Saturday, December 10, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 346: Tom Waits

I've got one hell of sinus infection today, and sitting at the computer is not good for it. But the Odyssey doesn't take time out for sinus infections. If I'm going to get through this thing, I need to keep plugging away. So here goes another...

Disc 346 is...Heartattack And Vine

Artist: Tom Waits

Year of Release: 1980

What’s Up With The Cover?: This is one of those covers that would be so much cooler on vinyl. The cover is designed to look like a newspaper, with the articles being the song titles, and the stories underneath the lyrics. I'd love to have this on vinyl, but I think it is still a good one on CD.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila and I have been heavily into Tom Waits for many years now, and this one was just me drilling through his collection. I believe we got "Heartattack And Vine" comparatively late, but we've probably had it a good ten years anyway.

How It Stacks Up: Very well. This album surprised me with how good it was. I'd say it is just out of the elite records, but still top half of our now 19 Tom Waits records at around 7th or 8th.

Rating: 4 stars.

"It's too early for the circus, it's too late for the bars."

This line, from "Savin' All My Love For You" thematically sums up 1980's "Heartattack And Vine." Excepting the "One From The Heart" soundtrack he does with Crystal Gayle in 1982, this is the last record of Waits' 'barroom' period. By 1983, Waits will be fully into his weird circus phase with "Swordfishtrombone."

The first signs of the strange song arrangements and wacky percussion that will come later are present on "Heartattack And Vine" but the band is still playing the songs pretty straight. It is an album that if recorded by Waits today would likely sound completely different. I don't think it would necessarily be better, though: unlike a lot of Tom Waits' fans, I like his early bluesy barroom period equally as much as the circus music he has since switched to.

Maybe it is because I like both styles, but "Heartattack And Vine" had a strong appeal for me on this listen. It has the best of both worlds. I do have some minor quibbles, in particular the muted use of the organ on a few songs. In later music, Waits' will make the organ sound like it is coming straight from hell, but on this record it is just kind of there. I wanted it to contribute to the weird, or go away. As it is, it just sounds a bit like a cheesy jazz club.

That said, the bass and drums are also played straight, and really work to give a low groove to every song. Waits' raspy whisky-laden voice is excellent on this album, and he shows surprising range for a guy who is never going to set the world on fire with his singing. At the end of the day, I wouldn't want anything other than the organ changed.

Lyrically, this is one of Waits' stronger records, as he delves into his usual rogue's gallery of derelicts, drunks, womanizers and loveable losers. Here are a few of my favourite lines, first from the title track:

"Boney's high on china white. Shorty found a punk
Don't you know there ain't no devil? There's just God when he's drunk
Well this stuff will probably kill you, let's do another line
What you say you meet me down on Heartattack and Vine?"

And these from "'Til The Money Runs Out":

Can't you hear the thunder? Someone stole my watch
I sold a quart of blood and bought a half a pint of scotch.

Waits captures the ill-considered lifestyles of the down and out with just a few lines and a couple of specific images, letting his listeners fill in the rest of the grime and dirt from our imaginations.

Although the whole album has a bluesy feel, the songs have a lot of range within the genre, with a good mix of up-tempo songs about excess and bad choices ("Heartattack And Vine," "Downtown," "'Til The Money Runs Out") and sombre slow numbers about lost love and regret ("Saving All My Love For You," "Jersey Girl," Ruby's Arms").

The only song that failed to impress was the instrumental, "In Shades." Even then it isn't that the song is bad, only that it doesn't really go anywhere sufficient to hold my attention. The other eight songs (yes, this album is nicely restrained at nine tracks) are all excellent, and hold up on their own, and connect well to each other when you listen to the record straight through.

In short, this record is a winner, and if you like early Tom Waits, this is a must-have. If you only want to hear his later, more avant garde stuff this might not be a record for you, although even then it will give you a good perspective on how that sound grew naturally out of his earlier, more traditional music.

Best tracks: Heartattack And Vine, Downtown, Jersey Girl, 'Til The Money Runs Out, On The Nickel, Ruby's Arms

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