just ranting and raving like he already did previously in his 'Diamonds On My Windshield' style compositions. Even the few "ballads" on the album sound more like insane, stream-of-consciousness-style blubberings. And lyrically, Tom's all over the place too, with some of his usual personage impersonations mixed with shocking life-story narratives and pictures of life in all kinds of places all over the planet, but usually the ones having something to do with dirt, damp, and decay. What, you were expecting Mr Waits to start singing praise to the glories of Paradise or something?

And thus, the arrogant, bold musical structures, combined with Tom's brashness, harshness and - usually - perfect self-control despite all the insane trimmings, makes up for a really haunting listening experience, except that this time around you really need the lyrics sheet lying somewhere around. It's not perfect, I must say - stuff like these short instrumentals strewn around ('Just Another Sucker On The Vine', etc.) don't exactly do much for me, because, frankly, this kind of music is worthless without Tom adding his vocals, and I must seriously stress this point: you won't often find me praising a particularly cool bassline from Greg Cohen or an intricate guitar line from Fred Tackett or whatever. But when taken together, the vocals and the instrumentation mesh in a perfect mix.

I'll move around now and try to tackle just a few highlights to try and give you a general feeling of this stuff (which reminds me - from now on, Tom's compositions are, for the most part, deliberately short and concise, which also means that he can squeeze quite a lot of 'em onto an album and makes the process of reviewing really screwy if you go and describe all of them). 'Underground' kicks the album off with an excellent representative of the new style - no prisoners taken! - a mostly percussion-based, weirdly catchy song about those who live under our feet (diggers? miners? who cares? dirt and damp and decay, remember!). 'Shore Leave' is a song about shore leave... song? Rather a bloody nightmare, with echoey chimes and squeaky chunks of guitar feedback accompanying Tom as he tells this here story about being so far from home. Some would mold these lyrics into a sappy ballad, Tom molds these into a paranoid monster of a tune.

'16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six' is about a sheriff, I guess, and his hunt after a criminal? Cute drum pattern accompanying Tom's roarings on here, providing a really desperate mood. 'In The Neighbourhood' is a breather of sorts, a rather "conventional" ballad with martial drum rhythms and a dirgey brass backing and a lyrical subject of, well, just another day in the neighbourhood, and it wouldn't sound out of place on Blue Valentine. 'Frank's Wild Years', which later served as the starting point for a whole show and album, isn't even a song, just a little one-and-a-half minute narrative about the ordinary average guy with an ordinary average life who ended up putting his house (and family?) to fire and heading North to start a new life. Nothing extraordinary.

'Down Down Down' is my current favourite on the record, mainly because it's the only "fast" song on here, so sue me, cuz it's also rather conventional, but it also has a great fast organ solo and the appropriate Tom Waits lyrics about selling your soul - if you go 'down down down', you know where you are going. Yeah, so I'm a sucker for Tom's take on fast cabaret-style entertainment, well it's not like I get this kind of songs every day. Moving on, we also have 'Soldier's Things', with perhaps the most nostalgic and heart-breaking lyrics (backed with an appropriate piano melody) on the record, and the hard-rocking 'Gin Soaked Boy', inherited directly from 'Heartattack And Vine' (the song), the percussion freakout 'Trouble Braids', and the atmospheric instrumental piano closer 'Rainbirds'.

I haven't described every song, but there's no need to - suffice it to say that this was a thoroughly revolutionary record; nobody had done such a weird mix of street life poetry and intelligent avantgarde freaky instrumental stuff up to that time, and at an epoch when Dylan, Springsteen, and the rest of them were happily 'selling out' to their producers and allowing their lyrics and melodies to be placed in harmless slick Eighties' arrangements shells, Waits managed to totally defy convention by marrying his "street songwriter" image to the kind of music that only the most snub-nosed audiences were able to (or were thought to be able to) appreciate. Actually, Swordfishtrombones doesn't sound half as "inaccessible" as it's usually depicted once you've sat through it with will and understanding at least one time; but I guess that's really a good thing. Isn't it?



Year Of Release: 1985
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

And this is just like a Thirties' hero catapulted to post-modernist ambience. Huh?

Best song: RAIN DOGS

Track listing: 1) Singapore; 2) Clap Hands; 3) Cemetery Polka; 4) Jockey Full Of Bourbon; 5) Tango Till They're Sore; 6) Big Black Mariah; 7) Diamonds & Gold; 8) Hang Down Your Head; 9) Time; 10) Rain Dogs; 11) Midtown; 12) 9th & Hennepin; 13) Gun Street Girl; 14) Union Square; 15) Blind Love; 16) Walking Spanish; 17) Downtown Train; 18) Bride Of Rain Dog; 19) Anywhere I Lay My Head.

Same as before, only more radical. This has been often chosen as Tom's masterpiece, and usually recommended as the best place to start with his 'schizophrenic' period. And I won't necessarily disagree with that statement... when you start discussing Waits' post-1980 albums, it's essentially a matter of consistency, and since I'd be hard pressed to pinpoint a less-than-solid tune on Rain Dogs, it might as well go as presupposed. Okay, so it's not like I'm exactly pleased with more of those pointless instrumentals, but then again, there's only two of them here and they're a minute each.

And on the other hand, there are seventeen first-rate Waits compositions here, making up for a nearly hour-long experience (don't ask me how the bastard fitted all that stuff on one LP), and they might be even more complex and risky than before. The further he advances, the less links with the past remain: there's but a small small bunch of normal-sounding ballads on here, and even the lyrics are getting less and less normal, with Waits often going for stream-of-consciousness spurts of imagery rather than concise storylines or coherent character impersonations. But these are great spurts of imagery, all rooted deep down in Tom's experience of portraying the dirty streets and seedy bars, so how can you go wrong with lyrics like 'Sane, sane, they're all insane, fireman's blind, the conductor is lame, a Cincinnati jacket and a sad-luck dame, hanging out the window with a bottle full of rain' ('Clap Hands') or 'Edna Million in a drop dead suit, Dutch Pink on a downtown train, two-dollar pistol but the gun won't shoot, I'm in the corner in the pouring rain' ('Jockey Full Of Bourbon')... hmm, say, these lyrics don't look at all unlike. But they all make their point quite efficiently.

What is perhaps so goddamn good about the record is that it fully and firmly establishes Tom's function: he can now be seen as a propagator of old cabaret and lounge values projected onto a post-modernist platform. Result? This record, with a little bit of itching, could please both the 'normal' and the 'elitist' listener - elitists can admire the album's bizarre instrumentation and multiple twists of complex time signatures and arrangements, not to mention the lyrics, while 'normal' listeners could just take this as a 'strange' take on Twenties/Thirties music. Granted they can tolerate Tom's grizzly grunts, of course. No really, I mean it: these are, deep down at the core, all normal songs - and they betray it in the titles, too. 'Cemetery Polka' is a polka, 'Tango Till They're Sore' is a tango. They're just twisted, kinda like the Police twisted 'Roxanne' so that everybody thought it was reggae when in fact it was a tango too. Plus, there's some basic blues, some basic jazz, and even some basic Latin rhythms ('Jockey Full Of Bourbon'). It's just that when you arrange this stuff so that each instrument plays slightly 'against' every other one, and above it all Tom sings a bit early or a bit late or a bit never-minding-the-rhythm at all, it all starts giving you a truly unearthly feel.

