Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Discographies: Tom Waits Small Change

It turns out that while I had never heard Small Change all the way through, I had actually heard most of these songs before, which is interesting because in many ways, this is probably the Waits sound that people think of first. It's the deep raspy voice with the boozy delivery and jazzy rhythms. The progression continues from each of the previous albums, building and building, towards what, I'm not entirely sure. Though I know his more recent work, I'm not sure how it connects to his earlier stuff yet. I can only assume the gradual progression will make sense.

While many of the songs on Small Change drip with blues and sadness they are tempered by humor almost every time, either within the song itself or because the next song knocks you out of any impending depression. It all feels like a hazy, drunken stumble of a night through back alleys and pawn shops to burlesque joints and big crowded bars. So while the album kicks off with the sad, drunken ballad Tom Traubert's Blues which is probably one of his most well known songs, but it then kicks right up into what is probably my favorite Waits song, Step Right Up.

There's a tune called Salt Peanuts that has been credited to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Count Basie, but the legend is that it's based on the rhythm and cadence of peanut vendors calling out "Salt Peanuts" on the street to attract customers. Related in origin as well as content is the Cuban El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor), written by  Moises Simons. Here, Waits takes on the music of  street vendors in a whole different way, mixing it with advertising, shady salesmanship and con men trying to get you to buy "it" because "it" is all you need. "It" will solve every ailment and heartache you ever had or will have. My favorite line "It finds you a job. . . It IS a job!" It's whatever you need it to be and this song pretty much convinces me to buy it with it's groove. Besides, it's only a dollar. Only a dollar.

Another standout track (fuck it, they're all stand out tracks on this album, really) is The Piano Has Been Drinking, which is just a brilliant marriage of form and content. The off key bits and rambling, drunken puns, putdowns and provocations paint a clear picture of a guy that has done some serious damage to his liver on this night and might end up in a fight, on his way to demand faster service, had it not been for the piano in the corner of the crowded bar that distracted him. He sat down and started tinkering with tipsy fingers, slightly off, but more or less, and eventually hit on a melody that started to get everyone's attention. Now he's just riffing and the crowd is actually loving it. Hell, even the staff he pokes at for bad service is amused.

And then we get an Invitation to the Blues, from the dame behind the counter at the local drugstore in a noir-ish, bluesy piece about your friendly neighborhood femme fatale. She won't poison you or shoot you, maybe, but she will break your heart. But you'll still accept the invitation.

Like I said, they're all standout tracks on this album. Overall, I think this is where there's no longer any denying that Waits is among the greatest song writers, performers and story tellers ever. I'm not really sure how much more I'll have to say about the next album, but then I have a feeling his style will begin to evolve. These albums have been very traditional, but they have a sense of experimentation sort of bubbling way underneath, probably due to his being heavily influenced by the beat poets. So here's a little clip I found to close out this album, but really, you should be listening to these albums yourself.

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