Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday Music: Tom Waits

"Chocolate Jesus." Tom Waits. Live on Letterman. Probably in 1999, part of the tour in support of Mule Variations.

This song sums up what I like the most about my favorite period in Waits' songwriting. I've never particularly enjoyed his earliest period, and while his Frank Trilogy (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Frank's Wild Years) was undoubtedly a necessary step for him to reach the frame of mind that he found in the early 90s, there's something about these albums that kept me at a distance. I couldn't quite name it until I saw the film Big Time, wherein Waits takes on the role of performing the Frank character. I realized that these albums are a little too showy and over-the-top for my taste. Sometimes in a more Vaudevillian form, sometimes in the form of what feels like weirdness for weirdness sake.

To be sure, Waits has never lost those characteristics, but beginning with Night on Earth, Bone Machine, and The Black Rider, the aspects of Waits' music that I admire finally shine through. The arrangements and production techniques become more focused on servicing the song than simply providing atmospherics. The lyrics and instrumentation begin to reflect more influence from American folk musics.

Although Black Rider is probably my favorite because of the mythological influence of the libretto, I have to admit that Mule Variations probably captures those aspects the best with some great songs and some great performances. As does "Chocolate Jesus." Its a faux-gospel, light-heartedly looking at America's sometimes insincere religious expressions. In the Letterman performance, the band manages to combine the blues and ragtime with a distinctly non-traditional element (most apparent in the keyboard). Waits' use of the megaphone - far from its use to announce protest anthems in rock, a la R.E.M. - actually manages to add to the old-timeyness, by emphasizing the mids-heavy sound of old 78s.

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