Tom Waits: Under Review – An Independent Critical Analysis

Tom Waits has remained a mysterious character on the fringes of popular music for over 40 years.  One of the small drawbacks to his personae is the lack of critical and analytical interview content of the strange and wonderful musician.  Thankfully, the Under Review documentary series has produced two 80-minute films which offer a surprisingly in-depth examination of the man and his music.

The first segment is titled Tom Waits: Under Review 1971-1982: An Independent Critical Analysis, and the second bears the same title replacing the years with 1983-2006.  The films feature rare interviews, footage, unusual photographs and criticism from many different experts and acquaintances of Tom Waits.

under review 2

The most revealing insight is presented in the first of the two films, which examines the context and collaborations resulting in Waits’ always unique but ever-changing sound.  Speaking about his earliest downtrodden troubadour era:

If you were the kind of person who was going to walk into the seedy bar and say, “oh… there’s a drunken bum over there,” and walk out, you weren’t going to be sitting there listening to Tom Waits.

But if you were the kind of person whose imagination started to think, “Well what was that guy’s life like? How did he end up here? What happened here?”… if there was an element of “who washed up on the shore of the promised land… L.A. being the ultimate destination and the final burying place of western culture… Tom Waits is interested in finding out where the body is buried. And that’s where those guys were.”

There is also a detailed analysis of Waits’ atypical approach to lyricism which favored narrative over confession.

This was a guy creating theater pieces in a way, in a song. These were characters he was either inventing or finding and expanding upon in his own mind. This was not the kind of diary writing that a lot of singer/songwriters were doing. This was more like short story writing – there was a highly theatrical – an element of artifice (used neutrally) in his music that was not what the singer/songwriters were supposed to be about.

Tom has always maintained a style unlike any of the artists of his day.  What was particularly fascinating about the album Swordfishtrombones was that a listener couldn’t point to other records from that decade and say, “I see where he got that from.” And that unlike his contemporaries of the 1980s, the album hasn’t become embarrassingly dated to its decade.

Still, there are more subtle stylistic influences to Waits’ work.  His music mirrors the wit of Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, and Kerouac.  His songs also embrace the atonalism and avant-garde compositional form of Harry Partch, Captain Beefheart, and most certainly German composer Kurt Weill.  But perhaps most apparent are the vocal influences of Howlin Wolf.  The film humorously describes his more self-parodic songs as falling “somewhere between an imitation of Louis Armstrong and Oscar the Grouch.”

This outlandish and extreme vocal quality was met with criticism from the listening public.

Speaking about Nighthawks at the Diner, the film observes:

I think it’s more about authenticity. People began to wonder whether this bohemian bar stool philosopher was a real character or whether it was just a theatrical construct.

Until you got to know Waits and you started to really believe in the character and see the depth of what he was doing, it kind of looked liked a pastiche. There was initially some suspicion that it seemed a bit phony. [But really] all artists are self-created in some form or another.

Tom-Waits 1

They go on to examine his vocal characteristic further, noting that “Nighthawks was nearing self-parody, but with Small Change Waits transcended his own influence.”

They described the peak of the boho barstool character thusly:

It’s like an anti-operatic, opposite of belle canto – the opposite of beautiful singing and we understand it. And it’s certainly not natural – it’s an assumed voice – it’s a put on vocal persona. But it’s the key to why the [sentimental] / schmaltzy things work.

But it is Waits’ juxtaposition of innocent lyrics and melodies with his nighthawk performances that really make his character memorable.

A key analysis presented in segment one outlines the importance of this quality:

When Tom Waits plays around with songs like Waltzing Matilda and Silent Night – those songs represent a communality and sense of you in the famiy bossom and the bossom of your community and faith – all of which has been lost to his character. So when his character is groaning out Waltzing Matilda and growling Silent Night – that is their [Samuel] Beckett style poignant memory of what once seemed possible. They stir the emotions that those songs typically do but only by way of trying to demonstrate their absence. And that’s what’s so affecting about it.
It’s a way of re-contextualizing that music to dramatize the desperation of the characters who are singing it.

And finally, another layer of context is added to Waits music when the culture of his listeners, (particularly American audiences) is added to the mix.  Speaking on the value of the album Heartattack and Vine

Only American capitalism could have produced the songs of Tom Waits. There’s a sense of this human debt detritus – these people who are just cast off by the system here that I don’t think exists in most other industrialized countries where there’s more of a social net.

Those characters could only exist here. This is the anti-story – the other story of America that he’s interested in. And not from a social protest, Woody Guthrie standpoint but from a human narrative
standpoint. Who was that person? What was possible for that person? What was his/her dream? There’s not a lot of tolerance in America for losers. Tom Waits made art of that possibility.