In amidst all this craziness, the more 'normal' numbers come in from time to time, particularly in the second part, and provide a great amount of diversity. Thus, 'Hang Down Your Head' is a genteel Springsteen-like ballad with a truly resonant and heartfelt vocal delivery. And 'Time' wouldn't at all feel out of place on Closing Time, featuring the exact same late night mood as the overall feel of that album. And 'Blind Love' is a country ballad, nothing less - with slide guitar and all the necessary attributes, and pretty catchy at that. And then there's 'Downtown Train', a basic love song with poppy overtones; the 'will I see you tonight on the downtown train' with its accompanying guitar line could be a great hit for Boston... or somebody like that...

...but it's still the "weird" stuff that really makes the record. Like the fast cabaret sendup 'Singapore', lyrically somewhat of a follow-up to 'Shore Leave', musically more of a follow-up to 'Underground' with its wild marimbas and minimal instrumentation. Or the dark, dark, truly evil sounding 'Clap Hands' with more marimbas and sparse, economic lead guitar lines. Or 'Cemetery Polka' with the immortal line about Uncle Vernon, 'independent as a hog on ice', whatever that might mean, and weird organ lines that seem to come straight from a some Twenties' number but are set against that strange, strange beat. Or 'Big Black Mariah', a song reveling in its aggressivity and rawness - lyrically almost like an ode to Al Capone, musically just the usual hell. Or the title track, which I chose as my favourite - after a long debate with myself - because the moment when Tom sings 'for I am a ra-a-a-a-a-a-ain dog, too' might just be the culmination of the record. Or might it be that closing number, the "quasi-accappella" 'Anywhere I Lay My Head', which a normal soul-loving person might write off as abysmal but we who know better will call genius? Sarcastic genius, of course... that vocal-wrecking exercise is clearly a little bit tongue-in-cheek (Tom parodying Aretha Franklin, anybody?), but it's also painfully resonant in its function of sincere "vagabond anthem".

Which is just the main point of this album - it will always stay a little bit enigmatic to you, just because it mixes the funny, the serious, the experimental, and the traditional in such an unpredictable and essentianly "unguessable" way. Like any true work of art should, of course. Ever wondered why the Ramones are so great? Because if somebody asks you 'Is a song like 'Blitzkrieg Bop' supposed to be a serious anthemic call or a hilarious tongue-in-cheek sendup?', you really couldn't give a definite answer - if you could, that'd only mean you entirely missed one of the band's crucial strengths. Same with Rain Dogs, an album that'll always leave you a little bit unsteady and a little bit wondering. And a good bit emotionally satisfied, too.



Year Of Release: 1987
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Tom goes Broadway here, but not that kind of Broadway.


Track listing: 1) Hang On St Christopher; 2) Straight To The Top; 3) Blow Wind Blow; 4) Temptation; 5) Innocent When You Dream (Ballroom); 6) I'll Be Gone; 7) Yesterday Is Here; 8) Please Wake Me Up; 9) Frank's Theme; 10) More Than Rain; 11) Way Down In The Hole; 12) Straight To The Top (Vegas); 13) I'll Take New York; 14) Telephone Call From Istanbul; 15) Cold Cold Ground; 16) Train Song; 17) Innocent When You Dream (78).

This one is sometimes grouped together with the preceding two albums as the final touch to Tom's 'trilogy' of weird albums, but essentially that's more of a strictly chronological grouping than anything else - in this way, it's pretty handy to categorize Tom's output of the Eighties as "monolithic", especially considering the obvious 'summation' of this period with the live Big Time a year later. However, Franks Wild Years is, in fact, seriously different from the previous two albums, and in this way, I was a wee bit disappointed at first. But it's the kind of album that really takes some time to grow on you.

What happens here is that Tom, together with his almost equally eccentric wife and companion Kathleen Brennan (who is actually credited as co-writer for many of the songs on here), wrote a concise musical play, loosely based on the 'storyline' of the song 'Frank's Wild Years' from Swordfishtrombones, toured with it in 1986 and a year later released the 'soundtrack' for it. Having read the actual play, I'm not too sure what to think about it... essentially it just deals with the ordinary everyday life and the unrealistic dreams of an average guy named Frank, all stringed together without anything like a concise plot and heavily borrowing from XXth century French theater, I guess. Or maybe not. Tom himself played Frank, and I'm not sure if he got standing ovations (for the play itself, at least), but really, that needn't matter, I'm pretty sure the musical material was at the center of attention anyway.

The music here is a little bit more normal-sounding than on the preceding albums - after all, the basic idea was not to spook off the listener here, but to attract him, and so, I guess, the usual weirdo trimmings are a bit smeared, which means it might be the best introduction to Tom's post-1980 output if you're a little scared to wade in straight ahead. Of course, you'll still have Tom singing "abominably" on almost every track, but at least he'll be doing this backed not so much by a primal marimba beat as rather by some basic accordeon, or some adequately sounding pump organ, with the music rarely showing the dissonance and schizophrenia of Rain Dogs. Which doesn't mean it's really normal: Tom still likes to play tricks on the listener by splurging together the most unpredictable arrangements for his songs, so that you can never guess which instrument is going to play the next second, how many overdubbed Toms will be singing the next melody, where that particular instrumental is going to end up, etc., etc. It's only after a couple listens, though, that you start noticing this weirdness - upon first listen, I was actually a little bit distracted by the 'normalness' of it all. Not to be!

And besides, the album has some great material on it. A couple of ballads, for instance, that are to be held among Tom's best ever - the magnificent 'Innocent When You Dream', for instance, with its heartbreaking (and catchy!) chorus, present here in two versions; I by far prefer the second version, subtitled '78' and adequately represented as an old hissy jazzy recording, and think it's a wonderful ending for the entire record, but the first version, with Tom wailing uncontrollably, is tops as well. Just a good old barroom jazzy ballad, carried by a fat pump organ part and a couple pompous piano chords. 'Yesterday Is Here' is maybe even more of a tear-jerker, with that echoey early-Sixties Shadows-like guitar tone and Tom's heartfelt singing: 'Well today is grey skies, tomorrow is tears, you'll have to wait till yesterday is here'. 'Cold Cold Ground', also borrowing its melody from some early Sixties' hit whose name escapes me at the moment, is beautiful too, with more of that chaotic lyrical imagery that Tom does so well ('now don't be a cry baby when there's wood in the shed, there's a bird in the chimney and a stone in my bed...') and pretty romantic accordeon. And so on.

Again, though, I think it's the more energetic numbers that really make the grade. What a better way to kick off the album than with 'Hang On St Christopher', perhaps the most hard-rocking, sharp'n'shrill number Tom ever put down on record up to that point? Just have a go at it in headphones to feel the rumbling pulse of that bassline, the economic percussion which sounds more like a jack-screw than a human, the menacing brass puffs going in and out, and Tom's threatening vocals over it all - 'hang on St Christopher on the passenger side, open it up tonight the devil can ride'. A couple of the songs do sound like they were some Rain Dogs outtakes, though, and they're great at that - 'Telephone Call From Istanbul' is a major highlight, with percussion and sparse... sparse... what is that instrument anyway? Sounds like a cross between an electric piano and an overamplified lower string of the acoustic.

