I can imagine alot has been written about Mr Waits. Alot in awe, some in bemusement. He kind of attracts a cult following. Like Marmite, you love him or hate him. I love him and always have but what secured it for me was Tom Waits live. I was privileged to see him live in Paris last year on his European leg of the Glitter and Doom tour and was pleasantly surprised to find not only a great musician and songwriter, but a great entertainer. I had always had it in my head that seeing a grumpy and somewhat pretentious man reluctantly performing on stage when he would rather be locked away in a studio would disappoint me. Well, not so....
Mr Waits entertains in the classic tradition. He interacts with an audience like a music hall star of the 40's goading laughter and participation (although clap along out of time at your peril...). He has jokes and stories galore. He can quip with the best of them.
His stage manner in one of a vaudeville entertainer. He moves in a curious and almost possessed manner jerking and vibrating throughout each seismic performance. Then a tip of the hat and bow before moving onto the next. He really puts his all into it.
Then there's that voice. You don't realise how powerful it is on record... nor how tuneful. Some would think it's an idiosyncratic rasp or growl but it has quite some range. You don't get the falsetto shriek enough on record. It can be entrancing and hypnotic. Like a wailing banshee or a howling wolf. I hope he tours again and more regularly so more can experience the magician perform.
I've been under the influence of some kind of sick narcotic compulsion with Tom Waits' catalogue just recently. I'm infected, diseased, not myself... which is why my melancholy-bloated mind has seen fit to put this opinion straight into the wrong dooyoo category. This is not an opinion on Tom Waits in general. Rather it is of his most recent body of work... and possibly the finest album I have ever heard. It goes by the name "Alice". Major apologies to those sterner dooyooers who frown on dislocated ops (I'm one myself)... but if I don't bend the rules a bit, dooyoo won't allow me to tell you of this superb piece of work... Excuses and apologies over... Let's get to work... Released earlier this year, on the same day as its sister album, “Blood Money”, “Alice” represents, for my small change, the best body of work Tom Waits has assembled in twenty years… and possibly in his entire career. In three months I’ve gone from having a blank space in my CD collection, waiting to be filled by this legendary and unique man, to being a complete Waits-phile... Since discovering the “Asylum Years” compilation (reviewed previously – shameless plug!) I have hurriedly purchased “Small Change”, “Big Time”, “Frank’s Wild Years”, “Swordfish Trombones”, “Heartattack and Vine”, “Closing Time”, “Blood Money”, “Bone Machine”, “The Black Rider”… hell, just about everything he’s ever put out, bar a couple of hard to find exceptions. For Waits innocents let me just say this: the man is possessed of a beer-and-cigarette stained, barfly-corrupted voice that pushes itself, like the fingers of a questing surgeon, into every possible piece of you. This man does more than sing to you. You are in the grip of a cardiac throat massage, no less. For t
hose of us with the fortune to have discovered this unsung genius, let me simply state that this album is (largely) a move away from the sonic experimentation of “Black Rider” and “Bone Machine”… drawing more comfortably from earlier, pre-eighties, stylistics. Waits the crooner is here, in one guise or another, but the innovator of “Frank’s Wild Years” and “Swordfish…” is happy to make a credited appearance. The album was co-written with Waits wife, Kathleen Brennan, and originally served as the score to a play based upon Lewis Carroll’s “fascination” with a friend’s daughter… who served as his “muse” and became the inspiration for his children’s story, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. It has surfaced briefly in the past as a treasured bootleg, but, with this official release, no fan of Waits, or compelling, emotionally discombobulating music, should be without this wonderful collection of songs. **** Track By Track **** “Alice” The title track, and our most obvious link with the work of Lewis Caroll. Waits leads us into the album with an unaccompanied vocal line, before the quasi-lounge-jazz act backing of his gentle piano and casual bass ushers in a lazy montage of muted brass and a punctuating saxophone line. Ethereal and haunting, setting the listener up for the lyrically experimental nature of the album: “A murder of silhouette crows/ I saw…/ And the tears on my face/ And the skates on the pond/ They spell Alice” It looks ugly when read cold, but Waits leads us into a dark landscape of metaphor and half-truth with a comfortable, lilting voice so absent from much of his nineties work. Rating: (7/10) **** “Everything You Can Think” Who let the dogs out! A great track, boasting vinta
