Saturday, November 5, 2011

Compilation! "Tom Waits - Wasted and Wounded"


So Tom Waits has a new album out. Did you know? Oh, come on. Of course you know. For such a proudly 'non-commercial' artist, the proudly 'non-commercial' post-punk record label he currently calls home has certainly pulled out all the stops on marketing this one. And why? Does that mean they're expecting to turn a mighty profit from Tom Waits? There's certainly not much in almost forty years of professional work by this artist that would indicate such a thing is likely.

Jesus. Can it really be forty years? Yes, it can; Waits's début Closing Time came out in 1973, a remarkably long time ago now. So he must have a glut of retrospective compilations to his name, then, right? Well... no, as it happens. He's been compiled, yes, in a haphazard way down the years. But there's never been a compilation that spans his entire recorded output across the three record labels he's worked with, meaning there's never been a single compilation that looks back at more than a single decade or so of his work (with the sole exception of the odds-and-sods compilation Orphans, which is not at all what we're talking about here.

Apart from the whole 'who would buy it?' angle, I can kind of guess why this is. The three 'eras' of Tom Waits's career correspond not merely to record label affiliation but also to decade and to approximate musical genre. This 'Elektra Tom Waits' is seen as almost a different beast altogether to 'Island Tom Waits'. And 'Anti Tom Waits' serves as a kind of 'footnote' to the other two, this despite being the longest and most commercially successful of the three eras.

So I'm giving it a try. After all, the sonic templates may differ, the voice may regress year by year, but everything here is very clearly a singular vision, the work of one artist whose superficial ugliness belies a greater understanding and appreciation of beauty than almost anyone else out there. The nuts and bolts are this: an artist such as Tom Waits could never have a 'greatest hits' collection, but I've attempted both a subjective 'best of' and, in addition to that, a kind of down-the-years 'introduction' featuring his best-known songs. In many cases this means his best-known compositions, which might perhaps have been made famous after being covered by someone else. Though Waits himself has indulged in a handful of covers down the years, I've passed them over in favour of an all-original collection.

I make no attempt to dig through drawers and pull out curios. These are all 'album versions', taken from the standard issue versions of his main body of work. I tried to give each era approximately equal weight (and in fact if you consider the transitional soundtrack to One From the Heart as an 'Island era release', then I've included exactly twelve tracks from each of the three eras), but I didn't attempt to take from every album in his oeuvre and didn't worry about being overly well-rounded in stylistic range: I appear to have a very pronounced preference for the slower material, and my overall collection is noticeably slow in tempo.

Having said that, though, the album is more than adequately eclectic. So how to arrange it? Approaching the material in chronological order does little to 'integrate' the three eras - instead it presents three distinct 'greatest hits' collections stuck together on two CDs. And yet a purposefully mix-and-match approach would merely highlight the discrepancy between the piano-and-strings 'lounge lizard' early era and the rougher, more 'extreme' avant garde 1980s material. I actually spent a good long time working out a tracklist that went from era-to-era not in a jump-cut fashion but in a 'flowing' way, with mini-sets united by mood. In addition, there's a conscious attempt to frontload the package with those best-known tracks that the 'average consumer', if they know anything at all about Waits, is most likely to know.

In discussing inclusions, however, I'll be taking a chronological approach.

Note: in addition to a full tracklisting complete with original album cover and release details, I've included an embedded YouTube window to allow listening. So you can listen to this compilation in its entirety, but 36 embedded YouTube windows is a horrible strain on most browsers. To that end, I've hidden each CD tracklisting behind a 'spoiler tag'. Click on each CD in turn to hear its contents, and be warned that your browser might run a bit slow at first when you do so.
» Click here for the tracklisting of CD1, with embedded YouTube links. «

» Click here for the tracklisting of CD2, with embedded YouTube links. «


Waits's first 'proper' album was Closing Time in 1973, on David Geffen's Elektra Records, home of the California singer-songwriter, something the not-very-gravelly artist certainly was at this point. I've taken three tracks from this user-friendly disc, the well-known 'Ol' 55', its neighbour 'I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You' and the lesser-known gorgeous piano ballad 'Martha'. Demos recorded before this first major release and collected on 'Early Years' compilations are overlooked here for the reason that Waits himself doesn't appear to approve of their release. And if someone who embraces the ugly and the incidental as much as Waits doesn't want these tracks seen as part of his body of work, well we ought to respect that.

The 'last call' motif of that début album's title presents us with the key to Waits's 1970s output: the bar. Or perhaps the 'lounge' - Waits himself was a heavy drinker during these years, which no doubt contributed to the deterioration of his voice but also to the establishment of his main theme: bar culture, and the lives of those who populate them. The Heart of Saturday Night, Waits's 1974 follow-up, aims for a touch of vérité in its world-weary title track '(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night', while 'Shiver Me Timbers' maintains the confessional tone of the début. Both, it goes without saying, are gorgeous. A double-length follow-up recorded 'live' in a studio-cum-nightclub furthers the barfly theme, though I've taken nothing from it for inclusion here.

Small Change, from 1976, remains in all probability the peak of Waits's artistic accomplishment. 'Tom Traubert's Blues' may or may not be his best-known song, but all these years later it remains the single most effective introduction to the man, his most jaw-droppingly touching recording and in all likelihood his meisterwerk. I let it open the collection, a well-earned accolade for a truly incredible piece. 'Invitation to the Blues' similarly starts off my second disc, while for me the slightly-too-clever 'The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)' might be a step down in quality, though I'm clearly a minority here as regards another of Waits's 'signature pieces'.