And as usual, the 'minor' highlights are just way too many to mention - the lounge jazz of 'Blow Wind Blow', the hilarious rooster crowing and fast quasi-clownish tempo of 'I'll Be Gone', the German-style pump organ extravaganza of 'More Than Rain', the mock-Broadway raving 'I'll Take New York'... just about every song on here qualifies in some respect or other. And thus, considering that the album has - granted, a very diluted and twisted - but still a concept, it would really be easier for a neophyte to get into this than into Rain Dogs. This isn't exactly a compliment, but neither it is a negative comment: in fact, I'm quite pleased to see that even after two albums of near-total avantgarde extravagance, Tom still had his feet firmly routed in the ground, not to mention in good melodies. As solid a nine as I ever gave out, although as a post-scriptum I'll add that I don't really like the album cover (what's up with the muddy yellow colours?) and I don't really like Tom's singing on 'Temptation'. Oh well, I must voice a complaint, mustn't I?



Year Of Release: 1988
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Live 'n' cackling. Even gruffer and grumblier than usual.

Best song: suit yourself.

Track listing: 1) 16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six; 2) Red Shoes; 3) Underground; 4) Cold Cold Ground; 5) Straight To The Top; 6) Yesterday Is Here; 7) Way Down In The Hole; 8) Falling Down; 9) Strange Weather; 10) Big Black Mariah; 11) Rain Dogs; 12) Train Song; 13) Johnsburg, Illinois; 14) Ruby's Arms; 15) Telephone Call From Istanbul; 16) Clap Hands; 17) Gun Street Girl; 18) Time.

The only 'proper' live album Waits ever released: of course, there was always Nighthawks At The Diner, but it was more of a 'live method' to record some new compositions than anything else, while Big Time, actually a soundtrack to an extensive live movie, is exactly what a proper live album should be. Now one might actually question the necessity of a live album for Tom's material; more or less like every singer-songwriter, it isn't exactly clear beforehand what a live interpretation of these songs could add to their studio potential. After all, doesn't stuff like Rain Dogs actually sound 'live' to you? Even with all the overdubs? So minimalistic, so well-produced, and so dang energetic that it'd really be hard to improve on 'er.

And in a sense, it's right: Big Time doesn't provide no shocking revelations or reinterpretations. In fact, Tom's overall potential isn't even displayed for all its worth; he sings in pretty much the same "over-grizzled" manner on the absolute majority of the songs, and in the process those subtle differencies in vocal tone that used to characterize 'Telephone Call From Istanbul', 'Big Black Mariah', 'Clap Hands', etc., are kinda neutralized. Even the tender ballads are made gruff and rough, with a few exceptions, and as a result, the effect just wears down on you (and it's a double album, too). On the positive side, though, most of the songs do not sound like carbon copies of the studio recordings - be it the vocal delivery, or the musical arrangement, or some funny in-between-the-lines gag, there's always something to hold a dedicated fan's interest.

Another positive aspect is Tom's backing band and the sound quality of the sonic assaults they provide; not only is it excellent, at times it is consciously mixed in "audience bootleg" quality (cleaned up, of course) just to present an additional level of roughness and down-to-earth flavour. Of special note is the guitar work of Marc Ribot, clumsy, hoarse, but powerful guitar "digs" (can't even call 'em 'licks', really!) with just enough dissonance to keep everything frigged up, but enough melodicity to make you actually enjoy the proceedings.

The setlist here mostly consists of new stuff - the last three albums are heavily represented, with Franks Wild Years taking the lead and Swordfishtrombones having but three numbers out of eighteen. Apparently, Tom is not the nostalgic kind; he ventures into the Seventies only once, and that sole occasion ('Red Shoes By The Drugstore') is so thoroughly 'raindoggified', with the obligatory pump organ and marimbas, that you could hardly tell it actually goes back to 1978. Apart from that, there are two new songs, both of which could have been minor highlights on Wild Years: 'Strange Weather', a quiet cabaret waltz driven by a slow banjo part, and, uh, another waltz-tempo tune, the accordeon-based 'Falling Down', actually a studio recording.

It's pretty hard to even begin chatting about the highlights - no bad songs on here, and, like I said, many of the former highlights are really neutralized, so it all kinda flows together real well, real seamless (even despite the annoying fade-ins and fade-outs threatening the album's cohesiveness), real undistinguishable. You'll have to get used to the gruff ballads, I'm afraid; it's pretty hard, for instance, to feel the former heart-wrenching sentimentality of 'Yesterday Is Here' in this sloppy drunken delivery of the tune, but it's really just a matter of getting adapted to it. It must be said, though, that there's a short 'solo piano ballad' set in the second half of the album, where Tom gets to performing 'Train Song', 'Johnsburg, Illinois', and even 'Ruby's Arms' off Heartattack And Vine in his 'gentler' voice (granted, Tom at his gentlest still sounds pretty much like Lemmy of Motorhead, but everything's relative, so there you go), but, to tell you the truth, it's also the section that impresses me the least - too close to the originals. But hah, then again, it just proves I can't be satisfied by anything.

As for the rockers, watch out for the clumsy mad guitar on '16 Shells' and 'Big Black Mariah' - screeching like a rusted old automobile, dirty and raw like a possum run over on the road (pretty disgusting analogy, but it works for me). Look out for the insane Vegas-y ending to 'Telephone Call'. Watch Tom screw up the vocal rhythmics on 'Underground' and get out unscathed. Look at 'im battling with the Devil ('I feel as though we should move into the religious material') on 'Way Down In The Hole'. Listen to the vocal hell at the beginning of 'Clap Hands' (where the audience, believe it or not, actually does clap hands, even if I'm not sure the song was meant to invite 'em to do it). Or the unbelievable vocal gymnastics on 'Gun Street Girl'. There's a little bit of heaven in everything.

One thing I lament is there's very little stage banter from Tom, the master of quick pun and hard-hitting social commentary. Granted, maybe the sole 'GOOD EVENING!', grunted in Tom's most nightmarish howl at the beginning of the show, is enough to compensate for that... but maybe it isn't. Thus, I'm outa here, but not before I transcribe the sole 'gag' told by Mr Waits at the beginning of his tender romantic piano ballad set: 'All right, actually I get asked... well, look, the question I get asked the most is... well, I mean, it happens a lot, okay, enough that I would remark on it... a lot of people come up to me and they say Tom, is it possible for a woman to get pregnant without intercourse?... and-uh... my answer's always the same, I say, well listen, we'll have to go all the way back to the Civil War... uh... apparently, a stray bullet actually pierced the testicle of a Union soldier and then lodged itself in the ovules of an eighteen-year old girl who was actually a hundred feet from him at the time... uh... well, the baby was fine, she was very happy, guilt-free... and... 'course the soldier was a little pissed off... well, when you think about it, it's actually a form of intercourse, but... [in a particularly threatening tone:] not for everyone. Those who love action, maybe.' Good old Tom, always ready to come up with practical advice.



Year Of Release: 1992
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

This is an album about death. No, this is THE album about death.

Best song: really impossible to choose

Track listing: 1) Earth Died Screaming; 2) Dirt In The Ground; 3) Such A Scream; 4) All Stripped Down; 5) Who Are You; 6) The Ocean Doesn't Want Me; 7) Jesus Gonna Be Here; 8) A Little Rain; 9) In The Colosseum; 10) Goin' Out West; 11) Murder In The Red Barn; 12) Black Wings; 13) Whistle Down The Wind; 14) I Don't Wanna Grow Up; 15) Let Me Get Up On It; 16) That Feel.

