Wednesday, April 21, 2010

416. Mule Variations- Tom Waits for no man.

Album: Mule Variations.
Artist: Tom Waits.
Year: 1999.
Genre: Rock
  1. Big in Japan
  2. Lowside of the Road
  3. Hold On
  4. Get Behind the Mule
  5. House Where Nobody Lives
  6. Cold Water
  7. Pony
  8. What's He Building?
  9. Black Market Baby
  10. Eyeball Kid
  11. Picture in a Frame
  12. Chocolate Jesus
  13. Georgia Lee
  14. Filipino Box Spring Hog
  15. Take It with Me
  16. Come On Up to the House

I was really pleased to see this album crop up on my listening list. To my mind Mule Variations is what this project of mine is all about. Tom Waits is a guy who I’ve always wanted to get into but never really known where to begin. He’s got a wide and broad catalogue which apparently is full of atypical releases and eccentricities. Penetrating the musical world of Waits requires a bit of guidance and direction. Which is why it was nice to have someone like Rolling Stone magazine suggest a starting point.

Not that I didn’t know anything about Waits before I started on track one. I knew of him through his work as an actor. I’ve always loved Short Cuts and quite like Bram Stokers Dracula, even though I’m not supposed to apparently. Waits is great in both. I’m also aware of his work as the guy who wrote the theme tune for The Wire, although I have to confess his version isn’t my favourite. The only other song I knew of his was Big in Japan, which coincidentally turned out to be track one on Mule Variations.

Big in Japan begins with a noise that may or may not be created by a human being. It’s an odd sort of percussive sound that resembles a distorted drum except for one part when it clearly sounds like a human voice. It’s possible this was created by a machine but then I wouldn’t be surprised if it was generated by Waits himself doing some beatboxing, or more accurately off-beat boxing because his voice is unlike any other I’ve heard. Tom’s voice is deep, raspy and deeply strange. He doesn’t so much sing as growl in a southern accent. Its Rock music in the sense that it sounds like it’s being sung by a piece of granite. His vowel sounds could sharpen blunt knives and his consonants don’t form words as much as henges. You know those orc things that spend most of the Lord of the Rings arguing and bickering? When they have sing alongs they sound like Tom Waits in a romantic mood. When their uglier leaders belt out a tune they would be a dead ringer for Waits in an expressive mood. Tom makes Captain Beefheart sound like Paul McCartney.

If a recording artist is blessed/cursed with a voice like Waits he better be capable of writing a good tune. Nobody is going to bother acquiring a taste for his vocal style if the songs themselves aren’t up to anything much. The good news is that Tom is a talented guy. When he sits down to sing a ballad it’s worth hearing. He’s quite capable of producing the sort of music that the masses enjoy. If you don’t believe me then check out the number of people who have not only covered his tunes but released entire albums made up of his songs. Waits produces a body of work that others are capable of mining for hits.

But while his ballads might be conventionally accessible when sung by other people his more up tempo songs are in a world of their own. Big in Japan is a song unlike any other I’ve ever heard. It’s got it’s own sense of style and doesn’t sing to anyone else’s songsheet. It would be impossible to cover and I know because I’ve tried. Not in any professional sense but I’ve listened to the song quite a bit and attempted to belt out my own rendition in the privacy of my own home. I’m fond of a bit of a sing when the mood takes me and if a song is stuck in my head I think it’s a crime to keep it bottled up. It would be a worse crime to subject anyone else to it but when I’m alone I see no reason not to let the old vocal chords out for a play. I’m no singer but when I try most songs you can at least recognise them as a tune. When I’ve sung Big in Japan it sounds for all the world like someone trying to verbalise the noises a washing machine makes. Waits is the only one who can give the song any sense of structure and purpose.


Lyrically he's way left of centre as well. Chocolate Jesus is a song about... well about a Jesus made of chocolate which the singer claims is the only thing his spiritual life needs. Filipino Box Spring Hog, with it's "Cooking up a Filipino Box spring hog" refrain is about cooking up a FIlipino box spring hog. Take it with me when I go is possibly a tender love ballad. In the final lines when the singer says he's going to take his lover's heart with him when he goes he could be talking metaphorically or he could possibly be narrating the tale of a twisted, internal organ-stealing psychopath. I'm assuming it's the former but Waits is sufficiently offbeat that it's just possible the latter is true.

Once again I’m thankful for the guiding hand of the editors of Rolling Stone. I’ve listened to a Tom Waits album and liked it. True he might look like a cross between Ron Pearlman and a rug and sound like a cross between Bruce Springsteen and a quarry- but he’s a talented guy and I think I’ll become a fan.


Highlight: Chocolate Jesus.
Lowlight: Not sure. Nothing is bad it's all just different in different ways.

Influenced by: Nicotine, liqour, heartbreak and the crossroads.
Influenced: A lot of people. Nobody has tried to copy him but a lot have learnt at his feet.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Maybe one day when you're walking among the fields you'll come across this album on the floor, pick it up, and swallow it in one gulp."

-This is a five star review but it could have been a one star for all the sense it makes.


So do you get behind the Mule or would you rather Tom buggered off to be Bigger in japan? Let me know below.

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