Post by Friendly Destroyer on Mar 25, 2011 10:23:11 GMT -8
Swordfish, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years is one of the best album streaks ever. They aren't all that different stylistically from one another, yet are totally their own things. Frank's Wild Years is so fucked and wonderful.
"I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy." -Tom Waits
HG, the poet H.L. Hix got me into that song/album. He was obsessed with it for a long time, still sort of is. He'd listen to it every day. He also has over 3000 poems memorized in their entirety, so he's sort of a freak.
Post by know ID yuh on Mar 25, 2011 12:37:00 GMT -8
I bought Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards, the day it came out. I remember how excited I was at work all day to get three new Tom Waits albums. I listened to them in order most nights for almost two months. It was winter of course. Tom Waits is winter music.
Post by Friendly Destroyer on Oct 4, 2011 9:29:25 GMT -8
TOM WAITS - MULE VARIATIONS
In light of Tom Waits announcing the Oct. 25th release of his new album Bad as Me, I have decided to do Mule Variations. While musically it’s not my favorite Waits album, it is probably my favorite album of his for reasons that expand beyond the music, least of all are the things I’ve learned from this very board that have enhanced both my understanding and approach to the album. More on that later. I’m a huge fan of an album’s back story and its recording process, as well as all the things that cause an album to continually interact with our own lives (which is why I think Gramma’s Record a Day reviews are the best and most unique music writings I’ve come across).
First, I think it’s worth mentioning that previously to recording Mule Variations Waits was in the longest break between albums of his career, had supposedly been involved with the AA program for almost 4 years, was in the middle of writing music for a Robert Wilson production that was full of murderous demented carnival themes (the music of Wilson’s Woyzek would come out as the 2002 Waits album, Blood Money), and was spending a lot of his spare time jamming with some Californian musicians, in what was dubbed the Gatmo Sessions, where everybody was playing their own homemade musical devices such as the Waterphone or reed instruments made from seaweed. An album heavily steeped in Americana was the obvious next step, I guess?
Secondly, I’d like to point out, to those unfamiliar with Waits’ recording approach, a couple of things that may or may not impact the way you hear this album. Since Swordfishtrombones Waits has been removing as much traditional (or even conventional) types of percussion from his songs as fast as he could. By the 90’s all typical drums and percussion had been completely laid to rest. What we hear on Mule Variations may at times sound like a tom, a kick drum, a snare, or a cymbal, but it is most certainly not any of those. What we are hearing are homemade percussion instruments that vary from the elegantly constructed Waterphone to old wooden dresser drawers and metal desks having the (un)living shit beaten out of them. The instruments were also extremely vintage in year, but not necessarily of the same quality we would normally associate with vintage gear. They were beat the fuck up, basically. He used an old up right piano, pump organ, an optigan (which also served for percussion) and other decaying instruments. Waits was also very particular about achieving a natural sound for the album. By natural he meant, as it sounded to his ears when it was being played in the moment. The album was recorded in a rural studio that resembled a warehouse and would easily allow noises in from the outside. Some of it was even recorded outside in a field next to the studio. Two main rooms were set up in the studio. One large room served to capture a particular echo Waits loved. All of the percussion was recorded in that room. The other room was almost too small for comfort and was where the piano and Waits’ vocals were recorded. Waits demanded that his musicians show up for recording sessions at 10am sharp and that they come in “clean”. He also told them they were not allowed to listen to any music during the short recording session.
When I first heard Mule Variations (a couple of years after its release) I loved it! Though I thought it to be a very different album than I do today. The opening two tracks contain some wild and insane looped percussion that sounded way more “trippy” than any of Waits’ usual stuff. “Big in Japan” features most of Primus (Les Claypool would continue to work with Waits on Real Gone) and “Low Side of the Road” even contains an unbelievably demonic lo-fi groove, which I’d never heard any type of on beat groove in Waits’ stuff before ( “Low Side of the Road” is probably one of the most intoxicating songs I’ve ever heard. If you really give it your full attention it completely feels like it has the power to slow down time and your mind, turning everything around you into syrup). Combined with what I believed, at the time, to be studio manipulation on his voice and instruments I felt like this was indicative of a “druggy” feel he was going for. And man did he ever achieve it! Or so I thought. It wasn’t until years later, through gathering snippets of interviews, writings, and books on Waits that his whole mad calculating world was revealed. I eventually read that Waits had worked with an artist in the mid 90’s on a 74 minute looped piece of music. This resulted in an almost obsessive compulsion for Waits to carry around a tape recorder at all times and create loops out of anything he deemed loop worthy. Apparently he did this for years. The looped percussion on the opening tracks is actually being played directly off of his tape recorder. He also sang his vocals through the very same recorder in the studio. This, along with finding out he was sober at the time, really put Waits’ craft in a whole new light for me. The looped song he worked on in the 90’s was always unknown to me until I found out through this board (by Drew, I believe) that it was Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Thanks Drew!. A side note, Waits’ obsession with looped oral percussion soon gave away to him creating a series of live loops ( “live” as in he maintained the same repeated oral percussion rhythm for up to 10 mins at a time) in his bathtub. Some of these found their way on to Real Gone. If you ever want to put yourself in 4 minutes and 55 seconds of Headphone Heaven, I urge you to listen to Real Gone’s opening track “Top of the Hill”.