Under Review expertly illustrates the depth and consistent quality of Waits’ music throughout his career with this fantastic critical analysis.  For any listener growing bored of the superficiality of taking music at face value, Under Review will be an inspiring breath of fresh air.

Published in: on July 25, 2015 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Merits of Nostalgia and a Cozy Placebo Effect

And so it came to pass that my beloved McIntosh C39 pre-amp was not made happy by replacing the volume pot.  I’d decided in advance that if that didn’t fix it, I would cut my losses and consider, for the first time in my 30+ years, to explore the possibility of a brand new pre-amp/power amp combo.

My first McIntosh - a MAC 4280.  RIP 2013.

My first McIntosh – a MAC 4280.

I am fully aware of the tried-and-true code of the audiophile – quality vintage gear will generally out-perform and out-last newer contemporaries dollar-for-dollar.  But after repeatedly battling oxidation, bad resistors, and a few bad volume pots for the better part of three decades, I was ready to consider something new.

The Next Generation: My McIntosh C39 Pre-Amp (RIP 2014)

The Next Generation: My McIntosh C39

My life-long trusted audio adviser and best-friend tossed a few suggestions my way, namely the emotiva xsp-1, some newer Rotel models, and the most alluring of his suggestions – the Parasound Halo p3.  But for the interim, I had a local hi-fi shop tune up my Yamaha CR-840 – the first real amp I ever had.  Years ago channel A stopped working, and oxidation built up rending the amp nearly-unusable, but I’d never given it up, as it was a very special gift.  Thankfully the shop returned it to me the next day in PERFECT working condition!

I’d forgotten how great it sounded.  Please understand – I know it’s not remotely in the same class as some of the finer amps I’ve used, but the warm and familiar tone of this amp transports me back to college and all the memories attached to those years.  I completely acknowledge that this nostalgia trip is in no way a measure of the amp’s technical performance.  It is of no quantifiable measure an amp comparable to my MACs or, likely, to the Parasound amp.  But I will fully-embrace the head-trip it brings and am more than satisfied to use it until the right upgrade comes along.

Next up? Parasound Halo P3

Next up – Perhaps the Parasound Halo P3

To make the amp-swap official, I chucked the eyesore of a component rack that I’d picked up from a thrift shop.  30-seconds of Craigslist searching produced a nifty 60s record shelf for only a few bucks to serve as both a surface for the amp and as additional record storage.  Better still – the funky elderly couple selling it were ridiculously adorable and had mirrored-and-velvet-patterned wallpaper with matching decor all about their home.

Not kidding.  This... with mirrored panels.

Not kidding. This… with mirrored panels.

The shelf has a very “college” feel to accompany the amp, and the space was PERFECT to relocate all my LPs pressed between 1995 and the present.  All my favorites are in here – DJ Food, Boards of Canada, Lemon Jelly, DJ Shadow, The Orb, Underworld, Stereolab, Spiritualized, The KLF, St Germain, Bonobo, Aphex Twin, Cinematic Orchestra, Sigur Ros, Pantha Du Prince, Low, Beck, The FLips, with just enough room to sneak in nearly all of Brian Eno and Tom Waits’ albums.

The Nostalgia Corner

The Nostalgia Corner

This is as good a time as any to resolve to listen to more of my records in 2015 – to enjoy what I have instead of always searching for the next grail.

And there you have it – an objective and meticulous audiophile reduced to a nostalgic dolt by his trust old amp.  Think what you will, but I’ll be happy here, spinning some great tunes.

Eno & Hyde Postcards from their first two LPs

Eno & Hyde Postcards from their first two LPs

A Birthday Like No Other!

I’ve been saving up for this mega-post of audiophilic treasures.  I’m back from a week’s vacation to my old home town where I spent my birthday visiting friends, family and my life-long favorite record shop.

Entering the shop I walked past a NM Beatles butcher cover, straight to the back where 3,000 LPs had just been traded in. Tom, the owner told me it was the best collection he’d ever seen (other than his own.)

All of the discs were alphabetical by artist, and all dead mint. Tom said, “I could easily shrink wrap the whole lot and sell ’em in Japan if I wanted to. The owner played these discs once to rip them and then filed them away.”

I passed up 20 mint Miles Davis LPs knowing I couldn’t afford to bring them all home, but my eyes went wide when I reached the Tom Waits collection. I pulled every disc I didn’t already own and walked up to the counter.