ge vocal weirdness. Waits literally barks the words of this one at you. His voice, obviously weathered and decimated by the years, has never sounded so punished – or punishing. Wonderland references cross with nursery rhymes and political metaphor in the most jarring song on the album. After the soft lilt of the title track, this really makes the listener sit up and try to second-guess the direction of the remaining tracks. “Everything you can think of is true/ The dish ran away with a spoon/ Dig deep in yourself for that little red glow/ We’re decomposing as we go” You may find yourself skipping track one in the early listens to fire this track up. (8/10) **** “Flower’s Grave” Back to the softness of track one here, leaving you to wonder just what the interceding track was all about. Here, Waits sings of the loss of both himself, and the reality he will leave behind upon his fading into the afterlife (dreamland). An existential moment of death-bed angst, it seems. Waits ponders a question that philosophises our own mortality, against a cloying but ultimately soothing string arrangement. “Someday the silver moon and I will go to Dreamland/ I will close my eyes and wake up there in Dreamland/ But tell me who will put flowers on a flower’s grave?/ Who will say a prayer?” (8/10) **** “No One Knows I’m Gone” Now the vocal line on this is just amazing. Imagine an ogre singing to you of his woes from the bottom of a well… a breathy, bucolic, yet amazingly moving dirge with lyrics to set the angels into tears. “Hell above and Heaven below/ All the trees are gone/ The rain makes such a lovely sound/ To those who are six-feet under ground.” The only crime here, as with some of the other standout tracks on this album, is that it is just too short. I often find myself reac
hing for the stereo and back tracking to play it straight through again. Genius. (10/10) **** “Kommienezuspadt” A true master-class in weirdness, Waits barks out the song’s title over and over in a rakish, nightmarishly clockwork vocal depiction of some kind of hell. References the White Rabbit’s preoccupation for punctuality with the repeated refrain “and we can’t be late…and we can’t be late”, before blasting into a further (assumedly German, or quasi-industrialist new-speak) surging, half-barked climax. Organised chaos. Intentionally messy… and wonderful for it. Bizarrely, you’ll find yourself singing along… if only we knew to what! (9/10) **** “Poor Edward” “Have you heard the news about Edwaaarrrrrdddd”, growls Waits, in possibly the most evocative piece of pronounciation ever set down in a studio. This track is another example of Waits the story-teller. In his casual, inimitable sing-speak, Waits narrates the tragic tale of a young man, who, from birth, has boasted a female face growing out of the back of his head. An anthem of doom… we follow Edward as the taunting, relentless harridan drives him to suicide in a suite of hotel rooms. Is poor Edward released from his torment..? Waits speculates not… “Some still believe he was freed from her/ But I knew her too well/ I say she drove him to suicide/ and took Poor Edward to Hell”. In typical iconic style, Waits sets us up with a hundred questions... and answers none of them. The refrain of the single violin that trails behind the lyrical fate of Poor Edward seems like a baited line attempting to hook you and drag you into the depths with the eponymous victim. Like so many of these tracks, this will haunt your quiet moments. (10/10) **** “Table Top Joe” An upbeat delivery, this song stands out for the vocal camouflage… Waits does the riverboat crooner, a vocal blaxploitation number that conjures images of Louis Armstrong at his most dashed-upon-the-rocks lucked-out blues narration. “Well , my Mama didn’t want me/ On the day I was born/ Born without a body/ I got nothing but scorn” A tale of making it despite all odds… born without a body!? Metaphor, of course… but, with Waits (and this album possibly more than any of its predecessors) you have to take the lyrics at complete face value too. A good moment to change the tempo of the album. (7/10) **** “Lost In The Harbour” Now this is simply beautiful. A pump organ (carried over from the previous track) plays soft arpeggios against a smooth string arrangement. Waits sings of two remote places… separated by ideologies and a curtain of dreams: “Over here the ladies/ All want sweet perfume/ But there’s never a rose/ And over there/ The roses are frightened to bloom/ So they never can grow”. He waits (seemingly forever) for a moment of epiphany, until… “And then I will fill/ The ocean back up with my tears/ I still have a couple more years/ And then I can come back/ To the harbour…” The rhythm of the vocal line perfectly sighs back and forth with the immaculate backing track. Here, Waits is the tide, bringing us all back to his vision. (10/10) **** “We’re All Mad Here” A skipping percussion and crawling bass clarinet provide an extremely disjointed and jarring backing track to Waits cultist profession of mass insanity. Lyrically creepy, this provides a strange, but interesting respite from some of the more soulful tracks on the album. Hard to listen to the first couple of times, given the quality of the previous track. <
