on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2015 2 Jul


von: Ian McCartney Filed under: Blog | TB | 7 Comments

Title: Alice
Notes: This has long been my favourite Tom Waits record. Check out the layered word-magic of the opening track. There’s a lot ofwater: a pond, the sea, the ice in the drink, raindrops on the window, the ocean, the kiss, more ice. Contrast comes from the sepia-smokiness of the saxophone. Every track (especially the James Joyce-on-acid Modernism/Vorticism of Kommienezuspadt) is class. What is class? Oh, you’ll know it when you hear it.
Standouts: You could easily get lost in this one. It’s not so much an LP as cosmic psychic multiplex.
Title: Bad as Me
Notes: Three words in the middle of The Guardian’s review of this record sum it up: compassion, anger and sorrow.
Standouts: Too many to type out here. But New Year’s Eve demands a mention in particular for the way it incorporates the traditional composition Auld Lang Syne within the wider structure of the song. Robert Burns and Tom Waits under the same New Year’s sky. And no surname puns, either.
Title: The Black Rider
Notes: A distant cousin of Alice in that it was also (I believe) written for a stage play. The proscenium vibe just goes to concentrate attention on the lyrics and the playing. One minute there’s a saw being played, next minute there are faces in trees‘. The overall vibe is of a vividly-imagined Europe. But one that no European (at least, no 20th/21st century one) would be able to ideate. Difficult to apply terms – but for me it’s neo-classical opera but without any of the negative associations or shades of meaning that the term implies.
Standouts: November, Russian Dance, I’ll Shoot the Moon.
Title: Blood Money
Notes: I love this one but I can’t listen to it anymore – and haven’t in over 10 years. That’s not a pejorative statement: the record carved its spiral right into the inner ear. No need to go back. Another distant cousin of Alice (and The Black Rider) Blood Money was also written for a stage production, this time for Woyzeck. Never seen the other stage plays, but like you I’ve seen the Herzog film Woyzeck. And the hilarious documentary scene where Werner Herzog visits the (then) present occupants of a house he once lived in, someplace (Munich?) and the occupants are a well-heeled, conservative looking couple. And he goes on at length, and he is funny as fuck. As he was also in the BBC interview in Los Angeles when he gets shot at by someone with an air rifle, doesn’t flinch, says „we have to leave“ and an hour later reveals a wide, dark red wound to the BBC interviewer with the words „it was not a significant bullet“.
Standouts: [from memory] Coney Island Baby, Misery is the River of the World, God’s Away on Business, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Calliope, Knife Chase
Title: Blue Valentine
Notes: Some (few) records read like a novel, some (fewer) play like a movie. This is one of the latter. Obvz not a mega-millions linear narrative deal, but box office profit nonetheless. „I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings…“
Standouts: Whistlin‘ Past the Graveyard, Kentucky Avenue, title track
Title: Bone Machine
Notes: Demented, death-obsessed. Heartbroken: „How do your pistol and your Bible and your
Sleeping pills go? Are you still jumping out of windows in expensive clothes?“ The vocal personae are like acting roles or sculpture. This assuredly isn’t your run of the mill pop music. It’s got a holographic quality.
Standouts: The Earth Died Screaming, Dirt in the Ground, The Ocean, I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,
Title: Closing Time
Notes: Waits‘ debut is a thing of wonder. Infinitely listenable, it seems to be built from trad parts – a well-bashed piano, voice, strings, trumpet and so on. But it’s not trad at all – there’s a strong sense of psychoacoustics throughout – it’s like you’re in the same room as the singer, blue curls of cigarette smoke and the smell of hops. Some of the compositions here are fucking stunning. Lonely, for example, is Chicago house music avant la lettre. Despite being beatless. There’s a solidity to Closing Time, a charm, a weirdness. It’s unique.
Standouts: All of it.
Title: Foreign Affairs
Notes: Not one of my faves. Not really from a Waits period that I like much. But that’as not to say this is bad. Look at the way Waits can conjure up an entire universe in just a few seconds in Barber Shop. You can actually hear scissors on this, and if you concentrate you can smell stale cigar smoke and brilliantine. It’s kind of like a commentary on nothing. Fucking genius.
Standouts: Barber Shop.
Title: Franks Wild Years
Notes: Expansive, ambitious. A must-see sight for your itinerary is „I’ll Take New York“. Look at how the vocal is dwarfed by the instrumentation: especially the slightly threatening Coney Island organ. The whole thing is pure tragicomedy, the character drowning in false hope while traffic speeds past. For me, there is a touch of Varèse’s Amériques here – the vibe of the out of town guy arriving, and suddenly finding there’s as much to overwhelm and threaten as there is to aspire to.
Standouts: The above-mentioned, I’ll Be Gone, Innocent When You Dream, Train Song
Title: Heartattack and Vine
Notes: Some good songs, but the persona and the production don’t work for me. The arrangements are filmy when there could be field recordings instead of strings.
Standouts; On the Nickel, Jersey Girl.
Title: Heart of Saturday Night
Notes: Diamonds on my windshield is a wonder. Is it about Saturday night traffic or cosmology? You kind of get the feeling here that the diamonds are actually stars and the car is a warp-speed starfighter. Galaxies are merging.
Standouts: The above-mentioned.
Title: Mule Variations
Notes: There needs to be a word for stuff that is Gothic but without the vampire element. Cos this is it: creaky floorboards, cobwebs, cracked sky, broken moon. A beautiful work of art. A triumph. Genius. I love this record.
Standouts: Too many to type out.
Title: Rain Dogs
Notes: I like all of this. Except Downtown Train, for some reason.
Standouts: Cemetery Polka, Jockey Full of Bourbon, Rain Dogs, Anywhere I Lay My Head
Title: Real Gone
Notes: Is Hoist That Rag a protest song? I don’t think it is: it’s too good for that. Too universal. The album cover art does look like wet oil on dried blood though. Real Gone is a work of incredible beauty. It is full of intricacy and idiomatic glitch. Take song Top of the Hill for instance: kind of like if Micmacs had starred Benigni and been directed by Tony Scott in monochrome with occasional bursts of cartoon colour.
Title: Small change
Notes: Step Right Up still entertains. The shtick/persona/jazzteroid intrudes too much on the rest of it. Not really to my taste, this one.
Standouts: Step Right Up.
Title: Swordfishtrombones
Notes: I kind of view this as being the same record as Rain Dogs. There is a quantum leap between Heartattack and Vine and this. Suddenly, Waits is another artist with this. So much here that works brilliantly – the compulsively fascinating art house weirdness of Dave The Butcher, the car boot sale heartbreak of Soldier’s Things, and others.
Standouts: the above, plus Frank’s Wild Years, Swordfishtrombone, In the Neighborhood.

