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Old 10-28-2021, 07:35 PM   #11 (permalink)
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No, the review is all on one screen. No scrolling required.

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Originally Posted by Trollheart View Post
Rating: 9.6/10
Oh I see the problem. You're drunk.
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Old 10-28-2021, 08:59 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Oh come on! You don't think Nighthawks rocks? I love that album. It was one of the first of his I heard.
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Old 10-29-2021, 02:36 PM   #13 (permalink)
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If one album set out to slay the beast that his rampant alcholism had become, it was his fourth album, third studio, Small Change, released in 1976. Waits has said of that time, “I was beginning to think there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. This was me saying cut that shit out.”

Featuring some songs which would go on to become standards of his, and turning out to be one of his most favoured albums, Small Change upped the ante for Waits, and was the point at which he began experimenting with sounds, moving away from the usual instruments and arrangements, like the doleful title track, which is backed solo by a saxophone, or the irreverent “Pasties and a G-string”, which has nothing in it but percussion.

Small Change (1976)



Waits is one of those rare performers who totally polarises opinion: you either love him to death, or you hate him and think he's overrated. There is no middle ground. It's a rare person who will say “I could listen to a few Waits tracks, but I don't like most of his music”. Similarly, his fans love everything he does, and again it's rare you'll hear someone who likes his music say “Oh yeah, but that album was AWFUL!” Which is weird in a way, as fans of most artists will have their reservations about certain of their heroes' works; there will be albums they like and ones they don't often listen to, but even when Waits puts out sub-standard (for him) material, it's generally recognised as still being streets ahead of anything else.

Small Change is mostly regarded as the zenith of his “early period”, up to the mid-to-late seventies. After this, Waits' music changed, and became (if possible) weirder and more off-the-wall. That said, this should in no way be seen as a “typical” Waits album, (if indeed such a thing exists!) as virtually every time he released something he went in a new direction, and still does. But as an introduction to the man and his works, it's not a bad place to start.

Heavily influenced by jazz and blues, and often with only one instrument (piano, sax, bass) backing his gravelly voice, it's a melancholy ride with occasional smirks, both at himself and at America, and deals rather intensively with the subject of alcoholism, a condition Waits was certainly familiar with. No two tracks are the same, but every one has something to say.

Kicking off with “Tom Traubert's Blues”, a short piano and string passage introduce the song before Waits' eating-gravel-for-breakfast-voice makes its mark on the song. It's loosely based around the old Australian traditional song “Waltzing Matilda”, and tells the tale of a man staggering from place to place, a bottle in his hand, sorrow and pain in his heart. ”I'm an innocent victim/ Of a blinded alley/ And I'm tired of all these strangers here/ No-one speaks English/ And everything's broken.” It's actually a beautiful ballad, and was as you may know covered reasonably competently by Rod Stewart (where annoying DJs persisted in calling it “Waltzing Matilda”!), and like a lot of Waits songs, it hasn't really got a clear verse-chorus-verse structure, although the [/i]”Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda/ You'll go waltzting Matilda with me”[/i] sort of forms the chorus, as such.

The song, like most of Waits' work, features some amazing lyrics: ”And it's a battered old suitcase/ To a hotel someplace/ And a wound that will never heal” that really pull you into the song, and into the mindset of the main character. In many ways, Small Change itself is a mini-opera, a drama set to music, a million stories in the naked city, and we listen as the various characters weave in and out of the songs (often with a bottle or glass in hand), telling their tales of woe, and stagger off into the dirty, garbage-strewn night.

“Step Right Up” is a complete departure next, carried on upright bass, minimal percussion and sax, as Waits takes the part of a street barker, hawking his wares to anyone he can pull in. ”Step right up, step right up/ Everyone's a winner/ Bargains galore!” The frankly ludicrous claims made by him for “the product” - ”It forges your signature/ Entertains visiting relatives/ Turns a sandwich into a banquet/ Walks your dog/ Helps you quit smoking...” - are clearly his swipe at the way these often crappy products are talked up by their sellers, culminating in the ultimate ”It finds you a job/ It IS a job!” and at the end he warns ”You got it buddy:/ The large print giveth/ And the small print taketh away!”