br>“You can hang me in a bottle like a cat/ Let the crows pick me clean but for my hat/ Where the wailing of a baby/ Meets the footsteps of the dead/ We’re all mad here”. (8/10) **** Watch Her Disappear A spoken word piece that would have seemed perfectly at home in the earlier theatre piece, “Franks’s Wild Years”. Not quite as compelling as his best spoken tracks “What’s He Building In There?” from “Mule Variations” or, my favourite, “Small Change” from the album of the same name… but an interesting addition to the album, nonetheless. A simple pump organ, cello and violin provide the accompaniment. “Last night I dreamed I was dreaming of you/, And from a window across the lawn/ I watched you undress/ Wearing a sunset of purple/ Tightly woven around your hair”. (7/10) **** “Reeperbahn” Gravelled story-telling continues apace, as Waits moves his voice up a gear to semi-sing an anglo-germanic tale of the Reeperbahn. A spiritual repository that collects the fallen; the once mighty; and the ne’er do wells of the world. “Now if you’ve lost your inheritance/ And all you’ve left is common sense/ And you’re not too picky about the company you keep/ Or the mattress where you sleep/ Behind every window, behind every door/ The apple is gone but there’s always the core/ The seeds will sprout up right through the floor/ Down there in the Reeperbahn”. (Actually it sounds a lot like my halls of residence!) The song gives way to a stein-swinging “ay-yi-ya” chorus… and the suggestion of a drunken, European anthem. A real grower. (8/10) **** “I’m Still Here” A slower pace, but the breathy, laconic delivery returns… imagine the bar-stool Romeo from “
;I Never Talk To Strangers” married his love and they found some kind of happiness… this would be his lament to her in old age. “You haven’t looked at me that way in years/ You dreamed me up and left me here/ How long was I dreaming for/ What was it you wanted me for?” Short but sweet, culminating in the payoff: “But I’m still here”. (7/10) **** “Fish & Bird” At first listen, this can be dismissed as something of a Waitsian curio. It most certainly isn’t filler (although some of his earlier, nineties albums have been accused of bearing their fair share of such), but it lacks the thrusting urgency of some of the early (side one) tracks. I have to say, however, don’t give up. This is the kind of song that will continue to assail you long after the final, throaty strains have died. This is the one that, for the past week, I have bored my friends with incessantly. I haven’t even played the song to them… I just talk about it! In the briefest of lyrical introductions, we find ourselves amid a claustrophobic group awaiting a tale (probably in a quayside public house) from an old sea salt. The sailor is bought a drink, for the price of his story… the story “of a little bird, who fell in love with a whale…” Sounds ridiculous? Try it. The metaphor is as thick as molasses here. An inter-species Romeo and Juliet fable that drew me in enough to bring tears to my eyes. (Many of my pals would bring in a blood and stone metaphor here, themselves). Sing it as a lullaby, or merely tell it to your children as a modern fable. This rates among Waits’ greatest ever moments. “He said: you cannot live in the ocean/ And she said to him: you never can live in the sky/ But the ocean is filed with tears/ And the sea turns into a mirror/ And there’s a whale in the moon
when its clear/ And a bird on the tide…” (10/10) **** “Barcarolle” Wheezing yet soft, as only Waits can deliver… this at first seems like a love song, yet upon truly focussing on the lyrics, we are left with what appears to be an infatuated man with an over-awed young girl. The end reference is explicitly Alice… returning us to the troubling schema of the entire production. “A cloud lets go of the moon/ Her ribbons are all out of tune/ She’s skating on the ice in a glass/ And in the hands of a man/ That she kissed on a train/ The children have all gone into town/ To get candy and we are alone…” (8/10) **** Fawn A short, but achingly beautiful instrumental piece of violin, piano, bass, marimba and bass clarinet… that leads us out from an emotionally charged, and exhausting masterpiece. It would be impossible to end this album on a more perfect note. (8/10) **** Conclusion: Everything about this album screams class. Waits and Brennan are lyrically at the peak of their powers. The musicianship is faultless and the tone is just right… amazing given this album and the harsher (cruder?!) “Blood Money” were recorded back to back. It has to be said that any new Waits release is worth selling a kidney for. If you can afford both albums, get both. If you can afford only one (if you can afford only one this year!) get this one. Some people have started talking about album/single of the year polls, with three months of 2002 to go. Personally, I doubt I will hear a more perfect and satisfying album than this in the next decade. It makes a mockery of everything that has gone before it. Simply breathtaking.