Another way this board has impacted the way I hear Mule Variations has been through my coming to be more familiar with the work of The Residents. Before the board I was aware of who they were and even had a couple of their albums, but still had very surface knowledge about them. Mule Variations was initially going to be called The Eyeball Kid (like 3 years before it was ever made)*. The Kid, described by Waits, was a human with a gigantic eyeball for a head which had no eyelid. This is all conjecture on my part, but it sounds very familiar to the iconic “eyeball” theme of The Residents. After learning more about The Residents (and seeing them live), specifically where they hail from, it makes me wonder if one of them wasn’t in or at least associated with those homemade instrument Gatmo jams held in the bay area. Either way, after starting to familiarize myself with their material I find it very hard to believe Waits has not been influenced to a large degree by them (in manners beyond his music too). The only info I know of Waits and the Residents being officially associated with one another is through Terry Gilliam’s upcoming short film The Monster of Nix. Despite no evidence, I can not hear any of Waits’ albums from Swordfishtrombones and on without hearing some very Resident-esque features. I believe it was Gramma who introduced us to the Residents on the board? Right? I think he likes them? I could be wrong, but I’ll just say, “thank you Gramma!” anyways. (* The album eventually took its name from the sticker on a box full of demos for "Get Behind the Mule" labeled, Mule Variations)
Mule Variations was written and produced by both Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan. They stated they were attempting to create an album of “Surruralism” inspired by the field recordings of southern rural blues musicians by Alan Lomax in the late 1930’s. The crazy thing is, to my ears, Mule Variations almost sounds like the lost artifact which inspired people like Charley Patton. “Get Behind the Mule”, “Chocolate Jesus” and “Black Market Baby” are so thick with atmosphere, characters, and organic feel it almost sounds surreal to think the music could be coming from any electrical device in your home surroundings and that the more probable scenario is that you are asleep in some Matrix type dream pod with Waits and his band osmosis-ing into your pretend world. “Black Market Baby”, as well as “House Where Nobody Lives” and “Cold Water”, marked the return of one of my favorite guitarists, Marc Ribot. Ribot, who was heavily featured on Waits’ 1980’s output, had not played on a Waits album since 1988. His presence on “Black Market Baby” is absolutely the best thing ever! Ribot is actually the only remaining person from as far back as 1983 to continue recording with Waits.
Kathleen Brennan once described Waits’ music as “Grim Reapers and Grand Weepers”. Some of my friends have complained that a few of the “Grand Weepers” on Mule Variations are a little cheesy, in particular “House Where Nobody Lives”. I suppose a song which is about, “home is not a home unless it’s built with love” is rather cheesy, but in the context of the Waits World I find it very moving and unpretentious. He was once, after all, a man who spent 9 years in the same room of the seedy Tropicana hotel in L.A. I also think that it is very telling that it is one of the few tracks on the album solely written by Waits. Although knowing this information and allowing it to affect the way I hear the song is something Waits has been sort of contradictory about. On his VH1 Storytellers show he said something to the effect of “it’s like someone whispering into your ear at a movie, “this is based on a true story you know”, does it really matter?” I find it sort of funny seeing that almost all of his music is filled with real life characters and events he has experienced. So I take it like he is just fucking with people.
Going back to Kathleen Brennan, I’ve read a lot of critics refer to her as Tom Waits’ “Yoko Ono” (anytime anyone refers to somebody as “their Yoko Ono” it strikes me as just plain stupid and sounds like they are an old stuffy white man writing the misogynistic “Garden of Eden” chapter for the Bible. Fuck you old stuffy white guys!). Call me sentimental but I think the story of Waits and Brennan is sweet and a true testament to the unbelievable bond love creates when a couple can consistently foster creativity within one another (opposed to a person falling off the rails into self absorbed addiction and assholness that would have surely of been the fate of many a musician had they not succumbed to the so called “Yoko Ono syndrome”). Anyways, where I was going with this is that the Waits/Brennan written chune “Take it With Me” is very beautiful and I am glad for the happy couple! Although Waits has often written songs about his wife, such as “Jersey Girl”, Mule Variations contains the first time he refers to her by name in a song. “Filipino Box Spring Hog” was inspired by the neighborhood BBQs the two would attend when they were living in L.A. Apparently there was a Filipino family on the street who had cut out their floor boards in a back room and constructed a in-ground BBQ pit. They laid a box spring (only its wires remaining) over the coals and would throw meat on top of it and invite the whole block over for a party. Judging from the song, it all sounded like a very funky drunken time that would perhaps end with “Kathleen sittin’ down in Little Red’s Recovery Hall, in her criminal underwear bra”. Whatever that means? Love, right?