Another definite winner for old Mr Waits here. Now look, sometimes a five-year break in between albums can do you good, see? Whether it has to do with your inspiration getting thinner so you have to save up little bits of it over a long period of time, or whether it's just a matter of prolonged prosperity from the ever and ever increasing royalties, is another matter - the good news is, five years gone done Tom a lot of good.

So much good, in fact, that he finally decided to make a wicked album. I doubt anybody could have expected this sinister monster. Waits' albums had always been morose and dark, but the permeating feelings there were usually restricted to sorrow, separation, aimlessness, and disillusionment. They're all present here as well, but essentially the album is just about death. D-E-A-T-H, all capital letters. The very first song on the album contains the word 'died' in the title, and the second song begins in a most straightforward manner: 'What does it matter, a dream of love or a dream of lies? We're all gonna be in the same place when we die'. Just about every other song has these kinds of references, too, and I'm not even mentioning the album title or the album cover.

But don't you think this is something pathetically generic. So many albums have been written about death, can there be any more that'd say something new? Well - the important thing, of course, is not exactly what you say, but how you say it. And Tom has found his own, unique and challenging route. The 'bone machine' in question isn't just a cool album title; it refers to the basic musical stylistics of the album. Waits had always placed a huge emphasis on percussion (ooh, remember those marimbas all over the place?), but this album carries this dependance over the top - most of the songs are based upon Tom, Kathleen and one or two other guys banging away on 'sticks' - they even call their small group 'The Boners' - so that it gives the horrific effect of many many bones rattling and pounding upon each other, kinda like in an imaginary Dance of Death. Perhaps one of the most bizarre uses of percussion I've ever heard, too, and pretty chilling if you ask me. Not that the rest of the music doesn't match up: heavy guitar tones abound, with evil distorted effects thrown in in places. Technically, this is probably the heaviest album Tom ever produced, even if it's nowhere near the 'normal' definition of heavy.

Likewise, the lyrics aren't all that straightforward and understandable. Only a couple tracks actually get the message through as transparently as possible; most of the others, however, deliver it through waves upon waves of chaotic, confusing, occasionally disgusting imagery, all swarming with blood, dirt, murder, suffering, pain, and despair. 'Earth Died Screaming' comes to a climax each time Tom gets to the ravaging chorus - "WELL THE EARTH DIED SCREAMING WHILE I LAY DREAMIN!", in between calmly and nonchalantly telling about ant bones and water in skulls and somebody eating up shed lion skins, while The Boners rattle 'em bones around. 'All Stripped Down' begins with a series of piercing 'rattlesnake shakes' and evil funky wah-wah guitars tuning up, and not until Tom's paranoid falsetto begins spewing forth the lyrics and scary electronically encoded vocals start chanting 'all stripped down, all stripped down' do we get to understand he's actually making a song about such an innocent thing as the Final Judgement. 'The Ocean Doesn't Want Me Today' is the confession of a suicidal person, set against more bone rattles and a chilly electronic pattern.

'Jesus Gonna Be Here' is one o' those tracks that could set the entire Christiandom on Tom's back: it's obviously a song of a dying person evoking the Lord, but the way it's sung and performed, you get to really understand Jesus ain't gonna do no good for the man - obviously, in a matter of moments this guy is gonna be pretty disappointed about his illusions, yet we catch him in this final pre-agony state when there's still belief in salvation. 'In The Colosseum' is perhaps the goriest track on here, depicting a bloody battle scene in the Roman Amphitheater and using it as a metaphor for the entire world. We start from decapitation and dogs feasting on the wounded and injured gladiators and end up with a general picture of the world as a place where nothing but murder, betrayal, and evil take place. Now who else can sing about murder and evil with such absolute conviction but Tom Waits? Ha! And if that's not enough, then the next song is 'Goin' Out West', the heaviest and creepiest song ever recorded by Tom - the rhythm section is absolutely MONSTROUS on there, with a bassline thicker than a sumo champion and drums that threaten to kick out the very life of you. Granted, the lyrics just tell about about a guy who wants to get out west... but the music does suggest a bit that the guy's really up to no good.

It's not as if there are no 'softer' spots, of course. There's a small bunch of ballads scattered among the album, although even the ballads are drenched in pessimism and despair. 'Dirt In The Ground' is basically Tom's analog of 'Dust In The Wind', although there's not a drop of genericity in the song, unlike the vomit-inducing Kansas epic. Occasionally a little speck of softness and 'redneck romanticism' jumps out, like in 'A Little Rain', but you can never be sure - for all you know, the next 'soft' song could be 'Murder In The Red Barn', a 'soft' nice acoustic-and-bone tale about, well, a murder in the red barn... did you think it was going to be about Peter the Purser? Or it could be the evil 'Black Wings'. Or... whatever.

Of course, since Tom is a nice fella and all, he can't leave the listener in such a completely deranged state - so the album closes with 'That Feel', a vaguely cheerful and optimistic 'anthem' that reminds me of 'It' from Genesis' The Lamb: same type of 'spiritual' ending that leaves the listener puzzled and waiting for an answer that never comes. But since the exact answer about 'that feel' never really comes, it's kind of a half-hearted consolation, really. Yet on the other hand, it does flow in well with the rest and besides, Tom's basic rule was never to let an album close on a tragic note, so there you go. A workable closer for one of the most sinister, truly 'dreadful' albums ever made. And in a way, Bone Machine breaks up with Tom's past maybe even more than Rain Dogs, as it doesn't just throw on a veil of avantgarde eccentricity on his barroom past, it annihilates that past with a vengeance.



Year Of Release: 1993
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Dissipated for a musical... dissipated for a non-musical. A bit of a letdown.


Track listing: 1) Lucky Day Overture; 2) The Black Rider; 3) November; 4) Just The Right Bullets; 5) Black Box Theme; 6) T'Aint No Sin; 7) Flash Pan Hunter/Intro; 8) That's The Way; 9) The Briar And The Rose; 10) Russian Dance; 11) Gospel Train/Orchestra; 12) I'll Shoot The Moon; 13) Flash Pan Hunter; 14) Crossroads; 15) Gospel Train; 16) Interlude; 17) Oily Night; 18) Lucky Day; 19) The Last Rose Of Summer; 20) Carnival.

This album requires a special explanatory paragraph. An old German folk tale tells us the story of a young free marksman who sold his soul to the devil in return for special magical bullets to hit every desired target. Naturally, the story has a dark tragic end (that's German folklore for you, what do you want?). If you're a good connoisseur of classical, you might recognize the subject from Karl Maria von Weber's opera 'Der Freischutz'. In 1990, this story in its written form was presented as a play in Germany, where it was noted by choreographer/painter Robert Wilson. He immediately got the idea to re-work the thing into a full-fledged musical, with lots of 'improvements', additions and modifications in a post-modernist vein. To do that, he joined forces with William Burroughs, who wrote the actual 'libretto', and with our main musical hero in question, who fleshed out the tunes and performed 'em.

Never seen the musical - just read a few descriptions of it - one thing is certain: it was one hell of a mess, with more or less historic references sitting next to the uncle of the free marksman's bride reciting a monolog about how Ernest Hemingway sold the rights to 'The Snows Of Kilimanjaro' to a Hollywood producer. You can imagine. I'm not a fan of such stuff normally, but not that it really bothers me. What bothers me is that the actual music to the show isn't all that good - okay, so it is good, but I've grown to expect a little more from Tom than what I have here.