Then it's on to another ballad, and another character enters the play, as the “Jitterbug Boy” tells of his adventures: ”Cos I've slept with the lion/ And Marilyn Monroe/ Had breakfast in the eye/ Of a hurricane.” The song, like the vast majority on this album, is mostly carried on a simple piano melody, and like most of Waits' material, it's his incredibly distinctive voice that shapes the song. It's of course very American-based in the lyric: ”Got drunk with Louis Armstrong/ What's that old song?/ I taught Micky Mantle everything he knows.” When I first heard this I had no idea who Micky Mantle was! Didn't stop my enjoyment of the song though.

Things stay slow then for a piano and string driven ballad, one of Waits' finest, “I Wish I Was in New Orleans”. Waits tends to often use a lot of popular (at the time) culture references and even nursery rhymes in his lyrics, as here he sings ”I can hear a band begin/ 'When the saints go marchin' in'/ By the whiskers on my chin.” He also tends to namecheck places, streets, establishments in his songs, as here: ”All along down Burgundy” and ”Then Claiborne Avenue/ Me and you”.

His ballads are occasionally satirical, and once in a while downright funny, as in the case of the next track up, the hilariously titled “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”, in which he does bad piano as only a great pianist can, hitting wrong notes just at the right time, creating a discord and dissonance that is entirely crafted and intended. Though the skewed piano playing is funny, the real laughs are in the lyric. Check the opening lines: ”The piano has been drinking/ My necktie is asleep/ And the combo went back to New York/ The jukebox has to take a leak/ The carpet needs a haircut/ And the spotlight looks like a prison break/ And the telephone's out of cigarettes/ Balcony is on the make.” Genius!

And still the mood stays slow, but returning to the real world, there is no humour, intended or otherwise, in “Invitation to the Blues”. Again carried on a lone piano melody, it's the tale of broken-down people and wounded hearts: ”You wonder if she might be single/ She's alone and likes to mingle/ Gotta be patient, try to pick up a clue.” Good sax in here too, adding a real jazz-haunt vibe to the song. Like most of the songs on Small Change, the lyric in this is primarily concerned with the damage alcohol abuse does, and the shattered wrecks it makes of people's lives.

The next track is another maverick, with absolutely nothing but Waits' voice behind percussion, as he describes the goings-on at a strip club, in “Pasties and a G-string”, where men come to ”Get a little somethin'/ That you can't get at home.” It's quite an amazing song, never heard anything like it. It's followed by “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”, which uses the basic melody of “As time goes by” from Casablanca, and is again a slow song if not an actual ballad, and again concerned with alcoholism: ”Got a bad liver and a broken heart/ I drunk me a river since you tore me apart/ I don't have a drinkin' problem/ 'cept when I can't get a drink.” It's a real story of a guy who knows he's sinking fast, but since his heart is broken he doesn't really care. Another carried on a single piano melody, with some great lyrics: ”No the moon ain't romantic/ It's intimidating as hell/ And some guy's trying to sell me a watch/ So I'll meet you at the bottom of a bottle/ Of bargain scotch”. Not to mention ”Hey what's your story?/ Well I don't even care!/ Cos I got my own double-cross to bear.” Like I said before, genius...

Another stripped-down track follows, with just an upright bass and sax for company, “The One That Got Away” is a real finger-clicker, despite the lack of instrumentation, or even proper melody. It's a story, prose told to a semi-musical background. It's almost a slow rap. Before there ever was rap. Then we're into the title track, another of the same and carried almost entirely on tenor sax, with Waits relating the aftermath of the gunning-down of small-time criminal Small Change who ”Got rained on with his own 38”, and you can just picture him lighting up another cigarette as he leans against a lamppost in the half-light, collar pulled up against the chill, as he remarks without surprise ”No-one's gone over to close his eyes.” It's just accepted as one of those things that happen here, every day, and people ignore it, go on with their lives. ”His headstone's a gumball machine/ No more chewing-gum or baseball cards/ Or overcoats or dreams.” The only mourner at his street funeral is the sax player, and hey, it's his job. Nothin' personal.

