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List ‘Em Carefully (Hall of Fame Edition): The Essential Tom Waits

on December 22, 2010, 5:57pm
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15. “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”/“Bottom of the World” from Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards

Waits has a reputation for being a junk collector, but nobody was counting on him having scraps as good as these laying around when he assembled 2006’s Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” warmly crackles and glows, with Waits crooning like a mainstay in your Grandma’s old record collection. On “Bottom of the World”, Waits, with his voice in all its ragged and worn glory, shares tales and wisdom from a lifelong hobo set to one of the most vibrant and beautiful arrangements he’s ever put forth. Besides, where else can you get a recipe for fried black swan or learn to use egg whites for slicking down your hair?

14. “Soldier’s Things” from Swordfishtrombones

Waits has never really been overtly political in his songs, which made 2004’s Real Gone, “Day After Tomorrow” in particular, somewhat unexpected. A more subtle commentary on the effects of war is the poignant “Soldier’s Things” from 1983’s Swordfishtrombones. The song is little more than a list of possessions set to simple piano. Listeners find themselves at a garage sale, where customers can buy cufflinks, neckties, and medals for bravery. There’s a palpable sense of desperation as a broken radio and a car with a dented hood and bad brakes make for tough sells and a profound sadness as personal belongings are practically given away (“everything’s a dollar in this box”). Waits touches a nerve by playing it cool, letting listeners fill in the story and bring their own emotions to the song.

13. “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (an Evening with Pete King)” from Small Change

One of Waits’ more comical numbers (or disclaimers), “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” closes out side one of the brilliant Small Change in fine, inebriated fashion. Waits has admitted to having played a lot of “toilets” as a young, opening act, and you almost have to wonder if a jukebox that has to take a leak and a waitress you can’t find with a Geiger counter are lyrical inventions or reminiscences. Humorous as the situation may seem, Waits is also conveying a weariness and disenchantment with his lifestyle and heavy drinking during these years. Waits often performed this song with a notably drunken delivery—all part of the act, maybe—as can be seen in this abridged version from a television appearance.

12. “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” from The Heart of Saturday Night

For listeners who discovered Waits through more experimental albums like Franks Wild Years or later, gruffer releases like Blood Money, it might come as a bit of a surprise that he started out as a fairly typical (a stretch, I know) piano- and guitar-based singer-songwriter, with a voice that was shockingly smooth before years of moonlighting as a chimney finally caught up with him. This simple, acoustic ballad highlights Waits’ knack for poetry that depicts the late-night scene (“Is it the crack of the pool balls?/Neon buzzin’/telephone’s ringing, it’s your second cousin”). Later recordings would bring Waits back to the world of “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” but rarely with the same innocence or romantic outlook.

11. “Lucky Day” from The Black Rider

The Black Rider, a collaboration with Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs and Waits’ first stab at writing for the theater stage, is admittedly a tough pill to swallow. “November” has endured, and it’s still a kick to hear Waits as a carnival barker announcing a freak show lineup during the overture, but “Lucky Day” is the real gem on this mostly inaccessible record. As is the case in a number of Waits’ songs, the protagonist of “Lucky Day” leaves his love and life behind for the allure of “bummin’ around,” adhering to the hobo-esque wisdom of his father: “When you get blue/And you’ve lost all your dreams/There’s nothing like a campfire/And a can of beans.” “Lucky Day” has been a live staple and fan favorite on a number of tours, including 2008’s Glitter and Doom Tour.

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