There are very few, if any, rock-solid tunes that could function on their own as rightful Waits classics; none of this stuff really works at all outside the context of the musical, and this makes it seriously weaker than Waits' preceding stage effort, Franks Wild Years. Stuff like 'Yesterday Is Here' or 'Telephone Call From Istanbul' was so obviously timeless and context-independent it could become part of Tom's regular stage set; I have a hard time, though, imagining Waits singing 'Just The Right Bullets' or the title track outside of this performance. And these are easily the best tunes; the ballads, which are far more personal and even autobiographic on occasion, just hardly qualify along with the wonderfully constructed, hook-filled efforts of Rain Dogs and Wild Years. Songs like 'November', 'The Briar And The Rose', and 'I'll Shoot The Moon' are typical Waits compositions, but all of them feature atmosphere over melody, and give me nothing I ain't heard on Wild Years or even Blue Valentine.

Still, the album's a solid 8, because it does have a uniqueness of its own. As usual, most of the music is sifted through Tom's cabaret-sensitive, jazz-lovin' fibres; and since the story deals with German events in the first place, there is no need to muffle down his fascination with German motives of the Twenties/Thirties. But all over the album, various surprises are being scattered - thus, some tracks feature the 'boners' of the previous album, and for a good reason, too (a very prominent motive in the musical is hunting and ensuing flaying of the killed animals, after which the hunter and his wife's relatives dress themselves in the skins leaving the bones open). Tradition - represented by some acutely generic cabaret ditties - goes hand in hand with confusing avantgarde creations. One track, 'T'Aint No Sin', the one where Tom mumbles 't'aint no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones', sounds like vintage Captain Beefheart of the Trout Mask Replica era - I'd bet you anything Tom did an exact imperosnation here.

Still another one ('The Russian Dance') unexpectedly features a, guess what, Russian dance! Well, actually, it's more like a gypsy dance than a true Russian dance, but let us not blame the mistake on poor Tom, as he even takes the pains to shout 'one, two, three, four!' in Russian at one particularly ecstatic moment. And then there's the black cat of the album, 'Oily Night', which sounds as it came right from Bone Machine: I'm presuming it represents a coven where the dreariest events of the story are supposed to take place, with rhythmic 'boner percussion', dissonant screams and slurps of brass and strings, and Tom (if it's Tom) in his deepest and probably electronically encoded voice, chanting 'oily night.. oily night...'. May sound stupid on paper, but sounds nightmarish in headphones.

And in between the tired ballads and the ravenous experimentation come lodged several really good - not awesomely great - songs that at least prove Waits had some respect left for melody-writing. The title track is easily my favourite, with all the hissing making it sound like an authentic Twenties' recording, the hilarious German accent ('come on along wiz zee black rrrrider...'), and the goofy juxtaposition of the normal tone of a spieler inviting people to a show with the evil lyrics ('lay down in the web of the evil spider, I'll drink your blood like wine'... '...may I use your skull for a bowl?'). But 'Just The Right Bullets', in which the devil explains the deal to the marksman, is equally fine, with a classy electric piano part driving the song forward along with like a million other instruments, and head-spinning fast sections in between the verses. The singing saw in 'Flash Pan Hunter' is delicious, and Waits screams his head off on 'Lucky Day' like in few other places.

But anyway, the usual problem with singer-songwriters or bands involved in such projects is that the project can become bigger than the sum of your capacities, and Black Rider is just it - at times, I'm not sure if even Tom himself really understands what he's doing. Maybe it would have been a better choice to let him write the libretto instead of putting him back-to-back with Burroughs, after all, lyrics have always been essential for Tom's albums and this makes the record somewhat deprived of a big chunk of his usual charm. I'd really recommend to get this only after you're through with every other post-1980 album; really, it's not as much the most 'inaccessible' of his albums as some Waits aficionados claim as it is one of the most 'untypical' albums for that period, and it's not pure, one hundred percent undiluted Tom Waits in person by any means. Then again, maybe you're a William Burroughs aficionado and I'm just barking up the wrong tree.



Year Of Release: 1999
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

A terrific summary of all the personalities of Mr Beefheart-Meets-Dylan in one place.

Best song: BIG IN JAPAN

Track listing: 1) Big In Japan; 2) Low Side Of The Road; 3) Hold On; 4) Get Behind The Mule; 5) House Where Nobody Lives; 6) Cold Water; 7) Pony; 8) What's He Building?; 9) Black Market Baby; 10) Eyeball Kid; 11) Picture In A Frame; 12) Chocolate Jesus; 13) Georgia Lee; 14) Filipino Box Spring Hog; 15) Take It With Me; 16) Come On Up To The House.

The sleeve cover is pretty scary out here... kinda like Ol' Tom slowly getting from under the ground, and his face all ghoulish white and all. He does look pretty scary, now doesn't he? Not exactly in a Keith Richards way, more like... ugh... okay, never mind. He does sing about sleeping in the graveyard on one track on here, so I guess it's no coincidence. Tom Waits likes to spook people off, particularly in the Nineties.

So anyway, Mule Variations is kind of a resume album for the man. Critics throughout the world have 'mildly scolded' the album for not breaking any particular new ground, but give da man a break, even if, granted, he gave himself a six year break, too. But then again, how much new ground did Rain Dogs break in comparison to Swordfishtrombones? Not too much, and it was the better album. On the positive side, Mule Variations gains a lot from the benefit of being Tom's first thoroughly non-conceptual album in a decade; if you can find a concept or any definite unifying theme to these songs, you're obviously sharper than I am, because I can't find 'em none. It is more than that - it is a fascinating and entertaining ride through just about all of Tom's personalities, kind of a retrospective for his entire career. You'll find songs on here that couldn't have written a year earlier than Bone Machine, and you will find songs that could have easily made it onto Closing Time. Throughout, the sound is so raw and fresh you'd swear the album was recorded thirty years ago, and yet, much of the instrumentation boasts tricky modern production technologies that couldn't have appeared earlier than the Nineties. That's Tom for ya, ladies and gentlemen.

One thing that's for certain is that the songs on here are all just as, or maybe just a little less, bleak and morose as the ones on Bone Machine. It's a dark, creepy album that firmly suits the cover, with but a few (necessary) drops of optimism scattered through the tracks - seems like growing old doesn't affect Tom's positive nerve centers at all. The ballads are tragic and depressed, the rockers are evil and sarcastic, the moody atmospheric numbers are shiver-sending; in general, the atmosphere is a bit more blunt and straightforward than the dreary 'boner hissing' of the 1992 masterpiece, but this means only that the songs are more readily accessible, nothing more, nothing less. Give this album to your nearest friend! And if he proceeds to decapitate you with a swift wave of his hand, propelling the newly-sharpened glistening CD towards your unprotected neck, the last thing you know will be - 'how come I made friends with a sucker who isn't even able to appreciate the genius of Tom...?'

'Big In Japan' - ah, what a perfect way to open an album. A mad, neurotic industrial drum machine rhythm opens, a neat guitar/brass pattern joins after several tacts, and then the famous vocals: 'I got the style, but not the grace/I got the clothes, but not the face/I got the bread but not the butter/I got the window but not the shutter/But hey, I'm big in Japan, I'm big in Japan'. Was Tom Waits really big in Japan? Don't tell me! Even if he wasn't, this is one of the most slyly-formulated putdowns of a showbiz star I've ever witnessed - unless I got something wrong. There's not too many aggressive guitar-heavy rockers remaining, though, but the ones I did encounter kick near-equal amounts of ass. 'Cold Water' is a psychotic slow 'folk-rocker' driven by grungy primitive distorted guitar and absolutely harrowing vocals... 'Eyeball Kid', with its scary story of a circus freak, is so utterly disgusting I haven't really been that sick since the last time I heard Jimi Hendrix play his revenge upon the national anthem (in a good sense, of course!) And 'Filipino Box String Hop'... strike me dead if I know what it's about, but it's pretty cool to hear a slow trip-hop beat in a Tom Waits song anyway. You know you're shitproof in any case, so there you go!