The album closes on another ballad, the tale of a guy working in a store after closing time, sweeping the floors and dreaming of seeing his girl after work. We'll all be familiar with the sentiments behind “I Can't Wait to Get Off Work”, and it's another piano-driven song, perhaps finishing the album on a low-key note, but with a certain amount of hope, as the character here has at least found gainful employment, has his girl and some money in his pocket.

TRACK LISTING

1. Tom Traubert's Blues (Nine Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)
2. Step Right Up
3. Jitterbug Boy (Sharing a Kerbstone with Check E. Weiss, Robert Marchese, Paul Body, and the Mug and Artie)
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)

Rating: 9.9/10
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Last edited by Trollheart; 10-29-2021 at 02:57 PM.
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Old 10-29-2021, 02:56 PM   #14 (permalink)
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No rating?

This was absolutely one of his better ones. Invitation to the Blues will cut your heart out.

"Mercy mercy Mr. Percy, there ain't nothing back in Jersey, 'cept a broken down jalopy,
of a man I left behind." Put it on in a thunderstorm and you can summon your demons from every lost love.

Step right up, Pasties and a G-string, Piano has been drinking, One that got away. One absolute banger after another!

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Originally Posted by Trollheart View Post
Oh come on! You don't think Nighthawks rocks? I love that album. It was one of the first of his I heard.
It's amazing. A 9.6 though? Again, it's not a Top 3. There's no room at the top, man.
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Old 10-29-2021, 03:01 PM   #15 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by TheBig3 View Post
No rating?
Sorry I was editing it - it kind of came in two parts. The rating is up now.
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This was absolutely one of his better ones. Invitation to the Blues will cut your heart out.

"Mercy mercy Mr. Percy, there ain't nothing back in Jersey, 'cept a broken down jalopy,
of a man I left behind." Put it on in a thunderstorm and you can summon your demons from every lost love.
Couldn't agree more. I think it made me cry the first time I heard it.
Quote:
Step right up, Pasties and a G-string, Piano has been drinking, One that got away. One absolute banger after another!
Hardly a bad track on it. Could maybe do without the closer and "The One That Got Away", but even so...
Quote:

It's amazing. A 9.6 though? Again, it's not a Top 3. There's no room at the top, man.
Meh, it has a lot of good memories for me. First time I heard him do his patois, and that really cemented my love for him. Not just a singer, but a raconteur too. It's a personal thing. Others might not rate it as high, but it's always going to have a dark, beer-soaked, sweaty corner in my heart that will forever be left ready for it whenever it wants to come and stay.
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Old 10-30-2021, 08:22 PM   #16 (permalink)
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Are you planning to go out a decimal point? Like a 9.982?

I am interested to see what latter day album I don't like get rated. I'm waiting for that with a giddy excitement.
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Old 10-30-2021, 08:41 PM   #17 (permalink)
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No, my decimal points are two at most and that's just how I likes 'em!

I think you'll find (spoiler alert!) that my highest ratings will be given to his 70s and 80s material. While I have no problem with later stuff, some of the albums don't impress me as much as the earlier ones, though of course even a "bad" Waits album is still far ahead of most other artists' work. There may be some surprises....
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Old 10-30-2021, 09:44 PM   #18 (permalink)
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This then takes us to 1977 and his fifth studio album, where everything changed as Waits assumed a film-noir aspect for the album, and invited the great Bette Midler to contribute. It's not, to be fair, one of his better albums in my opinion, and suffers from some weak tracks, but there are some pretty stupendous ones there to make you forget those ones.