I will just briefly touch on “Georgia Lee” so I can include one of my favorite Tom Waits quotes. Georgia Lee was girl not far from the Waits’ home who was found murdered on the side of the highway in 1997. The song deals with mortality, once when being asked if he was porpoisely trying to touch on the theme Waits responded, “How do you avoid it? We’re decomposing as we go. We’re the dead on vacation. It’s not a theme I pursue. It pursues me.” We’re the dead on vacation!
“What’s He Building in There?” seems to be the most hated sentiment Waits has about our present culture. (It may also seem like a simple spoken word song, but ho man, if you pay attention to all the noises, electronics, and vocals going on, it's actually quite something). On a personal level Waits has always been leery about the media and his privacy. He is perhaps the most guarded and private well known artist. The media has never seen his house and he only allows trusted acquaintances near his home. There has never been any authorized publication by Waits into his life. In fact, when he hears about someone trying to write a biography on him, he has gone through great lengths to call as many friends, family and musicians as he can and asks them to refuse any interviews with the intended biographer. In the teaser for his new album he is still addressing the same themes of “What’s He Building in There?” in regards to being helpless to offer his fans the private listing experience they deserve as a result of advancements such as the internet. He has a great quote regarding respected artists who have succumbed to the Reality Show Generation, “It’s the culture that’s sick, we just end up catching the flu as a result”. What stops him from sounding like a crotchety old man is the humor he infuses into his very real feelings. What’s He Building in There’s message of people’s incessant need to poke there nose into people’s business is practically delivered like a Bill Hicks sketch. If you watch the Bad as Me teaser you can see he is serious, but giving us a laugh at the same time. I guess what I’m trying to say is he is able to get his point across without alienating people, which is not all that bad for someone who claims to be so anti-social. If you can get a hold of the wonderful live version of “What’s He… ?” on VH1’s Storytellers you can get a good glimpse of the waterphone in action as well as some other nifty percussion, not to mention a stellar performance by Waits where introduces the song with “It’s about the guy who tells you he’s from Florida… but has Indiana plates? Or the guy who says he’s been in the service for the last 20 years… but is only 20yrs old?”
Another reason I love Mule Variations so much is the poetic lyrics and beautiful phrasing that is subtly stuffed in every nook and cranny. In his previous albums it often felt to me like what Waits was saying and the voice he was using to say it always took front and center stage. This is not a bad thing. Mule Variations was the first album where I really felt the music and Waits were fully intertwined with one another. It was the first album that I had not paid attention to his voice primarily and after many listens in I realized I barely knew any of the lyrics to the songs. It’s strange because the music of his previous stuff (’83-’92) was a lot more experimental compared to the more traditional sound of Mule Variations, yet nothing was ever able to over shadow Waits himself. I feel this happens because despite making a distinct transition in musical styles from his Asylum years (70’s) to Swordfishtrombones, he had been doing a gig that was basically “Tom the Entertainer” for more than a decade. The music, the live shows, and the albums were completely carried by his stories, charisma, characters, jokes, and showmanship. Even though the music changed I’m sure it was harder to tone down his personality and ability to be at equal parts with the music. The great thing with Mule Variations is that it’s almost like hearing the album for the first time when you’re solely paying attention to the lyrics while it’s playing. Songs like “Hold On” are nice and have a beautiful guitar echo, but it wasn’t until I listened to the album while reading the lyrics that I fell completely in love with the song. It doesn’t say anything particularly special, but it has such a unique comfort to it, almost as if the simplicity of the song’s music and lyrics are a result of the bulk of the attention being put into its ability to telegraph real emotions through the stereo speakers. I would seriously recommend listening to the album with the lyrics in front of you at one point.
Okay, I think I’ve yammered on long enough, I hope you enjoy the album!
Post by Friendly Destroyer on Jan 26, 2013 15:55:09 GMT -8
After watching Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' God Is In The House last night it got me wanting to see this gem very badly. One of the greatest performances ever. He's a magical man. His voice is absolutely flawless, heartbreaking, and a force. Easily one of the most impressive displays of talent I have ever seen. So fucking happy to see it on Youtube!
I didn't notice that Mule Variations post until just now. Fantastic read. Im gonna go relisten to it right now.
Thanks, Gene! I was so excited to write that review that 12 bajillion thoughts spilled outta my head at once. I actually had to cut more than I wrote which is why if gets pretty disjointed in parts. I tried to jam it all in there. I couldn't help myself.