The moodier 'relaxed' material works just as well... 'Lowside Of The Road'? 'I'm on a black elevator going down'? I suppose there's no need to explain what the 'down' stands for, and if you need further explication, just listen to that production hiss, to the tired brass grunts, to the rattlesnake percussion in the far, far, far away background, to the squirky minimalistic banjo chords that a five-year old could have handled... 'Get Behind The Mule', with its repetitive 'she got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow' chorus, gives you the impression of constant, endless pain, suffering and disillusionment more vividly than the entire Steinbeck catalog, even if the actual lyrics aren't always understandable. Then there's the weird Beefheart tribute 'What's He Building?', a lengthy spoken monolog as Waits plays the part of an 'outside observer' watching some strange building take place (as illustrated by booming and squeaking noises in the background). It's just too dang strange and open to interpretations to discuss here, really, but you ain't heard nothing like that. The little humble country blues 'Chocolate Jesus' could easily get Waits anathemized, if only for the line 'it's best to wrap your saviour up in cellophane, he flows like the big muddy but that's ok, pour him over ice cream for a nice parfait'. Ha! Nice little veiled anti-religion rant out there.

I won't say too much about the ballads, cuz they aren't as impressive when compared to the arrogant stuff out there... still, they're all beautiful in a classic early Tom Waits kind of way, with the optimism of 'Hold On' and the pessimism of 'Picture In A Frame' definitely earning a spot in your heart if there's any left. But, of course, word must be given about the grand final, the near-gospel uplifting 'Come On Up To The House' - again, in the old tradition, a thoroughly negativity-drenched record must end with a bit of hope and light. Again, as in the case of 'That Feel', you gotta be wondering what the 'house' really is (naturally not the Heaven, but not a real house either - 'the world is not home, I'm just passin' thru', Tom proudly declares), but the line 'come down off the cross, we could use the wood' alone should earn the song immortality. What a great, great, great way to end a terrific album.

It is, in fact, incredible that Tom, who's pushing fifty now, is still able to make records like these - granted, there's nothing revolutionary or trend-setting on Mule Variations, but it continues in the same vein and expands on the same ideas that he's already mined over and it doesn't sound even a wee bit nostalgic. Usually, when we see some of his contemporaries, like the Stones, or McCartney, or even, at this point, David Bowie, chime in with a new album, we all go like, 'oh no, here comes some more nostalgic stuff from the guy(s)'. Nothing at all here: MV relates to Waits' past like, say, Magical Mystery Tour relates to Sgt Pepper - similar to its predecessor, but expanding on it and sounding like a natural development, not a self-parody or a run-of-the-mill stereotypic formulaic record. And hell, the guy is really in his fifties now. About the only people of his age I know of that can boast similar 'inexhaustible' attitudes are Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed (and, to a lesser extent, Bob Dylan), but even them chaps have had their ups and downs, while Tom should probably hold the number one spot for Most Consistent Songwriter of all time. Dang, what a guy.



Year Of Release: 2002
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

How many times is it possible to combine Kurt Weill with beat poetry and still end up with something so deeply emotional?


Track listing: 1) Alice; 2) Everything You Can Think; 3) Flower's Grave; 4) No One Knows I'm Gone; 5) Kommienezuspadt; 6) Poor Edward; 7) Table Top Joe; 8) Lost In The Harbor; 9) We're All Mad Here; 10) Watch Her Disappear; 11) Reeperbahn; 12) I'm Still Here; 13) Fish & Bird; 14) Barcarolle; 15) Fawn.

Perhaps Tom's decision to release two different albums on the very same day of the very same month and year won't come off as all that unpredictable considering that both are actually sort of "side projects", based on two different stage shows that Tom projected with Robert Wilson. Thus, the grand tradition of Franks Wild Years and The Black Rider is renewed and prolonged, and Waits can continue to demonstrate us his obsessed preoccupation with theatre, cabaret, music hall, and German vaudeville for as long as he cares.

In this way, considering that both projects weren't specially "LP-oriented", perhaps it would be unjust and useless to accuse Tom of not only not 'progressing', but not even trying to progress with these records. There's pretty much not a single truly unpredictable, previously unheard-of innovation on Alice; in fact, it's seriously formulaic even at its best. However, it is somewhat unexpected in that it's Tom's most sentimental, emotionally rich and overall "listenable" album since at least the already mentioned Franks Wild Years, which it in some ways emulates. In fact, anybody who can get over Tom's earth-rumbling voice will probably appreciate at least some of the songs - they're pretty conventional.

It's a husky, gloomy, loungey cabaret album this one. Dark as usual, too, and Tom's photo in the inside sleeve is even more zombie-like than the one on Mule Variations, if such a thing as possible; I hope he doesn't look that way in real life, he'd have to be living in a graveyard or somewhere like that to match the appearance. Anyway, there are brass sections, strings, cheap pianos, sordid production, not a guitar in sight, this is Tom paying tribute to the German musical scene again, even if apparently the stage show in question was dedicated to 'Alice' - as in 'Alice Liddell', the prototype for Lewis Carroll's Alice. It doesn't (and isn't meant to) translate well onto the record, though. The record just has an "Alice" on it and that's that, and it's been already supposed that the whole album is actually just an open-hearted love letter from Tom to his trusty supporting better side (even if all of the songs are actually credited to both Tom and Kathleen Brennan, which is a pretty dang strong argument against that hypothesis).

Critics have all been raving about the record - I will start by going a little bit against the grain and saying that, unless you're a real Tom Waits diehard who wets his or her underwear at the very sound of his voice, or, on the contrary, an absolute Tom Waits neophyte, these songs probably won't strike you as exceptional. Very few of the ballads are memorable at all: they're slow, lazy, and pretty much all build on feeling and devotion where earlier they used to also build on blistering vocal melodies ('Yesterday Is Here', anyone?). If mood and interesting lyrics aren't enough for you, well, there's the danger of being bored. For a couple of minutes here and there, I was, too. But the man simply has such a terrifically strong aura around him and his musical doings that even when you're bored, you can't really condemn the things he's doing. Listen to, I dunno, something like 'Poor Edward'. It's got a pretty generic Twenties-style melody, with a gypsy fiddle playing one simple pattern over and over, and no vocal hook for miles around. But the very fact that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Tom Waits is still willing to go back eighty years, resuscitate a genre that's more or less thought of as dead and gone, and use it as a polygon for a truly heartfelt lyrical performance, is goddamn seducing. Career highlight? God no. But it works all the same.

Actually, out of the ballads only a few do strike me as highlights - the croaky squeaky intentionally-bad produced title track acts as the perfect mood-setter, a song so heavily soaked in nostalgia, old age depression, warm memories and cold realization of the present it's difficult not to forgive it for lack of memorability; the typically Waits-style half-sentimental, half-deadly-cynical 'Flower's Grave'; and the epic, stately tale of 'Fish And Bird', which, for some reason, is the only track that actually does remind me of Seventies' Waits - maybe because it's so dang straightforward even for the usual Alice level (and yeah, the album earned many comparisons with the stuff that Tom was releasing before he went mad in 1983, but I think it is much darker, gruffer, and, well, weirder than anything from that relatively "mentally stable" period anyway).