Foreign Affairs (1977)

The first Waits album to open with an instrumental, and that being in fact only the second such, “Cinny's Waltz” is a nice laidback piano tune with slowly rising strings halfway through and finished with a fine sax solo, taking us into “Muriel”, one of the below-par tracks I spoke about earlier. Opening on a piano line similar to some of the introductions on Nighthawks, it's a slow blues ballad with Waits in reflective mood, in tone slightly like “Martha” but much gentler, with again nice trumpet and sax accompanying Waits on the piano. It's only when the song ends that we realise Waits is just muttering about the woman into his beer, as he slurs ”Hey buddy/ Got a light?” One of the standouts is next though, and while it's sandwiched between two pretty poor tracks in my estimation, nothing can dull the power of Waits and Midler together, hissing at each other like alleycats and eventually going home together. Midler is the perfect foil for Waits as she sneers “I Never Talk to Strangers”, and he tries to hit on her. The song begins with her ordering a Manhattan, then Waits's drunken slur as he sidles up to her and sing ”Stop me if you've heard this one” and her snapping ”Did you really think I'd/ Fall for that old line?/ I was not born just yesterday.” The music is again slow and bluesy as she retorts ”You're life's a dime store novel/ This town's full of guys like you” and Waits snaps back ”You're bitter cos he left you/ That's why you're drinkin' in this bar” and they duet on the next line ”Well only suckers fall in love/ With perfect strangers.” At the end of course, they realise they're more alike than they would have preferred to have admitted.

I really don't like “Jack and Neal/California Here I Come”, and really I have to say that only the first part of that sentence is true, as the latter is a cover of the old song, only a few moments of it. But the sax-driven diatribe about Jack and Neal trying to buy ”From a Lincoln full of Mexicans” just doesn't do it for me. It's one of those travelogues he became known for, but unlike the ones on the previous album it just seems like it's missing something. Maybe it's the fact that there's no real tune or melody, just Waits talking over the sax and bass. As I say it then goes into “California Here I Come” at the end, but as far as I'm concerned they're welcome to it. Waits returns to his usage of nursery rhymes for “A sight for Sore Eyes”, though the actual tune eludes me. I know I've heard it before, just can't pin it down.

The song concerns a guy coming back to his hometown and looking for his old mates, but they've all either married, moved on or come to an unfortunate end. It opens with a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” before Waits in the role of the returning prodigal shows off his riches - ”Have you seen my new car?/ It's bought and it's paid for/ Parked outside of the bar.” - but finds few of his old cronies there to brag to. He meets someone though who tells him ”The old gang ain't around/ Everyone has left town” as the piano carries the tune in that maddeningly-familiar-but-elusive melody. Eager to spread the wealth and show how he's risen in the world he tells the barman ”Keep pouring drinks/ For all these palookas” as he listens to the stories of what's happened to all the old gang: ”No she's married with a kid/ Finally split up with Sid/ He's up north for a nickel's worth/ For armed robbery.”

The longest song on the album is next, and it's an odd one. Riding on a mournful clarinet courtesy of Gene Cipriano with an orchestral introduction, it's the first one I've seen yet where Waits doesn't write his own music, this being created by Bob Alcivar and his orchestra. Waits again more or less speaks the vocal as he narrates the tale of “Potter's Field”, which it seems holds a dark secret. ”Whiskey keeps a blind man talkin' all right” he remarks, adding with a knowing wink and no doubt a tip of an empty glass, ”And I'm the only one who knows/ Where he stayed last night.” It seems to be about a convict on the run, and the music builds up to crescendos of almost forties detective-movie style. Like waves the music rises and falls, punctuated by the bass and the whining clarinet. It's quite a work of art. It comes to something of a climax when he warns ”If you're mad enough to listen/ To a full of whiskey blind man/ You be down at the ferry landing/ Oh, let's say half past a nightmare/ And you ask for Captain Charon/ With the mud on his kicks/ He's the skipper of the deadline steamer/ And it sails from the Bronx/ Across the River Styx!”

