Wednesday, November 7, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 455: Tom Waits

I have some chores to do at some point tonight, but rather than get them out of the way first, I’ve decided to turn such a Puritanical notion on its head.  First I’ll engage in a writing for pleasure, and when I’m done I’ll turn my focus to the things that ‘need doing.’

And on that note, dear reader, I give you the next review.

Disc 455 is… Mule Variations
Artist: Tom Waits

Year of Release: 1999

What’s up with the Cover?  A dark and troubled Tom Waits fades into the grey backwash of our imagination, but he still looks back and fixes us with his gaze.  This cover perfectly captures Tom’s unique blend of intimate and the strange rolled into one.

How I Came To Know It:  I’d known Tom Waits since back in the early nineties, but I didn’t get this album until much later after my appreciation for him had been re-invigorated by both Sheila and my friend Casey.  I bought “Mule Variations” as I was drilling through his catalogue.

How It Stacks Up:  We have 19 Tom Waits albums.  Of those 19 few can approach the mastery that is “Mule Variations.”  There are three or four that come close, but at the end of the day I’ve got to declare – Tina Turner-like – that “Mule Variations is simply the best, and better than all the rest.

Rating:  5 stars

When an artist has a career that spans nearly forty years you can usually expect a growth in musical style.  “Mule Variations” captures some of the best examples of all of Tom Waits various styles in a single record.

Here you’ll get echoes of Waits’ folksy beginnings with songs like the melancholy “House Where Nobody Lives” and the romantic “Picture in a Frame.”  These songs could fit just as easily on 1973’s “Closing Time” as they do here.

The best of this particular genre however is “Hold On.”  “Hold On” is one of my favourite songs ever, regardless of artist.  My MP3 player only holds about 400 songs, but despite the thousands of tracks competing for space, I’ve never removed it, and don’t see that changing any time soon.  This is a song that grabs me by the heart from the first strum of the Knopfler-like guitar and never lets go.  It is a song that always reminds me that life can throw a lot of curve balls, and sometimes just holding on is victory enough

Beyond how it makes me feel, “Hold On” is also a wonderful narrative of a love that on the surface is defeated by both time and distance, but that down deep will never die so long as the divided couple decide in their hearts that it won’t.  Waits captures the love of the downtrodden with his usual flair for imagery:

“Well, he gave her a dimestore watch
And a ring made from a spoon
Everyone is looking for someone to blame
But you share my bed, you share my name
Well, go ahead and call the cops
You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops
She said baby, I still love you
Sometimes there’s nothin’ left to do

“But you got to
Hold on, hold on.”

The descriptors of the absent woman make her come alive in your mind, with fantastic turns of phrase.  Hearing about this woman “with charcoal eyes and Monroe hips” and a “broken-china voice” makes me not only imagine her; it makes me want to date her.

The production on these songs is big and soft around the edges, with that room-filling quality you get from Daniel Lanois at his best.  It isn’t Lanois, however, just Waits and his long-time partner in life and song, Kathleen Brennan.  In fact, I wonder how Waits would fare without Brennan’s muse.  On “Mule Variations” she co-writes twelve of the sixteen tracks, and she’s obviously a big part of his continued inspiration.  For Tom Waits fans everywhere: thank you, Kathleen.

Waits is also a master of the re-imagined blues song, and once again “Mule Variations” delivers some of his best work.  “Get Behind the Mule” is to an honest day’s work what “Hold On” is to a true love; you’ve got to just keep plugging away, and damned the obstacles – emotional, physical or otherwise.  “Cold Water” revisits Waits’ well-worn theme of the lives of the truly down and out.  In this case, the cold water is being splashed into a bum’s face by the police, as he awakens in a jail cell.  Again, the great turn of phrase paints an entire life in a single stanza:

“Blind or crippled
Sharp or dull
I’m reading the Bible
by a 40 watt bulb.
What price freedom
Dirt is my rug
Well I sleep like a baby
With the snakes and the bugs.”

And for those who’ve read my earlier Waits reviews like “Swordfishtrombone” LINK will remember that in the eighties he developed a sound all his own; a weird circus of percussion and bizarre topics over which he floats a raspy melody.  Again, “Mule Variations” doesn’t disappoint, delivering some great ‘weird circus’ work, starting with the opening track “Big in Japan” which sounds like a mad and drunken boast, yet somehow within that exaggeration it paints an amazing picture of the character behind it.  

Later Waits will take it one step weirder with the catchy “Filipino Box Spring Hog” a song that makes you feel like you need a shower, partly because the song’s title meat is “basted with a sweeping broom” and partly because you can’t get Kathleen’s ‘criminal underwear bra” out of your head either.

And although not as good a song, “Eyeball Kid” – a song about a kid that is nothing more than an eyeball – is so strange it demands your attention, and at least one throwaway line in this music review.

Waits delivers high quality folk, blues, rock and roll and even one of the finest spoken word pieces he’s ever done (the masterful ode to nosey neighbours, “What’s He Building?”) and wraps it all up into a three ring circus.  Despite ranging across every style he knows – including a few he invented himself – the record shifts gears as seamlessly as a sports car hugging a mountain road.  By the time it ends with the old-time religion inspired, “Come on up To the House” you feel you’ve already seen every room in Waits’ considerable musical mansion.

If you don’t have any Tom Waits and are wondering where to start, I highly recommend “Mule Variations.”  It is a little long at sixteen songs, but I can forgive this minor transgression; it had a lot of ground to cover and does it with nary a mis-step. 

Best tracks:  I like all the tracks, but favourites include Big in Japan, Hold On, Get Behind the Mule, House Where Nobody Lives, Cold Water, What’s He Building?, and Filipino Box Spring Hog

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