Anyway, what really helps the record get by smoothly is that the endless string of ballads - obviously the focal point - is frequently interrupted by 'breathers', i.e. more upbeat songs that alleviate the possible boredom factor. And they're just as good... and sometimes better. The most outstanding of all is the grossly titled (and grossly sung) 'Kommienezuspadt', which is somewhere half in between a silly goof of an old comic geezer and a sly parody on German cabaret music in general, with Tom spitting out pseudo-German nonsense in his most "poisonous" style. For the weak-hearted in the audience, there's a pretty little jazz-pop number called 'Table Top Joe', and for those who love Tom Waits for the 'puh puh puh puh' vocal style and the marimbas, there's the Swordfishtrombones-style 'We're All Mad Here'. Me, I like when the German, the jazz, and the madness are all joined together, and that's what happens on 'Reeperbahn' (well, okay, it's not exactly mad, but it's sure madder than 'Flower's Grave', and besides, I needed a good stylistic flourish here).

But actually, while I did - somewhat arbitrarily, I confess - select 'Reeperbahn' as best track here, in a certain way the best track might just be that little 'Fawn' bit of instrumental beauty that closes the album. The harp-and-musical-saw interplay (unless that's a violin, but it sounds tremendously similar to a musical saw anyway) says in its minute-and-a-half pretty much everything that the album was saying over the preceding forty five. Or, well, okay, at least it says the main thing - that utter beauty can be obtainable with the minimal effort if you got enough of that beauty in your soul. There. Did that make a grand review closing figure or what? You can send word to Dave Marsh he's retired now.



Year Of Release: 2002
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

How many times is it possible to combine Kurt Weill with beat poetry and still end up with something so aggressively cynical?


Track listing: 1) Misery Is The River Of The World; 2) Everything Goes To Hell; 3) Coney Island Baby; 4) All The World Is Green; 5) God's Away On Business; 6) Another Man's Vine; 7) Knife Chase; 8) Lullaby; 9) Starving In The Belly Of A Whale; 10) The Part You Throw Away; 11) Woe; 12) Calliope; 13) A Good Man Is Hard To Find.

Ooh, this is not Alice. This is the harder, more "repulsive" side of Tom showing up. It's not like the two records are thoroughly uncompatible, though - certain songs off Alice (such as that cooky pseudo-German goof) would have fit perfectly well on Blood Money, and some of the songs off Blood Money, mainly the few sentimental ballads such as 'Coney Island Baby', could have fit easily on Alice. But in general, this is tough stuff. It still ain't a rock album, though, because Tom has apparently vowed not to touch a guitar in the 21st century (only breaking this vow on one or two songs - well, every vow has to have an exception, and besides, would you expect Tom Waits to keep his own vows? Heh heh). It's still the same cabaret/jazz/lounge/vaudeville/waltz stuff all over the place, only with sentimentalism, nostalgia and passion mostly giving way to anger, bleak cynicism and staged degradation.

In some ways, I like Blood Money even more than Alice: it's nowhere near as monotonous and the few ballads that alleviate the 'toughness' are just as touching as the ones on Tom's declaration of sentimentalism #1. On the other hand, Alice was at least mildly 'unusual' for Tom, as he hadn't ever done an entire album of ballads done from his "weird guy" point of view before. Blood Money, though, is just way too closely linked to The Black Rider to present any kind of surprise. Again, it's based on German themes - this time serving as the soundtrack to Waits' and Wilson's adaptation of Georg Buechner's play Woyzeck, premiered in Copenhagen in November 2000; and again, the resulting album gives relatively few clues to what the original show looked like.

And throughout, Tom isn't telling us much we don't already know. Philosophically, the man obviously hasn't advanced much since The Bone Machine - just look at the first two titles of the record and you're pretty much set up. But, once again, don't let this disappoint you. It's a friggin' soundtrack to a friggin' stage show, and for Tom, stage shows have never been the place for displaying groundbreaking musical/lyrical ideas; it was more like a pleasant diversion from the real stuff, even if as time goes by, it looks like the hobby is slowly graduating into a standard, regular occupation. Anyway, Blood Money isn't even pretending to give you anything new. It wants to entertain you. Alice wants to entertain you, too, but it softens you down and gives you a soft spiritual body massage, where Blood Money grans you by the laples and grates all over you until you wanna scream.

Scream of masochistic pleasure, that is, because the songs are, as usual, good. 'Misery Is The River Of The World' rolls along nicely like a good old-fashioned music hall send-up, except for the expected marimbas and the sometimes unexpected massive rolls of keyboard sounds, like waves on said river, washing you down into said misery. 'One thing you can say about mankind, there's nothing kind about man', the lyrics go, so there you are - if you didn't know it already, Tom is here to tell you that ultimate truth. And then he goes even further, stating that 'I don't believe you go to Heaven when you're good, everything goes to Hell anyway' on the very next track. Which is, by the way, driven by a pretty classy brass riff, but it's not like that's the point. The point is, well, you know... say, Tom, if everything goes to Hell anyway, you don't mind if I call you an old nutso overreaching the levels of crabbiness?

Particularly on the rabble-rousing 'God's Away On Business'? The album's most desperately cynical tune, and that's not saying enough. 'I'd sell your heart to the junkman, baby, for a buck' is the first phrase, after all - and the song is set to a jolly jimmy rollickin' rhythm. In pure German tradition, though, but with a flair and a hum and a ho that would make every popular German composer jealous. Particularly great is the little repetition of the chorus - 'god's away, god's away, god's away on business, business... [pause, a little heavy puff]... god's away, god's away, god's away on business...'. In the meantime, 'Starving In The Belly Of A Whale', the one tune on the album that definitely has some guitar work to it, rolls along at a much faster pace, almost as a rock tune, although the melody is plain vaudeville as usual. Wild harmonica, chuggin' guitar, isolated chimes, and ragged crooked vocals, and there you go.

Also as usual, instead of the supposed little isles of optimism, Waits offers you some relaxative ballads that may or may not also have cynical overtones, but the most important thing about which is they don't offer any direct salvation from evil - rather a little bit of indirect salvation, with the protagonists showing a little bit of human heart and human faith and all. A song like 'Coney Island Baby', for instance; almost disgustingly predictable in its ragged pseudo-naive sentimentalism, but every bit as touching as the best stuff on Alice and further up the river of Tom's past. This is, in fact, typical of the whole damn record - the themes, motives, vocals, musical tricks and production values are all as familiar as pumpkin pie (to you, that is, Mr Pumpkin Pie Eater - I ain't never seen a pumpkin pie in my whole life), but the recognizability and predictability don't prevent me from digging the hell out of it none. Is that the mark of true genius or does that mean something else? Up for you to tell, I guess. I give the record an 8 for a startling lack of originality and tell you to buy it if you get such an urge from looking at the album cover. However, deep down in the unreadable depths of my heart I do wish that when it comes to the next record, Mr Waits put some emphasis on songs rather than stage shows. Just a friendly warning.



Year Of Release: 2004
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Apparently, blues and rave are much closer to each other than Robert Johnson thought.