I said to Tom, “hold these – I’m going to pace around for 3 minutes… and then I’m going to come back and buy them.”

I had already ordered two other Waits’ LPs for my birthday – Bone Machine and Bad As Me.  They’re in the mail now.

But getting so many Waits LPs all at once in unplayed condition and not spending a cent on shipping… totally made my birthday!


Next during a routine visit to my local antique mall I found a copy of the Rutles’ self-titled 12″ promo on yellow vinyl with the hilarious banana label from 1978.


(To anyone who isn’t familiar with the Beatles parody band – please go to Youtube and watch their uproariously funny mockumentary, All You Need Is Cash.  It stars Eric Idle, George Harrison Mick Jagger, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and many others!)

Hold My Hand

Let’s Be Natural

Another birthday order arrived by mail this week – the limited edition Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pressed on red vinyl.  This is a perfect compliment to my other limited edition Lips’ disc – their award winning masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin + bonus CD.


On the grounds outside the antique mall I found three more Sesame Street records which I didn’t already have in my collection, along with four Muppet and four Sesame Pez dispensers.


The vendor also had the 1984 Sesame Street Fisher Price playhouse (without the figures) and a rare 1978 9-disc box set titled “My First Sesame Street Record Collection,” the later of which I could not pass up taking home.

The set is complete with original box, printed bag, nine 45 RPM singles and their respective colorful cardboard sleeves.  Little is known about these sets and various versions were sold in the late 70s.  Only two photos are posted in the Muppet Wiki and my copy is far more complete than those pictured!

That weekend I went garage saling and found two more Jim Henson treasures – a Red Fraggle plush at the Super Flea and a 1986 30th Birthday poster of the Muppets and Henson, himself!  The poster turned up at a garage sale for $1.  Not bad.

Two more Parliament Funkadelic LPs also came by mail.  Unfortunately the “original pressing” Maggot Brain I ordered turned out to be a cheap repress from the 90s so I sold it and cut my losses.  The other disc was good – a sealed original copy of Funkadelic’s debut self-titled LP.  (It’s breaking my heart trying to decide whether or not to open it!)

I came real close to ordering the new limited edition green vinyl re-release of White Zombie’s Astro-Creep 2000, but after contacting the label I learned that the glorious lyric art that came with the CD is not included with the vinyl, so I passed.

…which brings me to what was going to be my most celebrated find of the year.

I thought myself incredibly fortunate to finally have my dream turntable AND a new pre-amp to drastically upgrade my set up.

I was using a linear direct drive Optimus LAB-2250 turntable, a $20 economy phono stage and NAD L40 integrated amp.  Sure, the NAD is nothing to turn your nose up at, but the table and cheap phono stage crippled what little quality I had.

Close friends may recall that I had a gorgeous vintage 70s McIntosh receiver, but that it had intermittent crackling which the folks at MAC headquarters could not eliminate after 2 years of servicing the unit.

Well the replacement is in transit now, but the same sadly cannot be said about the turntable.

This is the Denon DP-60L.  It is what many call the finest machine ever manufactured by Denon.  It has a no-contact end sensor auto-lift mechanism, back-lit controls and a rosewood plinth.   As an added bonus, this specific table was fitted with a Signet cartridge which you often see paired with turntables double the value of the 60L.  I thought I had finally found my dream table – until it arrived at my doorstep… broken and non-functional.  It was apparently destroyed in the mail, but despite my paying for insurance on the $600 purchase, the post office chose not to accept responsibility and denied my claim.  I turned to Paypal hoping they would protect my funds, but the terms of my purchase fell though a fine-print loophole and the funds were denied.

Two months later, I am appealing the USPS’s denial.  WISH ME ALL THE LUCK IN THE WORLD.  This was the biggest equipment purchase of my life.

On the positive side there is still the McIntosh amp waiting for me, thanks to the immeasurable generosity of a dear friend.

The new MAC eliminates the problem of the cheap phono stage.  This beast (with a shipping weight of 69 pounds!) was manufactured in the early 90s.  It’s the McIntosh C39 pre-amplifier.  I’m working on picking up a power amp to pair it with.

The heartbreaking thing about the Denon is that I had a conversation with Tom (the record store owner mentioned at the beginning of this post) and it turns out that he’s using the exact same model at home!

This is a man with 30,000 LPs in his personal collection.  If it’s good enough for him, then it’s most certainly good enough for me!  One day, it will be mine.

Wish me luck with the claim.  Still, it was one hell of a birthday.

National Record Store Day

The fourth annual National Record Store Day was a fantastic success.  Keeping with tradition, record labels issued super limited edition albums available Saturday only.

