Monday, November 24, 2008

Tom Waits - Small Change

I discovered Tom Waits in the mid-70’s and was immediately drawn to his jazzy, beat-generation trappings, his unassuming manner and his story-telling. I was just learning about jazz at the time and he always had great musicians who could impart the right feel to any of his songs. He seemed to me to be the aural equivalent of Kerouac and his ilk.

He is so prolific that I honestly did not know how many albums he released by this point, but this is his fourth, coming right before Foreign Affairs and the classic Blue Valentine.

This record starts with the quiet piano ballad “Tom Traubert’s Blues”, which is accompanied by strings and references “waltzing Mathilda”, oddly enough. This is a pretty classic Waits opener though.

Things change drastically for “Step Right Up” – which highlights be-bopping acoustic bass at its best, with clever lyrics about close out sales and street hustlers performed scat-like. I actually know of a company that used the lyrics of this song as an ad for one of their sales, which impressed me a lot at the time!

Back to a sorta jazzy/lounge-y piano tune in “Jitterbug Boy”, an ode to Chuck E. Weiss, who seems to have gotten far more fame via other people’s songs than from his own! Another nice song, though. He continues in this vein for “I Wish I Was in New Orleans”, which has a passing resemblance (though is considerably more somber) to the old traditional number, “I Wish I Was in Dixie”.

“The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” is a hilarious story of a nightclub performer explaining his predicament to the customers. Tom does manage to make both himself and his piano sound a bit inebriated! He really was a fine entertainer and could easily hold your attention by himself.

A truly great, moody blues tune is “Invitation to the Blues”. Waits really shines on this type on number – his voice is perfect for the blues and is full of emotion and feeling. The saxophone adds a nice feel, as well.

“Pasties and a G-String” is subtitled “At the Two O’Clock Club” but I always pictured Tom hanging at the Ivar Theater with this recitation of the charms of some of the girls set to the backdrop of a strip club drum beat. Truly fun and funny and these tunes keeps the album from being too depressing!

He’s back at the lounge-y story-telling with “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”. He was a terrific piano-oriented singer/songwriter. He heads in a full-on film noir direction for “The One That Got Away”. You can just picture the sax player standing under a streetlight as Tom tells the tales of the down and out in Los Angeles. He was a helluva narrator and lyricist.

“Small Change” continues in the same vein – another jazzy story told in an extremely cinematic way with excellent sax playing setting the mood. Waits gives you a real feel of the neighborhood and the inhabitants as he recounts this robbery gone wrong. If you ever want to know what the lower regions of Los Angeles was like, just give a listen to early Waits!

He closes with another solo number, “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work”, which everyone can relate to, especially those in the low paying jobs and crappy neighborhoods that Waits is describing on this album.

Not exactly r’n’r, but great, emotional jazz/blues songwriting with superb Beat Generation lyrics. Exceptional!