Friday, February 26, 2010

CD Odyssey Disc 98: Tom Waits

As we close in on the 100th CD Odyssey review, the dice seem to be favouring the seventies. That's cool with me - I was born in the seventies, man!

Disc 98 is...Blue Valentine

Artist: Tom Waits

Year of Release: 1978

How I Came To Know It: This album is just Sheila and I drilling through the Tom Waits' collection (we love him). I first got to know him through Closing Time, reviewed back at Disc 40.

How It Stacks Up: We just recently got another Tom Waits album and now have 17. Of those 17, I'd say this one is nearer the bottom of the list - maybe 12th. However, Tom Waits is consistently good, so this is not a bad thing.

Rating: 3 stars.

This record is near the end of Tom Wait's early period, where he basically sang bluesy folk songs about everyday life. It is the kind of music you always dream you'll hear in a smokey bar, but never seem to.

"Blue Valentine" musically isn't all that interesting, although it is solid. A lot of the songs are just really simple piano arrangements, with that gravelly voice that is instantly recognizeable as Tom Waits. It is one of those voices (like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan) that you either love or hate. I love it, although it is a lot like single malt scotch - you have to drink it in a few times before you truly appreciate it.

These songs are really focused on the ordinary lives of the down and out, which Tom Waits makes interesting with incredible phrasing, language and jarring images that paint pictures for the ears.

I was particularly struck by how Tom Waits can get you engaged in a song with a snappy opening line. For example, from "Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis""

"Hey Charlie I'm pregnant
and living on 9th street."

Or in "$29.00" which begins:

"Little black girl in a red dress
on a hot night with a broken shoe."

And my personal favourite from "Wrong Side of the Road":

"Put a dead cat on the railroad tracks
When the wolfbane's blooming by the tressel
And get the eyeball of a rooster
And the stones from a ditch
And wash 'em down with bilge water
And say you'll never snitch"

When you hear stuff like this, you have no idea where these songs are going to go, but you definitely want to find out.

Along that path of discovery, you'll meet delinquent children jumping off of rooftops, junkie hookers writing letters from jail (see above), and a local gangster named Romeo that is so tough he leans on his car and bleeds to death from a gunshot wound to the chest - just to show that he's cool enough to take it.

As usual, Waits paints a weird bunch of oddballs and misfits for us, and we appreciate it because these are stories we want to be able to tell, but we are too wise or afraid to experience firsthand.

And even after you know how each song is going to end, you still want to pull it off the shelf every once in a while, and here it all over again. Good stories just don't get old, and Tom Waits tells a good story. And while "Blue Valentine" isn't his best album, it is certainly him at his storytelling best.

Best tracks: Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis, Romeo Is Bleeding, Wrong Side of the Road, Kentucky Avenue, Whistlin' Past the Graveyard

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