1977's Foreign Affairs, the follow-up, is perhaps less notable, though I've found room for 'I Never Talk to Strangers', a highly evocative duet with Bette Midler taken straight out of a musical stage production that exists only in the minds of listeners. Released a year later, Blue Valentine features the spare guitar-only almost-title-track 'Blue Valentines' in addition to 'Romeo is Bleeding', one of only two spoken-word hipster epics that I've included. Heartattack and Vine, from 1980, would prove to be Waits's last album for Elektra, amid whisperings that Waits had lost it creatively and was content to coast along with a predictable formula. I find that hard to believe, frankly, and 'Jersey Girl', my final Elektra-era inclusion, is one of those classics that mine such a rare beauty that it seems ridiculous to grumble about sonic diversity.

Homeless between labels, Waits recorded a soundtrack on CBS for a Francis Ford Coppola film called One from the Heart, with Crystal Gayle as foil for a series of beauty-and-the-beast duets. From the 1982 release, I've included the opening track, a medley of three different compositions that carries a particularly cinematic mood, even while tied down to the traditional 1970s instrumentation Waits was inches away from shucking off, permanently. To give its name in full: 'Opening Montage (Tom's Piano Intro / Once Upon a Town / The Wages of Love)'.

Swordfishtrombones was not only Waits's first album for major/minor Island Records. It was also his first proper album of the 1980s (1983, to be precise) and the first of a trilogy that took up most of that decade. It was also his first 'avant garde' piece, a collection of tiny compositions buried beneath junkyard percussion and non-rock instrumentation. Weird, yes. An acquired taste, yes. But worth the effort? Yes, absolutely. From this second début I've taken the confrontational '16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six' and the jokey two-minute 'poetry reading' 'Frank's Wild Years'.

Rain Dogs was the follow-up two years later, in the same vein but in my eyes even better, with the Rod Stewart-covered pop evergreen 'Downtown Train' alongside the beautiful ballad 'Time' as two of fully nineteen tracks on a single vinyl album. The 'trilogy' wound up with 1987's Franks Wild Years, home to the much-covered 'Temptation' and 'Way Down in the Hole', which in later years would serve as theme song to an HBO show called The Wire. The album also contained two versions of one of Waits's most beautiful-ever songs. 'Innocent When You Dream (78)' is the second, album-concluding rendition, done up like an old vinyl recording but still timelessly gorgeous.

Another live album I've overlooked follows, and then Night on Earth, a 1992 soundtrack to a Jim Jarmusch film. From it I've taken the relatively brief 'Back in the Good Old World (Gypsy)'. The same year saw Waits's most heavily promoted Island-era release, Bone Machine, a well-received song collection from which I've taken the single 'Goin' Out West' and the much-covered 'I Don't Wanna Grow Up', two songs that hide their genuine feelings behind highly unconventional (i.e. 'weird') instrumentation, such as has become Waits's signature sound. 1993's The Black Rider, a studio version of a musical stage play, would be Waits's last release for six years and his last ever on Island. I've taken the atypically baroque 'The Briar and the Rose' from it.

It wouldn't be until 1999 that Tom Waits released a new album, on Bad Religion's Epitaph Records, or rather their Anti subsidiary. Defiantly indie at last, Waits put out Mule Variations, a critically-lauded album from which I've taken the midtempo ballad 'Hold On' and the lengthy blues song 'Get Behind the Mule' - in each case the instrumentation is just as rough and ragged as in the Island era, but the template is less self-consciously 'experimental'; the instrumentation strictly in service of these out-of-time songs.

Waits followed his 'comeback' in 2002 with two simultaneously-released albums that were in fact, like The Black Rider, studio recordings of stage projects, dating as far back a decade before. From Blood Money we've taken the 'single' 'God's Away on Business', which returns a bit to the Bone Machine Island era, and the softer 'Coney Island Baby', which could have been recorded in the 17th century, if they had had recording media at the time. From Alice, the other 2002 collection, I've taken two gorgeous ornate and terribly sad ballads, 'Alice' and 'Poor Edward', desolate and desperate songs of a rare beauty.

2004 saw Real Gone, a surprisingly guitar-based collection. From it, I've taken the delicate ballad 'Dead and Lovely', and a rather surprising seven-minute political piece called 'Day After Tomorrow', a touching heartfelt piece from an artist whose concerns have tended to be interpersonal rather than international. A 3CD 'grab-bag' collection of older pieces from here and there mixed with new recordings, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards was a surprising commercial success, and from its 56 tracks I've taken only two soundtrack contributions, 'Little Drop of Poison' from Shrek 2, and 'Long Way Home' from Big Bad Love.

Which takes us to... well, to today, after skipping a third live album (one per era), and that soon-to-be commercial breakthrough Bad as Me. So far I haven't fallen in love with it, but like every other Anti release it gets an allotment of two tracks, the title track 'Bad As Me' and the tiny little 'Get Lost' - something that Waits seems entirely unable to do, even as he's spent decades now wandering without a map, far removed from convention. That he's managed never to get lost all these years despite trying seemingly so hard explains how Anti has managed to launch such a pervasive advertising campaign behind him some forty years on from his début.


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