But my favourite on the album by a long way is next, and I've written a lot about “Burma-shave” before, so let me just say that it's the tale of a girl who hitches a ride with a stranger out of her one-horse hometown, only to end up dying with him when the car takes a spill on the freeway and crashes into a truck. The music is sad and mournful, almost all piano solo, as if the musician knows what is going to befall the young rebel girl and her new beau. It's so driven by piano alone that it's actually a little jarring when the sax outro comes in, but it fits in well. It's a touching and tragic song, and yet Waits sings it almost with a shrug, as if this sort of thing happens all the time, which it probably does. For every starry-eyed dreamer who makes it out of Nowheresville, USA, there are probably ten who decorate the sides of the road to freedom in wooden crosses or lie in unmarked graves along its length.

Waits being Waits, the next track is based entirely on a bassline with some drums, as Waits visits the barber and has one of those conversations people used to have when they were getting their hair cut but don't seem to bother with any more. “Barber Shop” is great fun and a real exercise in how it doesn't have to take ten instruments and multitracking to make a great song. It's very interesting, and something I never noticed before, that there is no guitar at all on this album. Bass yes, but no lead or even rhythm guitar. The album ends on the title track, a sumptuous piano ballad with attendant strings. It harks back to “Burma-shave” as he sings ”You wonder how you ever fathomed/ That you'd be content/ To stay within the city limits/ Of a small midwestern town.” It's a song of wanderlust without any real direction or target as he says ”The obsession's in the chasing/ And not the apprehending.” It's a really nice relaxing way to close an album which is far from his best, but shines with some real gems.

TRACK LISTING

1. Cinny's Waltz
2. Muriel
3. I Never talk to Strangers
4. Medley: Jack and Neal/California Here I Come
5. A Sight for Sore Eyes
6. Potter's Field
7. Burma-Shave
8. Barber Shop
9. Foreign Affair

When Waits was creating the album he envisaged a film-noir idea, which is certainly borne out on the sleeve and indeed within most of the tracks, which all retain a kind of forties feel to them, with the mention of Farley Granger in “Burma-shave”, Potter's Field harking back to It's a Wonderful Life (though whether that's intentional or not I don't know) and the barber shop, virtually disappeared now. It fits in well with Waits's kind of refusal to deal in the present and remain in his own gin-soaked world of Gene Crouper and Chuck E. Weiss, muttering about kids these days and dreaming of Cadillacs and Pontiacs. Eventually he would drag his feet protesting into the twentieth century (don't tell him it's now the twenty-first!) and open out his music to more modern sounds and techniques, but it would take time.

Waits is a man whom you take or leave: he ain't gonna change for no-one and no record executive is going to press him to write a hit single or use a famous producer on his albums. The grand old man of real music, Waits is a force to be reckoned with and a law unto himself, but when you have this amount of talent that's accepted. A maverick, a trend-avoider and always the guy stuck on the barstool in the corner, muttering to himself, laughed at until he sits at the piano and starts reeling off those sublime melodies, you could use the old cliche Tom Waits for no man, but we all wait to see what he comes up with next.

And what he came up with after this was... breathtaking.

Rating: 8.0/10
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Old 10-30-2021, 10:28 PM   #19 (permalink)
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Burma Shave, for me, was the only song worth spinning here. Lines like "Marysville ain't nothing but a wide spot in the road" just painted a great picture of the sort of town she's trying to leave.

"Anyway you point this things gotta beat the hell out of the sting, Of going to bed with every dream that dies here every morning."

Brutal. Without spoiling the ending, it's another heart-carver.
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Old 10-31-2021, 10:30 AM   #20 (permalink)
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It's not the greatest, and a poor follow-up to Small Change, but it has its moments. I like "Potter's Field" a lot (even though it's not his music) and "Barber Shop" always makes me grin. The interaction between him and Midler is class. But yeah, a lot of filler. Which is why it got such a low (!) rating.
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