Disney released a 10″ picture disc for the occasion – featuring four of Daft Punk’s songs from the TRON: LEGACY soundtrack.  The final track, “Castor” was not available on the original soundtrack, making these discs even more collectible.

TRON: TRANSLUCENCE

From Examiner.com:

“In keeping with its title (and the cutting-edge TRON imagery), TRANSLUCENCE is pressed on translucent vinyl featuring a likeness of the Identity Disks featured in the film and will be available in 3 colors: red, blue and yellow. TRANSLUCENCE is limited to only 6000 manufactured units worldwide – 2000 of each color.”

I’m still trying to gather statistical information, but it appears there were more limited edition releases this year than there were for any of the previous Record Store Days.  This is great news for independent record stores because it’s one more thing they can offer that the big chain stores cannot.

The official Record Store Day website (www.recordstoreday.com) has a page filled with quotes from musicians supporting independent record stores.

Tom Waits was quoted saying, “Folks who work here are professors. Don’t replace all the knowers with guessors keep’em open they’re the ears of the town.”

In Buffalo, record fans waited in the rain for 45 minutes outside of Spiral Scratch Records.  We packed the small shop, shuffling past each other, flipping through new releases.

I found a sealed re-issue of Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk and similar issue of Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left.  As much as I’d prefer the original pressing, I couldn’t even afford the new copies, so I left them behind and took home a new Spiral Scratch t-shirt instead.

Later, at Record Theatre on Main I had better luck and found an LP I’d been looking for for over a year for a mere two dollars.

Sweet Cream - Sweet Cream & Other Delights

Sweet Cream & Other Delights is yet another parody cover spoofing Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and their memorable Whipped Cream LP.  The album has been imitated more than 10 times by other artists.  Check out a few of my favorites below.

pat cooper - spaghetti sauce & other delights

Soul Asylum - clam dip & other delights

Frivolous Five - Sour Cream & Other Delights
For more album cover parodies check out M Patton’s gallery on rateyourmusic.com.

I’ve got some really special vinyl planned for this Wednesday night, so stay tuned.

Fumblin’ With the Blues

I had the day to myself today, so I got up at the crack of noon, poured myself a massive bowl of Corn Pops, and put together a map of all record shops in the area.

I didn’t expect to find anything special and was mostly visiting stores to inquire about special ordering rare items from my want-list.

One shop had a staggering number of Zappa-related albums – at least thirty, including the very first three (Freak Out, Absolutely Free, and We’re Only In It For The Money.)  But I wasn’t there to drop $200 on shiny black discs, so I moved on.

Surprisingly, just before I left the last store I found a gem in a pile of LPs of the floor leaning against a shelf.   It was Tom Waits’ second major release – The Heart of Saturday Night (1974).  A copy in VG+ condition will run you around $20 on Discogs, plus shipping.  I snatched it up for a quarter of what it would have cost for me had I ordered it online.  (And buying from local shops is always more fun!)

The Heart of Saturday Night

On The Heart Tom performs as his usual troubadour self.  He hadn’t yet developed the gravel-throated trademark sound, but the songs are instantly recognizable as Waits’, with lyrics like, “that ol’ bloodshot moon in that burgundy sky.”

Including this new find I’ve got sixty Tom Waits albums between LPs, CDs, digital albums, and DVDs.  The most recent acquisition before The Heart was the Live 7″ single from National Record Store Day 2009.   (Special thanks to Chuck for that single!)

Tom Waits Live

Tom once said, “The record store is the livery stable where I can tie up, feed and groom my ears.”

Tom Waits Fun Fact #2015: The topless go-go dancer that appears on the cover of the Small Change LP is Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark!

Before driving back home I stopped at the downtown library, dug through the card catalog in their archives department, and had the librarian go into the basement and get me their copy of Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk album.

Safe as Milk

Unfortunately it wasn’t the original 1967 pressing, which I was hoping would include the legendary and highly sought-after bumper sticker.  It was the 1970 repress with the quote from Rolling Stone magazine printed across the top of the cover.  Still, it’ll still be a blast to hear “Abba Zaba” on my turntable!

When I got back to the apartment I found that a very generous fellow Underworld fan had contacted me and uploaded some EXCELLENT live material.  Waiting for me was the Brixton Academy show [31.10.2008] and a link to a professional looking fan-made DVD of Underworld – Live at Bucharest [2009].  He also let me have an MK1 demo tape from 1990 that I hadn’t seen before.  It included “Window Pane,” “Seven Hellos, and “Theme From the Underworld” – songs I had never even heard of.  If you have any information about this demo please drop me a line!