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  1. Michael Engelbrecht:

    At this point of my stay on earth MULE VARIATIONS is the one I would take to heaven cause as some of us guys might think with some good reason, well, heaven is a place where nothing really happens – without some good fuckin‘ gothic elements in that space.

  2. Michael Engelbrecht:

    SWORDFISHTROMBONES: lucky that guy who still has to discover this one, for example. Introducing some very strange and utterly beautiful sounds in the „art pop“ song world. Think I don’t have to be more specific about „utterly beautiful“ – twilight thrills fully guaranteed. All you RAIN DOGS, come in and join the party, this bar is called heaven.

  3. Michael Engelbrecht:

    If Steven Wilson would ever get the opportunity to make a sensurround 5:1-mix of BONE MACHINE (in high res), „the walls come tumbing down“ would not any longer be a metaphor, it would be neo-psycho-realism.

  4. Ian M:

    Listening to Tom Waits‘ catalogue in alphabetical order was illuminating. The thought of systematised listening would never have occurred to me, but ijb’s comment on Bowie’s ‚Heathen‘ made me realise that chronological listening isn’t the best way to get the full experience. About ten or more times during this exercise I was floored by just how fucking great Tom Waits‘ music is.

    Next up: Bob Dylan’s entire recorded output listened to in order of the predominant colour of the cover art, going from red to orange to blue to green to yellow to etc. Predominantly monochrome sleeve art will be excluded and saved for a Christmas special.

  5. Jochen:

    If there´s a jukebox in the bar called „Heaven“ I´d choose this one

  6. ijb:

    Very nice idea. I will re-do this sometime. My favourite one is probably Bone Machine, but I generally come back to Tom Waits‘ music frequently, with gaps in between, when I feel some of his (later) songs rest too much on one atmosphere instead of a captivating song structure.

    When Bowie’s last album was announced I listened to each and every one of his releases in chronological order, one year a day, which was actually quite a fascinating experience, because I generally like to experience an artist’s development. Another thing I just made for a friend a few weeks ago was to make a two-cd set with only the final track of every Bowie studio album or EP (up to the latest b-side from 2014, including things like „Volare“ from Absolute Beginners) in chronological order, which works surprisingly well as an career-spanning album, as it makes for some surprising connections and overlooked songs („Bang Bang“, „Heathen“, „Goodbye Mr Ed“…)

  7. Ian M:

    ijb – atmosphere versus structure. Interesting opposition.

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