Track listing: 1) Top Of The Hill; 2) Hoist That Rag; 3) Sins Of My Father; 4) Shake It; 5) Don't Go Into That Barn; 6) How's It Gonna End; 7) Metropolitan Glide; 8) Dead And Lovely; 9) Circus; 10) Trampled Rose; 11) Green Grass; 12) Baby Gonna Leave Me; 13) Clang Boom Steam; 14) Make It Rain; 15) Day After Tomorrow; 16) Chick-A-Boom.

Today, Tom Waits seems to be even more reliable than AC/DC, in that you can always rely on him to put out something exclusively Tomwaitsian, and yet it will never really prompt you to pronounce the dreadful "he's recycling himself" formula. Oh sure, he is recycling himself - inasmuch as you have to be sure this is made by Tom Waits and not Kid Rock, for instance. You get the gravel and you get the dirt and you get the inescapable love for the past combined with an odd way of looking at the future. You don't get any major cultural revolutions; it's not 1983 and it's not 1992. And these days, you don't get revolutions from sixty-year old guys anyway. But development? You bet your middle-class bottom.

I did like Alice and I did like Blood Money, but you gotta understand that after the big punch of 'Big In Japan' and 'Filipino Box Spring Hog', my heart was yearning for something rougher. Now that Tom has fully satisfied his sentimentalism with A and his theatrical ambitions with B, it's time to get back to business, and he does. Real Gone is his "heaviest" album since Bone Machine, and, actually, makes quite a worthy competitor for that classic, although, of course, it lacks the initial shock effect of Machine - now we already know that this is the guy who knows how to turn ugliness into art better than Vanessa Carlton knows how to turn art into ugliness. However, being even longer than Machine, and nearly just as consistent, and actually managing to evolve on its basis, Real Gone is hardly any less deserving than its revered predecessor.

There's even less piano here than there was in 1992... in fact, I think there's no piano on here at all; the dominant sounds are Tom's beloved "poli-percussion" (aka Bang On Everything In Sight That Has The Ability To Resonate) and scratchy minimalistic guitar, courtesy of old-time collaborator Marc Ribot. That doesn't prevent the old wise guy from sounding sentimental and even tender whenever he wants to - if you want heart-bursting balladeering, there's plenty of it on here. But you sure can tell this ain't gonna be another Alice for you. This is something far more brutal. The big innovative touch is that Waits is borrowing some elements of contemporary trendiness, moderately (on some tracks, less than moderately) employing beatboxes, turntables, sampling, and other big-time gadgetry that I'm no expert on but which obviously gives the sound a colder and scarier sheen. On top of this - or should I say at the bottom of this, because that's what it often looks like? - is Tom's own voice, very often just another bubbling droning instrument in the mix rather than the means for carrying a lyrical message.

This is best seen on the opening number, I guess. We're all used to Tom's Grand Openers, but after songs like 'Big In Japan' or 'Earth Died Screaming', 'Top Of The Hill' comes across as little more than a cutesy musical joke. You can't even make out the repetitive refrain, let alone the verses; but then again, if you could, it wouldn't make much sense either. And the music? A sort of ploddering country-rock shuffle from Venus, or a mixture of a generic drum'n'bass pattern with a monotonous, but hypnotizing blues guitar line, you can call it what you want, I call it bizarr-licious. It isn't philosophical, but it's... well... carnivalesque, I guess, which is only suitable for such an active circus-lover as Tom Waits is.

However, it is also quite deceptive, because overall, the album is anything but a carnival. Already the second track, 'Hoist That Rag', is Tom's dirty-and-dreary take on a sea shanty filtered through bloody shreds of Ribot's guitar and weird rhythms that border on gypsy muzak, calypso, and God knows what else, with more feedback than your kitten can stomach and almost as much hidden sense to discover as in the average briefing of a Pentagon representative. 'God used me as hammer boys to beat his weary drum today' - is that supposed to be anti-war? Or just a matter of coincidence? The latter seems hardly probable because there are obscure references to the same subject all over the place... obscure, that is, until you reach the last track, 'Day After Tomorrow', which is structured like a homeward letter from an American soldier, after which all of your suspicions really begin to ring true.

'Smack dab in the middle of a dirty lie/The star spangled glitter of his one good eye/Everybody knows that the game was rigged/Justice wears suspenders and a powdered wig' - I don't know what you make of these lines, but I sure know what I make of them. But more important than that, they're taken from the album's best song, 'Sins Of My Father', which, coincidentally, happens to be the longest track ever on a Tom Waits album (over ten minutes!) - and yet I had no idea until I looked at the CD player meter, and I even suppose Tom himself had no idea until the engineer told him. It's... well, it's a piece of slow blues with a slight Jamaican accent. Like every piece of slow blues with a little self-respect, it's so repetitive that the one "dangling" guitar line it is based upon will probably ring in your ears long after the album is over, like a tinnitus effect or something. But it's totally haunting, and, in this particular case, its length only emphasizes its grandness. We probably have Ribot to thank for this effect, not Tom himself - but let's not be petty here. Grand is grand.

That said, 'Sins Of My Father' only barely wins my highest favour in the light of the more "experimental" numbers on here; in fact, I find myself constantly torn between admiring the odd, but not always emotionally-packed sonic barbarisms of songs like 'Shake It' or 'Metropolitan Glide' and the more straightforward, but always heart-wrenching "conservative" tunes like 'Dead And Lovely' and 'How's It Gonna End'. It almost seems like the better Tom is getting at these old-man-confessionals (which is understandable, since he's not exactly getting younger himself), the more he exerts himself to "keep up" with the violent innovations, as if he were holding a fair competition between his two sides. A thing like 'Baby Gonna Leave Me', for instance, is easily his "least listenable" number to-date, leaving 'Going Out West' far behind and even beating 'Eyeball Kid' - while we're on the war subject, I would definitely recommend blasting this one out at full volume upon setting out to storm Al-Fallujah. Sure there will be casualties among freedom fighters as well, but ours is a higher immunity. After all, we're the Anastacia generation. :)

Any disappointments? Well, actually, I'm not a big fan of 'Day After Tomorrow'. It's a pretty (and sad) conclusion, but it's nowhere near as well defined as Tom's previous uplifting codas of the 'Come On Up To The House' variety. It almost sounds like something Bruce Springsteen could write. Or maybe Dylan in his early "protest" phase. It's a gesture, for sure, but not a very good song. Also, 'Circus' is almost as blandly entertaining as the title suggests - it's a spoken piece, along the lines of 'What's He Building' but without the intrigue of the latter, where Tom could really get you all riled up about the perspectives of learning what exactly the He is building out there; 'Circus' has no intrigue, it's more like a bit of an interlude between the album's two halves.

But when we're dealing with seventy-two minutes of material, it's really not that important, you know. What is important is that Real Gone is real cool. It rocks, it clatters, it samples, it grates, it coughs, it expectorates, it makes subtle political comment, it clenches the heart - in other words, everything you could ever expect from a first-rate Tom Waits album. The melodies may not be first-rate, but neither were they in 1973; the important thing, as on every good blues record, is the uniqueness of the vibe, and since it's impossible for even the most casual listener not to listen to fifteen seconds off every track on here without screaming 'Oh my God, he's back again, run for cover!', we'll just have to acknowledge that the uniqueness is still here. And I guess the more people Tom Waits is able to send looking for the smelling salts, the stronger Tom Waits it is. Like good French cheese.


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