The most amazing thing about Tom Waits's music is his consistancy in quality. In the 80s, while other singer/songwriters lost their heads in offensive fashion and synthesisers, Good old tom was banging on real drums and marimbas, screaming his heart out like a lunatic and singing about pool shooting dwarfs!This can be heard on 'Raindogs' and 'Swordfish trombones' and when you think of all the appalling music being made in the 80s,Tom is a diamond in the dogpile. But perhaps the most amazing thing about this artist is that unlike his peers, he has got better and more original with age. How many artists can you really say that about? Think of Lou Reed and how he started out,the king of new wave definately, but now he is an ageing rocker who hasn't written an original song since the 70s. In the 90s Tom brought us 'Bone Machine' which again was nothing like any music of it's time. It was dark ,but melodic and way ahead of it's time. When the 'Intro to Dirt' in the ground begins I feel that tingling on the back of my neck and never has a song about death felt so beautiful. The song 'I don't wanna grow up' has become my life anthem and lifts me when the complications of life get too much.You see...he makes me write like a student! And it's also thanks to this album that when I'm in a really good mood and I get out the shower and begin to dry myself with a towel, I can be found leaping naked around the room screaming the imortal line from 'Going out west', " I know karate,Voodoo too, I'm gonna make myself available to you!" Also in the 90s he gave us 'The Black Rider',an absolutely insane album based on a stageplay.It's freak show concept can make it one of his hardest albums to get into and has to be approached with much humour. Go with it a second time, and you will love it.You have to know his personality in his other records ,to t
ruely appreciate it. At the end of the 90's he left us with Mule Variations, a pure work of genius based on his own special brand of Twisted Blues.'Cold Water' will make you want to get drunk with people you don't know. 'Chocolate Jesus' is what Tom described on The David Letterman show around the time of the album(1999), as all about 'an immaculate confection' I'm yet to see Tom live and I can't wait for the day, as his live shows are even more diverse than his albums. Next month (may 2002) he releases the much anticipated 'Alice' and 'Blood money'. Make sure you go buy both.
Thousands and thousands of opinions on this site and not one person has yet paid tribute to the genius of Mr Tom Waits! It's nothing short of scandalous. Guess it's fallen on my shoulders to introduce you to one the world's greatest ever songwriters. Chances are you're probably familiar with some of Tom's songs without even knowing it - Rod Stewart had hits with "Tom Traubert's Blues" and "Downtown Train", both written by Waits, and his work has been covered by dozens of other artists. Whatever music you like, be it indie, jazz, rock, ballads, showtunes, blues, country or folk, you're sure to find something for you in Waits' repertoire. His early albums, handily compiled on "The Early Years" and "Asylum Years", are a heady mix of sleazy jazz/blues and tearjerking piano ballads - anyone who can listen to "Martha" without shedding a tear has a heart of stone. Another worthwhile summing-up of his earlier work is the live album "Big Time", in which memorable performances of the songs are interspersed with hilarious jokes and stand-up routines. A renaisance man, our Tom. The mid-80s see a change of tack, notably on the classic "Raindogs", where Waits adds rickety accordion-based Kurt Weill-esque sea shanties to the usual ballads, and the lyrics become increasingly imaginative and narrative. This is the period during which Waits became a cult figure with the UK alternative scene, who found his rough & ready mix of country & jazz styles a startling alternative to what was then a pretty sterile alternative scene. The 90s saw less prolific and less accessible output from Tom, with the excellent "Beautiful Maladies" compilation serving as the perfect introduction to this latter period. His last album, 1999's "Mule Variations", was his best-recieved in years and something of a return to form, an irresistible mix of th
e weird and the wonderful, and contained the best Waits tearjerker ("House Where Nobody Lives") for many years. But throughout all these periods, two things have endured. One is Waits' lyrical brilliance, whether he's telling the story of some seedy New Orleans lowlife or penning a lovestruck ballad; the other is that unmistakable voice, hewn from gravel and blasted with Marlboro smoke and whisky. Together, words and voice make an ideal partner for those 2am whisky bottle sessions that we all need now & again. Waits remains a maverick, an artist who could've sold out years ago and become a millionaire, but who prefers to plough an increasingly individualistic furrow regardless of how many records it might sell. For the Waits beginner, I'd recommend "Asylum Years" as the perfect introduction to his earlier work, and the aforementioned "Mule Variations" to give you a flavour of where his muse is currently at.